Tag Archives: memes

How We Recognise Words – Despite Variations in Pronunciation or Writing

In the lecture by Daniel Dennett featured in the previous post there’s a section about recognising language.
He discusses the manner in which we understand language by recognising the discrete packages of sound of which it’s composed.
To illustrate this, Dennett asked the audience to repeat after him an expression: “Mundify the epigastrium.” You may not know what it means, but you can make out the words and you can repeat them back (as the audience did, more or less). This is possible because the words are made up of phonemes (the smallest segments of standardised sound that are put together to form words in any particular language). Dennett then asked the audience to repeat after him a random string of odd sounds. It was impossible. This was because the audience didn’t have “the norms for correction of those sounds.” They just couldn’t get a handle on them.

Another illustration of the phenomenon of recognising the discrete packets of sound that make up words is the process that occurs when you learn a foreign language (Dennett didn’t actually mention this in his lecture – I’m adding it on my own initiative).
Some years ago I started to learn French. At the beginning of the endeavour whenever I heard any French being spoken it sounded like nothing more than a meaningless cascade of undifferentiated sound. How could anyone understand it? Over the years and with increasing familiarity with the sound structure of the language those amorphous sounds gradually crystallised into clearly differentiated words (even though I still don’t understand what half of them mean).

Because of the fact that language is composed of discrete packages of sound it’s possible to compensate for minor inaccuracies in the transmission of those sounds by mentally comparing the perceived sound with the expected, or probable, sound. You put this compensation into action every time you hear someone who has an unfamiliar accent.

The phenomenon occurs when trying to understand the written word too.
Dennett gave an example of this correction in his lecture. Here it is in this illustration.

This is the well known “optical illusion” consisting of the words “THE CAT” with malformed letters H and A.
With its modified H and A this wording looks slightly more like a contrived effect than it actually is. It looks slightly contrived because the letters are printed – and there are no printed letters that look like that H and A.
However, the phenomenon that you are observing – the correction in your head of letters to their proper form – is one that happens every time you read someone’s handwriting. Especially if you’re reading bad handwriting.
Here are the words as handwriting.

The effect is more or less the same. We recognise the intended letters immediately, due to their context, just as we recognise mispronounced or unusually pronounced spoken words due to their context.
But look at the following words. There’s ‘THE CAT’ on the top line – but what’s that word below it?

It’s HAT.
But can you read it as such? Possibly, but not as easily as you read ‘THE CAT”.
The H and the A suddenly start looking worryingly like made up letters. There just isn’t enough context for the H and the A to be interpreted correctly. You might decide that it’s the word AT with an extra A at the beginning.

Let’s give the word more cues by putting it in the context of a sentence. Here’s the title of a well-known children’s book.

Mmm. It still doesn’t look very convincing. What’s more, I suspect that the confusion over the H and A in HAT is creating a sort of contagion whereby the other Hs and As start to look shaky, but that’s another subject.
So it looks as though there’s a limit to the ratio of properly formed letters and malformed letters beyond which corrective interpretation breaks down.
It’s not simply a matter of the letters having to be framed within words (The H and A in THE CAT each being nicely bracketed by the T & E and C & T). Look at the expression THAT HAT, below.

It’s possibly nonsense. If you can read it as ‘THAT HAT’ there’s the chance that you’re doing so because you’re mentally referring back to the previous examples.
The problem is probably simply the preponderance of malformed letters. You just can’t get a handle on them. You scan backwards and forwards over the words and you can’t make any order out of them.

Scanning and order – important aspects of the process of understanding written words. But possibly in a more complicated way than you initially assume. To illustrate this, try reading the following sentence.

Algtohuh pcraialclty all of the wdors taht cpoosme tihs stecnene are jebumld you can plrbobay udetanrnsd waht it syas.

It reads: Although practically all of the words that compose this sentence are jumbled you can probably understand what it says.
It’s thought that this interesting phenomenon occurs because you don’t read words from left to right, letter by letter in order, but that you scan the words very rapidly, taking in the whole content at once. I assume that the words also have to be in the context of a meaningful sentence which gives clues as to the probable word that’s intended. I say this because individual words that are jumbled up are just anagrams – and I’m useless at anagrams (or amganars as tehy are smeometis claled). In similar vein, that phrase ‘smeometis claled’ doesn’t easily translate into ‘sometimes called’ in my opinion – maybe it’s too close to looking like real words itself, so it throws you off.


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The Meme for Religion

A few days ago I took the opportunity afforded by an enforced period of inactivity (a seven hour train journey) to listen to a podcast that I’ve had on my ‘must listen’ list for some time. It was of a debate at the Royal Institution in London between philosopher Daniel C Dennett and professor of theology (and ex-atheist) Alister McGrath. The debate was about the contents of Dennett’s book ‘Breaking The Spell” – an exploration of the reasons that religion arose as explored from a non-religious standpoint. Dennett was arguing in favour of his book’s conclusions, naturally, while McGrath was against them.
The actual event took place on March 13th 2006, which was some time ago, but bearing in mind that the truths of religion are supposedly eternal the time lag between the event and this article is arguably irrelevant.
I only want to mention one point about the debate here.
If my memory serves me correctly, McGrath’s defense of religion was largely based on the fact that Dennett’s book postulated that the concept of religion was a ‘meme’ (I’ll explain what a meme is in a second). McGrath’s direction of attack was to question the concept of memes, and thus to undermine the foundations of Dennett’s argument.

What’s a meme? (If you already know, skip the next few paragraphs.)
The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976.
A meme (rhymes with seem) is a form of ‘thought package’ that resides in a person’s brain and that has the ability to replicate itself by entering other people’s brains. At first sight this idea sounds a bit like the plot of a corny science fiction novel about mind parasites, but when it’s pointed out that the memes enter other people’s brains simply through normal everyday interactions such as conversation it doesn’t seem so weird. (So, for instance, if you’d never heard of memes before reading this, you now know about them, so the concept of memes has entered your head and has installed itself in your brain as a ‘thought package’ in exactly the way that I’ve just described. You’ve just had a meme implant itself.)
Memes don’t necessarily have to be ideas – they can be anything such as actions or attitudes that lodge in your brain after being transmitted from another person (so, for instance, the action of putting milk into a cup of tea before the tea is a meme, while putting the milk in after the tea is another meme. Most people only have one of these memes – or neither). A crucial factor about memes is that the contents of memes aren’t necessarily good or correct in themselves, it’s simply that they are capable of replicating themselves and spreading from brain to brain (Such as with the pair of memes that dictate at which point milk should be put into tea. Another good example of a useless meme would be a particularly catchy and infuriating popular tune that you can’t get out of your head,).
I’ll write more about memes later, but for now suffice to say that they are ‘just a theory’.

Back to the Dennett-McGrath debate.
As I mentioned earlier, Alister McGrath’s defense of religion seemed to hinge on the fact that Dennett’s attack on religion was based on the proposition that religion is a meme: i.e. that religion is nothing more than a ‘thought package’ that is implanted in people’s brains regardless of any rightness of wrongness of the thoughts involved.
McGrath’s point was that memes are nothing more than a concept – that there’s no proof of their existence – that they are ‘just a theory’. Therefore, because memes probably don’t exist, religion probably isn’t a meme.
(I got the impression that he was implying that because religion isn’t a meme, which is a thought package that has no intrinsic qualities other than the ability to replicate from brain to brain, then it must be the opposite – that is, a real thing that has a true value and that spreads because of its rightness. However, that’s by the by.)
What I found really fascinating about the debate was that McGrath felt comfortable deploying the ‘Where’s the proof?” strategy in his attack on the theory of memes. Surely he, as a person of faith, should be amongst the last to use a tactic that he’d dismiss out of hand when aimed at his own beliefs.


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