Strangely enough, given that this is something we all do all the time, the nature of human communication seems not to be at all well understood. Here’s my take on this – Other animals “communicate” in a certain sense – that is, they make noises or other signals that affect each other’s behavior. In the same sense, we could say plants “communicate” with insects. But what humans do with each other is clearly something different from that – though certainly it does involve making noises that affect behavior. Computers “communicate” with each other, in another sense – they copy data from one machine’s storage-unit to another’s. And there’s an aspect of human communication that’s clearly like this. We tell each other things, mainly through language, which is a very highly evolved and remarkably flexible means of encoding all sorts of information. But again there’s a very basic difference, because when humans communicate, data certainly is not just being copied from one person’s brain and imprinted on another’s. There is no physical or biological means by which this can be done. I think what actually happens when we communicate is profoundly complex. It depends on the fact that each of us has our own internal, imaginary world we’ve been developing all our lives – our “conscious mind” – a world no one else will ever experience. But a very important aspect of this imagined world is that it contains many other people, whom we imagine have minds of their own. Of course like ourselves, these other people really exist. But the point I’m making is that we also imagine them, and imagine ourselves, and the world in which we all live together. So when we talk with each other, the noises we make carry all sorts of meanings in terms of our respective inner worlds, and in terms of how we imagine each other’s worlds. Among other things, people use communication to give each other information, and their communication obviously affects how they behave. But these descriptions don’t get at what’s fundamental to communication – and it may be that we don’t yet have adequate ways of conceptualizing it. For example, to describe this process of mutual imagining as “symbolic” communication seems to me to miss the point. Sure, we’ve evolved symbols of many kinds, and doubtless this is very important in the evolution of human communication. It may be that the emergence of language played a role in our evolution comparable with the emergence of DNA in biological evolution. But this could only happen on the basis of a communicative connection that’s somehow established between people, despite the fact that we have no actual experience of each other’s minds. So I think what’s essential to human communication must already be at work in us by the time we’re born – in effect, we grow up inside it. Our genetic programming makes us sensitive to facial expressions and tones of voice from early infancy. Long before we become “conscious” in a human sense, we get tuned into the environment of emotional communication among the people around us. We’re preprogrammed to evolve a specific emotional language with our moms in particular. What gets “said” in this pre-verbal language is all about primary physiological needs, but also about a need for connection itself. If you’ve had a baby, you know how vital it is for you as the parent to understand what’s going on with him or her. It’s really scary when a kid cries, and you have no way of finding out why. So we parents are preprogrammed too, to try to communicate with our babies, working to develop an understanding connection with them, long before they really show any sign of coherent consciousness. In short, what seems to have evolved in the human species is a kind of emotional bridge that connects us with each other in a unique way – we naturally expect communication to evolve, as we grow up and learn to talk. It’s built into us from the start to imagine other people as beings like ourselves, with their own internal worlds of meaning. In fact, it’s only as we learn to talk and understand what other people say to us, that we begin building our own imaginary worlds, in our minds – in effect, by talking to ourselves. An interesting aspect of this idea is that it explains why communication seems so simple, conceptually – why we confuse it with mere data-transmission, for example – even though it must be by far the most complex thing we do. Even though learning to communicate, both emotionally and intellectually, is profoundly challenging, and can remain a major challenge for us all our lives. The thing is, we come to consciousness in the first place within a medium of communicative connection with other people, that tends to seem transparent . The nature of the connection itself tends to remain invisible, in much the same sense that light is invisible. That is, even though in a sense light is all we ever see, what we see isn’t light, but the things it lights up, around us. In a similar way, what we’re usually conscious of is what gets communicated between us – not the complicated interplay of mutual imagining that supports this kind of connection. One reason this interests me is the question it raises about how this kind of communicative connection evolved. I’m hoping to post some thoughts on that below, when I get a chance.