(Dirty Words Part 1)
Your brain is like, or perhaps just is, a big collection of muscles. All bundled up in your skull.
Just like the muscles in your arms and legs, those that don’t get used shrink and those that are used grow and develop.
Now I doubt they are actually arranged this way in the skull, but we can imagine some brain “muscles” as being on the surface and others being in a deeper position.
To feel this distinction, first think of what you want to eat for dinner (surface), then think of the feeling of satisfaction you experience after a nice meal, that sounds kind of like “harrumph” (deep).
Your brain likes some thoughts more than others.
It files thoughts away when it encounters them based on how proud we are of them. Where it files them dictates how readily they are retrieved and thought again.
The thoughts you are proud of go in the top drawer, so to speak, while others get stuffed in the back of a lower drawer because we don’t really want to encounter them again (but can’t forget them).
To feel this distinction, think about something you are proud of (top drawer) and then about a time when you made a mistake, especially a mistake that hurt someone (back of bottom drawer). One comes right to mind, while the other one feels like it might take some time to retrieve.
Healthy thinking avoids stuffing things in the back drawer whenever possible by avoiding doing things that make us feel guilty or ashamed as much as possible. When it can’t be avoided, we process/rationalize the uncomfortable memory so at least it gets a nice folder and maybe relabel it (e.g. “Honest mistake”) so that our filing cabinet is not a mess.
What kind of thinking do we like best? Well, it really depends on our preferences but most people like thinking that is:
- Has an unusual structure, like a paradox or play on words (This gives our mind something to do.)
- Sexually stimulating
- Secret– something we know but others don’t (This makes it seem more valuable)
- Intimate– like a shared secret (This makes us feel like we are in the “in” crowd and close to others)
- Novel- new to us
That kind of thinking gets our attention. We will give it more weight in decision making and want to think those thoughts over and over. We like to spend time thinking them.
Now let’s imagine a group of fourth grade children, 9 or 10 years old. They are entering puberty and curious about sex. They find it hilarious to discuss, and their discussion is mostly jokes that some of them heard from older siblings. The children don’t have a vocabulary for sexual concepts yet, so they select “code names” for them, based on the jokes, and then use these code names in their discussions.
Basically, dumb sexual innuendos.
This kind of thinking is obscenely appealing, if you’ll pardon the pun. It meets every one of the criteria listed above and the children give it a high value in their minds. It doesn’t really influence their decision making.
Further, the innuendos need to be decoded. That decoding has to take place on a level deeper than the one where the text of the joke is heard. This means the children have to draw the thinking in to understand the joke, then re-encode it and push it back out to the surface level.
So they internalize it more. During the discussions, they have to maintain a surface self that is talking and listening and a deeper self that is decoding and re-encoding.
This decoded content of the joke is naughty though. The children know they will get in trouble if adults hear them talking about sexual concepts. So they are ashamed of the decoded portions of the discussion, and stuff those in a back drawer. No one really wants to think about the actual sex when thinking about the innuendo– it’s the words of the innuendo, how it was crafted, and the decoding that are more interesting– the game of it.
Also, the jokes are self-reinforcing because successfully decoding or encoding a message feels mentally satisfying (producing that “harrumph” of approval).
What happens to the preteens?
The deep “muscle” in the brain where the decoded jokes are stored is pushed further away from the main line of thinking. It is full of content that the children are fascinated by and and want to know more about. It is much more interesting than math class, more interesting than the encoded versions of the jokes, more interesting than most of what the children think about otherwise.
But it is in the back of the bottom drawer.
So that’s where the children keep their attention. They grow used to decoding everything, which is its own reward and seems to be how you learn interesting things. They use the surface muscle less and less. Over time they start to ignore what they used to pay attention to.
They basically move into their own back bottom drawer. We would say “their mind is in the gutter.”
Another simpler version of the metaphor is that this kind of humor is like candy– it tastes yummy but have no nutritional value, and too much can be bad for you. These jokes create a cavity in the mind, like a cavity in a tooth. The decoding process brings the “shameful” content below the gumline so to speak, where no one will look to clean it out (process it), and the sense of shame pushes it deeper and deeper, basically drilling a hole into your own mind.
Same thing happens with innuendos that are insults.
And with doublespeak in general.
So don’t do this! What do you want to shut down parts of your brain for?
Have you ever noticed that these innuendos show up in bunches, one after the other in rapid succession? Why should that be? Shouldn’t witty repartee be evenly distributed in time?
Unless there is an unhealthy, addictive mental state introduced by these jokes, which pry the mind open and expose as deeper layer than we typically access in social situations. You laugh, then laugh more and more until your cheeks start to ache, but it’s difficult to change the subject and move on.
Over time, these jokes stretch the mind into a barbell shape–on one side we have the surface message, and on the other the decoded interpretation, with a link in between that gets thinner and thinner. It gets more difficult to make decisions, because one wants to use the deeper layer but it is difficult to access, and the attention flits back and forth between options instead.
There is increasing anxiety and thinking gets slower–it’s like trying to walk around both sides of a lamppost at once. You have to back track on one side to get to a point where you can make progress on this other, to maintain both the nuanced interpretation and the surface conversation.
You start to feel less like yourself, because for you there is less of your self. You have shut part of your mind down, and not just for the duration of the discussion. With each session it gets more difficult to access the thinking you used to rely on. You have to swim all the way back up to the surface from your hole, and that gets harder and harder to do
And this can be very difficult to fix. Sometimes impossible.
All of this seems hardly worth it, just for some dick jokes!
And… this has the same effect on adults.
Look, I’m not trying to be a prude here. But if these jokes are some kind of evolutionary trick that erodes our cognitve abilities and have a long term impact on brain health, I’d rather not take the chance. I don’t exactly feel comfortable handing our sections of my brain for the sake of humor.
To break the spell, when you hear one of these jokes, strip away the plays on words and note to yourself just the decoded message. Almost always it’s inane stuff fourth graders would be embarrassed to say.
“How did you learn to drive like that?” Gwen yelled over the howl of six hundred horses.
“Watching Jacks.” She gunned the engine and slipped around another car.
“You know, watching his shifting.”
Gwen gasped. “You’ve been looking at his SHIFTER?”
We are encouraged to use innuendos to look clever, but what innuendos end up communicating would be too embarrassing to say plainly, without some kind of encoding. So not actually that clever. It’s like we are stuck in those preteen years and can’t get out.
And some of them are funny. But what’s bad is when your mind starts to live on that lower level.
So train yourself to think of the surface version of whatever is said first. Make a visual in your mind of the guys whose names really are Johnson, the bananas, the bratwurst, etc.
Keep it up until you are satisfied–see, now you are in that mode. Your mind has moved to the gutter. If you move it out and reread this paragraph, you’ll see the difference.
Keep moving your focus to the surface interpretation until that’s where your mind lives. And by all means don’t tell these kinds of jokes to people you like. They really do damage the brain.