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Cognitive Column - August 2013

Well, the days are shortening, but at least we’ve had a Summer this year. Fruit trees have flourished and so have my bees! I do hope you have been flourishing too; perhaps you attended Summer School, in which case I suspect you will have enjoyed yourself, because the vast majority of students do.

I spent a couple of weeks looking after the DD303 Residential School at Sussex, and I had a very good time. Compared with the tutors, who are working closely with the students almost all the time, Module Directors are inevitably somewhat on the side-lines of activities. Nevertheless, I do like to lend a hand with the projects when possible, especially when they are in fields I have worked in; that basically means Attention or some aspects of Language. An example of the latter is to experiment with homophones, to determine how their meanings are accessed; it’s a topic I have enjoyed for many years. Try the following sentence:

Eye no ewe will fined this hard, four many words ah knot write!

To be exact, eight words are not right; their homophones (same sound, different word) have been substituted. If you are having problems with understanding the sentence just try reading it aloud (or should that be “allowed”?) to yourself and listen to what you are saying. If you read it to someone else, without letting them see the printed words, they will have no difficulty at all. This shows how remarkably good our brains are at resolving ambiguity, because around two thirds of the words in the sentence could have referred to something completely different. If we processed the printed word simply be translating the letters to sounds (as some theories have suggested) then we would have as little difficulty in understanding the printed sentence as someone who has it read to them. The fact that we struggle reading it shows that we make use of the actual spelling when accessing a word’s meaning. However, for words that are seldom seen, where their visual pattern is unfamiliar, we probably rely almost exclusively on the “sounding out” way of processing. That’s how you are able to read the following so easily:

The wurds heer ar mutch eezier tu mayk sens ov!

However skilled we are at reading, it is in processing spoken language that we really come into our own. Whether speaking or listening, the speed with which we process the information is remarkable, especially when we remember that neurons are very slow when compared with the processing elements of a computer. The neural speed is achieved by using vast networks of neurons, all processing in parallel. Different unique patterns of activity represent different words, and input comes not only from the speech we hear (or print we see) but also from other sources of information, such as overall context and the meaning of the sentence processed up to that point. Depending on the situation, various activity patterns are likely to be present simultaneously, such as for ‘you’, ‘yew’ and ‘ewe’, and they may partially overlap. This makes the process of finding the right representation all the more remarkable, but generally speaking all the converging information will result in one pattern of activity being far stronger than all the rest. An analogy is to think of a large rubber sheet, stretched horizontally, so as to be flat. Lots of attachments underneath, all over the sheet, make it possible to pull the sheet down at any point, to create a dip. If you roll a marble over the sheet it should quickly end up in the deepest dip, which is equivalent to finding the word with the strongest activity. If for any reason a dip isn’t strong it may take some time for the marble to find the rest point, and it could end up in another nearby dip which wasn’t meant to be the main one.

Where do all those thoughts lead us? Well, they are thoughts I have had recently while chatting with my 99 year old father. As a result of deterioration in the blood supply to his brain, he now has considerably fewer neurons than he had say a decade ago. That, I fear, leaves the poor man with rather poorly defined dips in his sheet! Conversations go far more smoothly if I stick to a topic he has introduced, because then the depleted system is given a little boost by context effects. If I launch into something new he struggles for some time to make sense of what I have said. Speech production clearly uses much of the same system as is employed when listening to someone else. So, when my father is formulating a sentence he sometimes experiences considerable difficulty in locating the word he wants. Sometimes he might use a related word (equivalent to finding a nearby dip) and often I can guess what he is getting at. Sometimes, however, I am floored, and have said to him, “I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say there.” His response, sad but amusing, has been, “No, nor am I!” Once, when he was on good form and communicating quite well, I asked him whether, when he couldn’t find the right word, he knew what he wanted to convey. He replied that he did not. Obviously we can’t draw any strong conclusions from the introspections of an extremely elderly person, but there is perhaps something revealing about the anecdote. I will enlarge by way of a digression.

I remember a TV programme, many years ago, covering a lecture tour of a media character of those days, called Malcolm Muggeridge. After a particularly effusive introduction from the spokesperson of the group to whom he was about to speak, he rose and said, “Well, after that description of me I really can’t wait to hear what I’ve got to say!” A neat quip, which got the intended laugh, but does it contain a grain of truth? I think it does. When I am about to give a lecture I have no idea at all what I am going to say. I certainly know what it is going to be about, but the words used to convey that message will be selected “on the fly”, just when needed. In fact “selected” perhaps conveys too strong a sense of consciously choosing. I do not choose; the words simply appear. As with everyone (especially my father!) I sometimes find that a word hasn’t emerged, so I have to find an alternative; then I am choosing. Clearly, a person in this position knows what they want to say, it’s merely that the best word for conveying the message is currently eluding them. If my father is right about not even knowing what he wants to say, then we must conclude that it is not only that vast “sheet” of words that has deteriorated, but the conceptgenerating mechanisms behind them must also be shaky. As with many people who reach his age, he gets confused.

On a not dissimilar theme, I note that Michael Gove recently demonstrated his incompetence as Education Secretary by endorsing the views of untrained, self styled English teacher, Nevile Gwynne. This eccentric advocates the use of “good English”, which is no bad thing, but goes on to claim that failure to speak grammatically means that a person will not be able to think clearly and as a consequence bad decisions will be made! The implication here is that, rather than thoughts triggering the selection of words to express the thought, it is actually the other way round; thoughts derive from the word sequences. That would mean sloppy sequencing results in muddled thinking. Goodness knows what causes the particular set of words to emerge in the first place! I have a friend at my Local who, when offered another pint, might very well reply, “No, I can’t have no more, thanks.” Now I’ve always taken that to mean that he doesn’t want to drink any more, but Gwynne presumably believes that the double negative results in my friend coming to believe that he does want some more. The poor guy must find it very perplexing that his drinking companions fail to include him in the next round! He’s never said anything, but I suppose he’s too embarrassed – I’d better just get him another drink next time. Having given this topic some thought now (with careful attention to grammar of course) I’ve come to understand how it is that, while Britain’s influence in the World has waned, the United States has become the greatest superpower ever. It’s because we’ve ceased to teach grammar to our children (they don’t even know what a gerund is, for Heaven’s sake – no wonder we lost the British Empire!) whereas the Americans, as we all know, speak the very purest English.

There is a story told of a boring academic who gave a lecture that seemed to go on for ever. He kept wittering on about how a double negative makes a positive (as in “I don’t want none,” strictly meaning “I do want some). He went on to point out that, in mathematics it was very similar, because a minus x a minus gives a plus (as in -2 x -3 = 6, not -6). All this was spun out interminably, but he finally reached his pathetic punch line, which was no more than to point out that, although two negatives make a positive, two positives don’t make a negative. At that point, a weary voice from the back of the lecture theatre said, “Yeah, yeah!”

Anyway, enough from me; you must have better things to do than read this nonsense, and I’ve got to go and force beers on my grammatically challenged friend. Actually, I’m thinking this could get quite expensive, having to buy him a pint every time he declines doubly negatively. Perhaps it would prove cheaper to pay for him to have grammar lessons.

One of the better things you should be doing might well be revising for an October exam. If you do have one approaching I wish you all the very best of luck. Perhaps I shall see you at the OUPS Revision Weekend, in Warwick. After that, I suppose the next time you might hear from me will be via this Column, a little before Christmas.

All good wishes,

Peter

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