The Role of Language in Human Social Conflict

Lloyd Gilden, Ph.D.



During the course of our evolution humans have developed a form of consciousness which, paradoxically, both promotes our well-being and threatens our very survival as a species. This mode of consciousness, referred to as mental-rational consciousness by Gebser1 and higher order consciousness by Edelman2, arose with the elaboration of the cerebral cortex and subsequently with the invention of language and the evolution of culture. We are endowed with the ability to create words or symbols that stand for or represent the objects and events that occur in the world around us and within us. As Ernst Cassirer put it:

. . . in the human world we find a new characteristic which appears to be the distinctive mark of human life. . . Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.

. . . No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. . . No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium.3

Cassirer makes a very important point that with the acquisition of language, both in terms of the evolution of our species and in terms of development from infancy to adulthood, humans experience a profound shift in consciousness. The interposition of language has transformed our subjective awareness of Being and our relationship to the physical and social environment from a sense of wholeness and integration to separateness and fragmentation. This is brought about by the way language structures our thinking. Language involves:

It is as if a filter of concepts screens our sensory inputs and sorts them into small boxes or cubby holes. Our capacity for an open and reciprocal relationship with the world is severely constrained by our preconceived ideas and beliefs.

Humanity, therefore finds itself in a profound dilemma. We now possess a powerful tool, our ability to use language and symbols, which constitutes a potent constructive and a destructive force in our dealings with our physical and social worlds. On the one hand, we have developed the intellectual wherewithal to build skyscrapers and tunnels, airplanes and automobiles, atomic energy plants, metropolises and the United Nations. On the other hand, we have developed the tendency to fragment ourselves into alienated egos and prejudiced opposing groups, created weapons of mass destruction, dictatorships, million-man armies and terrorist organizations.

Trigant Burrow, an early pioneer in the field of psychiatry, noted that we now suffer from "an inadvertent but nevertheless biologically unwarranted overemphasis on both the word and the head that produces the word." 4 Ken Wilber concurs, saying, language by its very nature creates a "split in the universe between the knower and the known, the thinker and thought, the subject and the object. . ."5 Hence, we have entered a mode of consciousness or attention that divides us from our environment, from ourselves, and from each other. While our human propensity for conflict and destruction is abundantly apparent in the war in which this country is now engaged, as well as, the wars and oppression across the globe, there are also many signs of a trend toward an alternative mode of social adaptation. Feurerstein6 notes that Gebser postulated this evolutionary step has been underway since the beginning of the 20th century, manifesting itself, among other ways, in philosophy, literature, painting, physics, biology, psychology and sociology. Gebser called the new stage in the evolution of consciousness integral consciousness. Integral consciousness may be characterized, in Feurerstein’s words,

. . . by its capacity to render self and the world transparent or diaphanous. . .[T]he ever-present origin [the apersonal core of the human personality] is not only intuited, felt, or conceptualized, but also concretely perceived . . . 7

There are two general approaches to transcending the control of our symbolic faculty and integrating our intellect within the framework of our whole Being:

Steve Rosen, will discuss a particular form of dialogue in his paper, in a short while. And, Adair Nagata9 and Jack Wikse have already introduced two somatic practices they have developed from their study of meditation.

Another somatic approach is called neurofeedback. Neurofeedback involves recording the brain activity (electroencephalogram or EEG) of individuals and feeding back to them signals that are correlated with different states of consciousness. Figure 1 depicts MacLean’s triune model of the brain10 which differentiates three primary components—the brainstem, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex—and the instrumental arrangement that provides feedback of brain activity. The instinctive organic processes of the brainstem, e.g., breathing and states of arousal; the emotional processes organized in the limbic system, e.g., fear; and the sensory and cognitive processes arising in the cerebral cortex operate in parallel and as an interactive system to create the subjective experiences or, in Damasio’s terms, feelings12 that are associated with consciousness. The challenge for the subject engaged in neurofeedback is to integrate awareness of his moment to moment feelings with auditory and/or visual feedback associated with various forms of brain activity. When a feedback signal indicates brain activity is occurring that has been established as a goal, e.g., relaxed wakefulness, the subject notes his subjective state and tries to sustain it, perhaps, by continuing to relax certain muscle tensions or breathing as he was doing at the time the feedback signal occurred.


 Figure 1. Model of brain-instrument connections associated with neurofeedback.


Different brain states are identifiable as activity that occurs at various frequencies, which are represented in Figure 2. For instance, when we are fully awake but relaxed, we generate alpha activity, which has a frequency of 8-12 waves/sec. When we are aroused and vigilant, we generate beta activity, which has a frequency range from 13-28 waves/sec.

Figure 2. Samples of brain recordings (EEG) associated with different states of consciousness.

Neurofeedback therefore offers us the opportunity to correlate our subjective, phenomen- ological experience of various states of consciousness with objective signals, such as brief tones that indicate when one or another form of brain activity is occurring. Attending to the feedback facilitates development of control over certain aspects of brain activity, and, thereby, control over certain states of consciousness. For example, if we are seeking to shift our state of consciousness from a beta state of aroused, perhaps, tense and anxious, to relaxed, we can utilize the neurofeedback signals to become aware of any momentary shifts to alpha activity. We then note the internal adjustments that accompany the alpha feedback, e.g., taking a deep breath, relaxation of the muscles in the face and brow, and practice making those internal adjustments to increase the amount of feedback.

It is not an easy task. In many ways neurofeedback resembles the practice of body-mindfulness, as Adair Nagata has described it.13 It involves expanding the range of our attention beyond reflective, symbolic activity, which dominates our habitual form of mentalistic consciousness, to include subjectively perceptible processes associated with pre-reflective or primary consciousness. As this awareness develops, and our symbolic processses become integrated within the broader framework of our whole Being, we are moving in the direction of integral consciousness or, what Burrow called cotention.14

Some recent research by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin supports these conclusions. Davidson had the opportunity to record the EEG of a Tibetan monk who had been practicing meditation for over thirty years, while the monk was meditating. Davidson noted some very significant shifts in the monk’s brain activity as he entered more and more deeply into a meditative state. The state was accompanied by "an extremely pleasant mood"15 and, according to the Dalai Lama, who endorsed the research, a state of compassion, which he characterized as:

concern for others’ well-being and a state of well-being within oneself. . . having a serene mind . . . 16

It was particularly noteworthy that the monk developed an unusual amount of the form of brain activity called "gamma," which has a frequency of 38-42 waves/sec. The increase in gamma activity was localized in the left prefrontal area, and was consistent with other research that suggests the left prefrontal area is involved in the experience of positive emotions.

These findings suggest the possibility that neurofeedback may be a vehicle for development of a mode of consciousness that replaces our divisive, competitive mentalistic mode with a mode that is more conducive to cooperation and social harmony. Toward this end, I have been engaged in neurofeedback research that involves providing subjects with signals when they generate gamma activity in the left frontal area. I am hypothesizing that as subjects learn to generate significant amounts of gamma, they will be developing a blend of cognitive and emotional processes that approximates the state of consciousness associated with deep meditation.

Figure 3 was obtained from a neurofeedback session in which the subject was practicing development of gamma activity in his left prefrontal cortex. The white line constitutes the raw EEG, comprised of waves across the whole EEG spectrum, from 1- 42 waves per second. The spectrum has been differentiated by digital filtering and integrated into the

"brain mirror"16 in the lower left portion of the figure. The spectrum divides the raw data into seven bands: delta (1-3 Hz (define the term above and change subsequent wave/sec references)), the black lines; theta (4-7 Hz), dark blue; alpha (8-12 Hz), light blue; low beta (12-15 Hz), green; beta (15-20 Hz), high beta (20-30 Hz) and gamma (38-42 Hz) yellow. Above the spectral display the gamma band indicates intervals of gamma activity during six seconds of a two-minute feedback trial. With each occurrence of gamma activity the subject, who was sitting with his eyes closed in front of a computer monitor, heard a brief tone that informed him when he was generating gamma activity.

Figure 3. A view of a neurofeedback display.


Figure 4. Representative data from a gamma neurofeedback experiment.

After only a few hours of neurofeedback training it is possible for a subject to produce more gamma activity when a signal indicates the presence of gamma activity. Figure 4 presents the results of such a session in which a statistically significant increase in gamma developed during the session.

Further research is needed to corroborate these preliminary findings. But the results to date support the conclusion that gamma neurofeedback is a promising medium for exploration of a shift in consciousness in the direction of a more integrative relationship between the human organism and the physical and social environment.


There is every indication that a radical shift in our relationship to the world and to our very Being is necessary, if we are to move away from our present mode of mental-rational consciousness, which promotes aggressive competition and social conflict, and threatens our very survival as a species. Instead, we must find a way to experience our deeper humanity and compassion for our fellow human beings. This will entail development of our capacity to integrate our newly evolved symbolic faculty with the system of organic and emotional processes that constitute primary consciousness, processes that promoted our survival long before we invented the word.


1. Feurerstein, G. (1987). Structures of Consciousness. Lower Lake, CA: Integral

Publishing, p. 41

2. Edelman, G. (2001). Consciousness: The Remembered Present. In P. C. Marijuan,

Ed. Cajal and Consciousness. New York: N.Y. Academy of Sciences, p. 113

3. Cassirer, E. (1970). .An Essay on Man. New York: Bantam, p. 27

4. Burrow, T. (1964). Preconscious Foundations of Human Experience. New York:

Basic Books, p. 112

5. Wilber, K. (1980). Two Modes of Knowing. In R. Walsh and F. Vaughan (Eds.),

Beyond Ego. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, p. 234

6. Feurerstein, G. (1987). Structures of Consciousness. Lower Lake CA: Integral

Publishing, p. 130

7. Ibid, p. 213

8. Edelman, G. (2001). Consciousness: The remembered past. In Cajal and

Consciousness: Scientific Approaches to Consciousness. Edited by P.C. Marijuan.

Annals of New York Academy of Science, 929, pp. 111-122.

9. Nagata, A. L. ( 2002). Somatic mindfulness and energetic presence in intercultural

communication: A phenomenological/hermeneutic exploration of bodymindset and

emotional resonance. Dissertation Abstracts International, 62 (12), 5999B. (UMI No.


10. MacLean’s triune model of the brain. Depicted at

1. Nagata, A. (2003). Bodymindfulness for Shifting Bodymindset. Presented at the

42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences.

12. Damasio, A. R. The Feeling of What Happens.

13. Burrow, T. (1964). Preconscious Foundations of Human Experience. New York:

Basic Books

14. Goleman, D. (2003). Destructive Emotions. New York: Bantam Books, p. 12

15. Ibid, p. 13

16. Collura, T. F. (2000). EEG Applications Information. Brainmaster Technologies,

Oakwood Village, OH.