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The Tower of Babel No More: Neurocritical Care Without Borders in 2018

By Currents Editor posted 04-05-2018 14:16


Suarez-Jose.jpgBy Jose I Suarez, MD

The Tower of Babel, as described in Genesis, was built in the land of Shinar (Babylonia) sometime after the Great Flood. This biblical myth, an attempt to explain the existence of diverse human languages, has fascinated humankind for millennia. Accepted modern vernacular translations indicate that the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by erecting a mighty city and a tower that could reach the heavens. God punished the builders for their presumption by so confusing the language of the workers that they could no longer understand one another. The tower was never completed, and the people were dispersed over the face of the Earth. One of the most impressive pictorial representations of the Babel myth is that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which is currently housed at the majestic Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria (Figure 1). He based his interpretation in the medieval exegeses of the story with the punishment as the result of human hubris. Bruegel intentionally presents an impractical design that human hands are incapable of completing. The concept and shape are based on the Roman Colosseum, and even though we are originally led to believe that the design is reasonable, upon closer examination, we discover that it is a symbol of the failure of mere rationalism.

Advances and discoveries in anthropology, paleoanthropology, genetics and brain imaging have unraveled, though incompletely, many aspects of the origin and functions of language. Sophisticated language thus far appears to be a distinctly human feature and the foundation on which all modern human behavior rests. It is hard to imagine human culture without language. We wouldn’t have books, operas, conversations or Currents. Language most likely represents an ancient innovation that must have evolved over millions of years, at least as far back as the beginning of the genus homo. Language has a complex anatomy and operates independently from the systems behind other cognitive processes. The most likely explanation is that language evolved by natural selection. As pointed out by Johanson and Edgar, “language has been built into our biology as the most efficient and effective means to communicate our thoughts” (Donald Johanson & Blake Edgar, From Lucy to Language, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006).

Modern humans are capable of becoming polyglots (aka multilingual or able to communicate in more than one language) or hyperglots (capable of speaking at least a dozen languages). Such mastery of languages is quickly becoming more important in our fast-paced and globalized society. Certainly, many members of the Neurocritical Care Society (NCS) would qualify as polyglots. The theme of the 2018 Annual NCS meeting will emphasize the cultural and language diversity of our constituents (Figure 2). Our polyglot members will be delighted to learn that we will have sessions in various languages, including Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. Speakers will have the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions in their native languages. What happens if you are not a polyglot? Don’t worry; we will offer simultaneous English translation for our monolingual members. Come to the meeting and immerse yourself in the world of polyglots, and if you know a hyperglot, please let me know and we will offer them a special prize.

NCS_201803_The_Tower_of_Babel_N_1.jpgFigure 1. The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563),
Courtesy of the Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien.

Figure 2. Theme advertisement for the 2018 Annual NCS Meeting.

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