Language Is Killing Our Ability To Innovate

There are many inventions whose origins we simply cannot trace. One glaringly obvious, yet equally elusive innovation is that of the spoken word. Before we had language, we made sense of the world through pictures, sounds, and smells. Humans estimated time by looking at the position of the sun, and gained a sense of direction by looking at landmarks. We can get a pretty good glimpse at what was going on in people’s lives by looking at pictures etched into cave walls.

The use of images to make sense of the world is perhaps our most primitive form of intelligence.

Eventually we developed the capacity for language as a form of communication. This made our brains highly flexible and intelligent. Through crisp communication the human race became more efficient. We were able to organize quickly with minimal friction. Somewhere along the line however, a problem began to develop. Since words were such an effective medium for communication, we started relying heavily on them. In the process, we began to lose connection with the senses.

The problem with grammar is that it locks us into certain ways of thinking about things. In other words, if there are no words for certain concepts, we tend not to think about them. This means a key component of successful innovation is our ability to think beyond the constraints of language.

There is even current research being done at Yale University that shows that language affects people’s inclination to save money because of the way in which the communicate present and past tense, making the future seem closer or further away.

Be Able to Switch Between Visual & Verbal Communication

Language is a wonderful tool, but is often too tight and constricting when communicating a concept that cannot yet be captured in words. Sometimes it is better to tap into the multi-layered forms of visual intelligence in our brain.

Those who are truly creative have developed the ability to think beyond language. There are a swath of inventors and entrepreneurs that swear by the process of visualizing problems. The picture of the periodic table came to chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in a dream, and Richard Branson is known for leaving trash cans full of napkin sketches. Albert Einstein once wrote “The words of language as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought.”

As technology improves, and problems get continually more abstract, a new design-centric approach to problem solving is emerging. The use of images, diagrams, and models can help reveal patterns of thinking and new directions you can take that would be hard to imagine exclusively in words.

Human working memory is limited. We can only keep in mind several pieces of information at the same time. However, humans have a remarkable ability to remember pictures. An experiment decades ago shows that people can remember more than 2,000 pictures with at least 90% accuracy in recognition tests.

This is not really that surprising. Before the invention of language, the ability to remember various aspects of one’s environment was vital for survival. Our capacity for remembering pictorial material is well developed and superior to verbal recognition. So why are we still presenting Powerpoints with loads of text & numbers?

Put it to work

The hand brain connection is something deeply wired within us. When attempting to sketch an idea, we must observe it closely, gaining a feel through our fingers on how to bring it to life.

When you are trying to solve a hard problem, think beyond words. Here are a few prompts for things you could visualize. Is there a way you could depict all the stakeholders in a process, what are their needs? What do your next three months look like? Three years? Thirty years? Could you create a mental map of your to do list? What are all the possible outcomes of a negotiation, could it be a mix? What does your supply chain look like? Have you tried mind mapping a presentation or a meeting?

Revert to your most primal form of intelligence, visualize the problem, and watch the solution illuminate before your eyes.

Image note: I have included the mind map I used to write this essay.

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Prototyping: Engage in a (Buckminster Fuller) Dialogue With RealityLyden Foust is a Research & Innovation Associate at The SEEK Company. A student practitioner of design strategy, Lyden is fueled by relentless sense of curiosity, and a desire to improve lives through innovation. His scrappy attitude has driven him to found and expand a successful business before graduating college & to curate the first TEDxXavierUniversity.

Lyden Foust




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No Comments

  1. Chet Van Wert on May 27, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Lyden, thanks for an insightful post. Visual communication can be a real breakthrough tool, but like verbal communication, we need to learn how to use it effectively. Language can be an obstacle to innovation because some of us do not use language well – either we haven’t learned to or we don’t invest the effort – so we don’t clearly formulate our challenges and ideas. This can be an obstacle to our own thinking as well as our communication with others. Many of us haven’t learned how to listen well, so we hear only what we want to hear or what we already believe. This problem can be compounded in organizations if the message is absorbed and repeated by people in different silos and layers. Like the game of telephone, a lot of information content can be lost in each set of person-to-person communications, leading to a substantial loss of meaning after just a couple of repetitions. Visual communication can help – no doubt – but can also be poorly formulated or misinterpreted. It also requires the investment of thought and effort to capture ideas and communicate them clearly. In our era of information overload and craving for quick answers, both forms of communication can be used more effectively.

    • Lyden Foust on June 1, 2013 at 11:23 pm

      Wow, how dead on you are. Communication of any form is powerful. Great point on needing to think out implications of our communications thoroughly before letting it loose. Also, your point brings relevance to organizational communication software like Yammer.

      Thank you for the build!

  2. Jayasimha K S on May 28, 2013 at 12:29 am

    An insightful article indeed.
    Languages have always been crude representations of the external physical environment (that we sense through our sensory organs) and mental environment (concepts, thoughts, beliefs, ideas etc).
    Languages do better when conveying the objects in the physical environment. But when it comes to the mental environment they become very crude. Different people feel different for the same object.
    For e.g. what does the word “love” mean? Its difficult to capture this in languages
    Some languages are good in conveying physical environments e.g. English. There are languages that convey mental environments better e.g. Sanskrit or Urdu

    Anyways, pictorial representations of mental pictures have always been difficult (e.g. i find it difficult to understand modern art) but giving them a form that our senses can perceive can be a good way to communicate.

    • Lyden Foust on June 1, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      So interesting about sanskrit & urdu conveying mental environments better. Would be interesting to study how this affects their lives. Such an asset that you are acquainted with both languages and therefore can better facilitate both types of thought. I aspire to learn hindi soon. Should be a real mind opener. Any tips?

    • Lyden Foust on June 1, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      So interesting what you are saying about Sanskrit & Urdu. It would be a neat research study to dive into how being better at describing mental environments affects these people’s everyday. Such an asset that you are acquainted with both languages and can facilitate both types of thinking. I aspire to learn hindi starting this summer, should be a real mind opener. Any tips?

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