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  • Information Processor or Word Digester?

    How important are our metaphors? To some this will sound like worthless semantics, but metaphors are like lenses: they change our vision, focusing it so that certain aspects of reality are seen more clearly.

    Many words in our contemporary vocabulary arise from metaphors, but through countless repetition, we lose sight of the metaphor until we assume the word has explicit, literal meaning. I believe the “processing” is one of those words. As a therapist, it is one of the most ubiquitous words I hear, and even say myself. But lately I have felt unsettled whenever I heard and used the word. “I just need time to process this.” “Thank you for listening and helping me process.” I found myself asking, what does that even mean?

    Two possibilities occurred to me, both from the mechanical world: we process food in a food “processing” machine; and computers “process” information. Both senses are given by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: “to treat raw material, food, etc. in order to change, preserve it”; and “process something (computing) to perform a series of operations on data in a computer”. The word itself comes from the Latin roots meaning simply to “go forward”, and that meaning ties to, say, how we distinguish between content (what is done or said) and process (how it is done or said), which is another meaning: “(often passive) process something to deal officially with a document, request, etc.).”

    But when we talk about “processing” something – whether an idea or an experience – it denotes more than movement or manner; it’s about bringing things together, integrating, incorporating, absorbing. This sense, according to the dictionary, is “to understand the meaning of something that has happened or been said.” And I wonder if “processing” is the best concept for that, well, “process” (in the “how something is carried out” sense).

    Ian McGilchrist writes that “new experience of any kind…engages the right hemisphere. As soon as it starts to become familiar or routine, the right hemisphere is less engaged and eventually the ‘information’ becomes the concern of the left hemisphere only.” He continues, “Understandably this has tended to be viewed as a specialisation in information processing, whereby ‘novel stimuli’ are preferentially ‘processed’ by the right hemisphere and routine or familiar ones by the left hemisphere. But this already, like any model, presupposes the nature of what one is looking at (a machine for information processing). What would we find if we were to use a different model? Would perhaps something else emerge?”

    We certainly need a different model. Assuming the underlying metaphor of therapeutic processing is not a food blender (I shudder to consider the implications), the other option is a computer. Human beings are not computers, as even secular scientists like McGilchrist acknowledge. Well, I am not engaged in neuroscience research, but I believe we already have a different model, a better metaphor. It comes from Deuteronomy and Moses’ divine instruction to the people of Israel as they prepare to follow God’s mission into the land of promise.

    In Deuteronomy chapter 8 Moses gives Israel this well-known instruction: “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” We feed and sustain ourselves on bread, or food, but that is not all. God also created us to find nourishment from his words. Jesus knew this, which is why he quoted Deut. 8:3 when Satan tempted him to turn a stone into bread. It’s also why the other Scriptures Jesus quotes to rebuff Satan also come from nearby in Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:13 in Matt. 4:10, and Deut. 6:16 in Matt. 4:7). Jesus wasn’t just making mental reference to an abstract truth that God’s word sustains, he was actually living out that reality. He had already nourished himself on the live-giving truth that God’s words give life, as well as the life-giving truths that God alone is to be feared and served, and that testing God is forbidden. 

    Now, the question we must ask is, what is the best metaphor to describe receiving nourishment from words? Philosopher Robert Roberts describes human beings as “verbivores”, creatures that eats words, from the Latin “verbum”, meaning word, and “voro”, to devour or swallow. This describes how words, like food, enters our bodies: through the act of eating and swallowing. The next stage would be digestion, so Roberts also describes humans as “word digesters”. He comments on Dueteromony 8, “Whoever feeds on the word of God lives; whoever does not take this word into himself, ruminate upon it, swallow it, and digest it into his very psyche, starves himself as truly as he would if he quit eating physical food.

    Digestion also happens to be one of the metaphors psychotherapist Bonnie Badenoch uses to describe trauma as “any experience of fear and/or pain that doesn’t have the support it needs to be digested and integrated into the flow of our development.” Why is that connection important? Because trauma, or any life experience, is not “processed” the way a computer moves electronic information through circuits (and certainly not the way a blender dices and mixes up food). The processing metaphor is disembodied, and keeps the focus on our minds. Digestion better fits a Biblical worldview that includes our souls and bodies, all that makes up the human self.

    Science has discovered that our stomach, or technically the enteric nervous system, has hundreds of millions of neurons, so that some refer to it as the “belly brain”. The ancients knew this intuitively, which is why certain emotions were associated with physical organs; e.g., compassion in the New Testament literally means bowels. This is also why we refer to a “gut feeling” as a way of knowing something, but cannot express clearly with words. Digestion is a wholistic process. It uses not only the verbal precision of the left hemisphere, but also the intuitive gut-level wisdom of the right hemisphere.

    Next time you find yourself expressing the need to “process” an event, or words that were spoken, try using “digest” instead. See how it feels. Perhaps, as McGilchrist observes, something else will emerge when you use this metaphor. Does it invite you into a deeper experience? Perhaps one that relies less on the explicitness of verbal precision, and more on the ruminative, meditative nature of reflection? What happens when you imagine digesting what God says about himself and about you, so that it quite literally takes up deeper residence in your body?

    One final question. How are you digesting these reflections?