When your brain shows up in church, it likely encounters platitudes, phrases of known and unknown origin that pass for “communication” in much of our life together as God’s people. (Good, you already caught that platitude swimming by!) Because these schools of word-fish regularly show up in our heard, written, and spoken speech, they deserve this observant question: “So, what’s with platitudes?”
More precisely—and with respect for your word-soaked brain—the question for this column might be how we look at platitudes from the viewpoint of neurobiology. Let’s spend some of your precious time parsing that question together.
Wither Yon Platitude?
In my interior lexicon a platitude is a “too-easy truth too easily derived.” There’s no doubt that most platitudes are true and thus worth repeating or reusing. Because platitudes are easy they require less brain power and therefore less time finding just the right words.
But where do these things come from, anyhow? “Yonder” probably describes the phenomenon fairly. Unless you’re a poet, you are probably not in the habit of crafting new platitudes. More likely: you reassemble platitudinous constructs for new purposes. Because the brain uses and reuses words in different syntactical situations, platitudes offer an easy way by which to put together phonemes that have a reasonable chance of surviving in an inattentive world.
One more aspect of “yon” that we can’t overlook: because platitudes most likely come from admired others “out there”—preachers, teachers, favorite brain science writers—some of your social brain’s capabilities likely add to the supposed worth of platitudes. You admire others (“I heard Deacon Friedheim preach, and his words touched me deeply.”), and you want to be admired by others. (“You talk as if you might have once known Deacon Friedheim.”) By definition, platitudes carry with them the general acceptance of many others, and because you are a social creature at the level of your synapses, you may naturally gravitate towards words that seem to draw you toward others. (“In fact, most of us want to be like Deacon Friedheim when we grow up!”)
What Else Is Happening in Platitude-Using Brains?
Brain functions and structures create, use, and react to platitudes. The following might be some of them:
Efficiency. Platitudes are here to stay because they’re efficient processes by which to communicate. If I know that you know and appreciate a turn of phrase, why would I not use it for good effect?
Pleasure. The brain’s reward-and-pleasure centers have a great need and capacity for seeking pleasure. Because of the “social brain” —parts and processes of the brain that give you the desire and skill to relate well to others—you want others to have pleasure in your words and so you give them what they want.
Relationships: One of the functions of the limbic structures is to measure and mete out interpersonal relationships. If all speech is persuasive (so say some rhetoricians) and if platitudes persuade in easily available ways, they may improve relationships that feel good.
Attention and inattention: When the brain’s attention mechanisms encounter stimuli, including words, they categorize what they meet in two ways: attend to it now (foreground memory), or put it back there with the other memories for later use (background memory).
For some brains, platitudes offer quick access to that background memory with all its attendant meaning maps. Those memories may include the settings in which the platitudes were first heard or the emotions they first evoked. Thus platitudes may be efficient ways to gather together disconnected meanings or to begin motivation.
When oft-used phrases hit other brains, however, they might be easily relegated to the back of the truck. “Nothing new here,” say those brains, and so the platitudinous phrase gets shelved with other interesting-but-hardly-important inputs. In these brains, the desire for novelty (a function of all human brains) may override the need for familiarity.
Big questions. One of the brain’s primary functions is to continually answer the measurable and metaphorical questions, “Where am I?” and “What time is it?” It is possible that platitudes used in the spiritual realm offer some brains familiar answers to the spiritual versions of those questions:
- In the big scheme of things, where do I fit?
- As my life develops along its time-bound course, how am I doing?
- Where’s my life of faith heading?
- What will become of me?
- Who is my neighbor?
Comfort. Some believers whose brains are hurried or hassled seek relief or rescue in religious thought and expression. Platitudes may offer them those possibilities with a minimum of effort. My favorite: acronyms that help “disciples” get up and go.
Habits. Somewhere in the depths of our brains—probably a vast conspiracy of language and hearing centers with the hippocampus (the brain’s memory mitigator)—we receive, sort, and store vast collections of ready-to-use phrases that help us communicate effectively. Having heard and reheard these word-and-syntax strings over and over again, and having tried out a few in our written and spoken communications, we become habituated to the existence and supposed worth of oft-repeated platitudes.
“Neurons that fire together wire together” describes habituated behaviors or thoughts that are easily engaged and hard to change. This may explain why some platitudes persist and gain undue importance over generations. (For example, “God helps those who help themselves” is attributed to the level of Scripture by three out of four Americans.)
Metaphor making. Some platitudes—perhaps especially religious expressions—meld with metaphor-making functions of the brain. As unique devices that engage the whole brain as it seeks meaning, metaphors are powerful tools for communicating at levels deeply involving emotions, identity, and motivation.
Using Platitudes Well
Although my personal prejudice is that the kingdoms of God become feckless in direct proportion to the percentage of platitudes in use, I am often reminded by those who love me that I could be very, very wrong. In that dual-minded spirit, let me offer some observations about how you might use (or not use) platitudes in the church:
- Know well the brains of those you serve. Otherwise you could be missing connections to some brains or driving away others.
- Audit the form and style of your written and spoken communication. Conduct that same analysis on the spoken and written communications of those you serve, then compare the two. If there are disparities, decide who might most quickly change.
- If your newsletters, sermons, letters to the congregation, and personal Weblog are “easy to write,” you may be more skilled at (or afflicted by) platitudes than you know.
- Ask yourself whether new platitudes are any better than old platitudes. (Here I am reminded of the infusion of sports-laden language in some faith communities.) “Thou” is not necessarily worse than “Dude!”
- If you believe that you are a victim of Early-Onset Platitude Disease, try writing some poetry or inventing some new metaphors. (My esteemed younger brother invented our family’s special simile, “Like Harold’s dog,” which has great utility even fifty years later!)
- If you swim in a sea filled with platitude-fish and fear that some are eating your word-finding capabilities (like Harold’s dog), take on this quick discipline: every time you hear a platitude coming at your brain, stop it cold in its tracks and ask the platitude-profferer, “Could you say that another way?” Every so often, mix several metaphors in the sam
- If most folks react to your sermons or your written utterances with blank stares or a universal grunted “Huh?” perhaps you might want to find some platitudes to walk alongside your creative or poetic constructs. Like grandparents accompanying their children to a finger-painting session, the familiar and comforting words might help make sense out of your brightly colored word-smearing.
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? We journeyed together along the path given to us by God’s gracious hand, and we approached the Spirit’s gift of words with the attire of faithful stewards. Cool!
God keep you joyful!
Bob Sitze is the author ofNot Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations (Alban Institute 2001) and Your Brain Goes to Church: Neurobiology and Congregational Life (Alban Institute 2005). He serves as Director for Hunger Education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Other articles in this 5-part series