Several years ago, on a winter weekend afternoon, I received a call telling me that my mother had just been hit by a car. The details are hazy. I think the voice was that of a stranger using my mom’s cellphone—perhaps it was the convenient store owner who witnessed the accident and waited with her in the sub-zero cold for the ambulance. Or was it my sister? At any rate, these details aren’t the point here (my mother was injured but eventually healed, by the way).
The point is: Upon hearing those words, my sympathetic nervous system kicked in, adrenaline started flowing, and, in short, I felt my heart sink into my stomach.
How can words do this? How can they perform this magic of altering one’s physiology in an instant, with no more force or matter than that involved with a few puffs of air and the fine machinery of one’s auditory faculties? This is the question I’d like to explore here, one whose difficulty lies especially in the phenomenon of mental causation. (Spoiler: I don’t have an answer; I think, instead, it’s a question best surveyed in order to map the depths and scope of its intractability, and the implications thereof.)
To be clear, words themselves play only a small role in initiating such bodily changes. More important is the meaning of a word (or a set of words), which involves not only what those words refer to, but how they’re delivered and whether the hearer believes them. There is of course a basic, perhaps even trivial, sense in which words have definitional meanings; this is what elevates the status of a sound—or written symbol or hand gesture—to that of being a word. But this is far from the whole story of a what one works towards, what one means, when using words; indeed, words aren’t necessary for meaning. A sob, laugh, or scream often carry a great deal of meaning. And a slight vocal inflection can easily indicate not only that we are to assign to a word the opposite of its usual basic meaning (not surprisingly, given that in such cases the usual meaning is still serving as a kind of semantic or conceptual anchor), but also may indicate that we should assign a meaning that has nothing to do with the word’s usual usage (which now offers no anchor).
This in mind, consider again the phone call example: