Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Gregory was right

This morning I woke up and realised what it was all about.

MEANING.  We all need it.

I'm not talking about the deep 'what is the meaning of life, why are we here, what's it all about?' questions.  No, I'm talking on a day-to-day level.   Think about it.

We are constantly categorising things, either consciously or unconsciously, into - well, categories.   Everything we look at belongs in a category: clothes, furniture, colours, mine, theirs, good, bad.  There's no getting away from it.

If we come across something and don't know what it is, do we just put it down saying "I don't know what that is"?  No, we want to know.

While we're trying to work out what it is, we will call on our own resources - previous experience and prior knowledge of other items (known in psychology as 'top-down knowledge').  We will also look at things differently depending on the context if there is one, and our own background and history.  "It looks like a wine bottle stopper", for the above object, is not something a 10 year old child would suggest (hopefully!).

We scratch our heads, we ask other people, and when (if) we find out then we have a sense of relief.  If we can't find out, it bugs us. We have no category to which to allocate it.   If we can't work out what it is, then we may just say 'well it's beautiful' - but even that is categorising it, into a piece of Art.

Gregory and Gibson had differing ideas about perception - Gibson thought that the world around us is rich enough in sensory information that no previous knowledge was needed to make sense of it.  Gregory, on the other hand, said that how we perceive things requires constant interaction between sensory information and 'top-down knowledge'.  I'm with Gregory on this one.

On the subject of needing to give things meaning, take the picture above - what do you see?    I could not see anything but black and white ink until I was given some hints. However, now the picture has a meaning, it is impossible for me to revert it back to a series of meaningless blobs and blurs.  

Another example is language and words.  Some cognitive psychologists take our recognition of words very scientifically, looking at the individual features and matching them with the database in our brains to recognise words.  But when it comes to sentences and conversations, things get a lot more complicated, and again we need to allocate meaning.

If we come across a word we don't know, we will again use our prior knowledge and more importantly, the context of the sentence, to work out what it means.  We may go back and re-read the sentence or paragraph, and if the meaning is ambiguous, some of us will need to look up the word to satisfy ourselves of the meaning. Like strange objects, an English word we don't understand leaves a little niggle of dissatisfaction.  If we see foreign words we can still make sense of them by simply categorising them as 'French' or 'Dutch' or 'Italian' or whatever, and that is sufficient.

"Colourless green ideas sleep furiously" is a phrase a chap called Chomsky came up with, to illustrate how a grammatically correct sentence does not necessarily make sense. It's an oddly irritating sentence, because it has no meaning.  On the other hand, "skid crash hospital" is totally ungrammatical, but we all understand exactly what it means, because of our 'top-down knowledge'. We can fill in the gaps to make it meaningful.

To get deeper into the meaning of conversations takes a social constructionist approach, which is too much to go into here.  Maybe I'll come back to that another day!

All through my revision I have kept coming up with the phrase "Humans Crave Meaning", and this morning it all fell into place.  I can go to work satisfied, now that I understand why I find it so unsettling when 'something doesn't look right' or doesn't make sense. 


  1. Very cool description, and so easy to understand! What is that object by the way... :D

  2. Oh I'm going to have to THINK. *laughing*

    Well......just sayin'....

  3. I love your insight on this. Very well written and I have no idea what to even think about the first picture. The second one looks like a close up of a skull xray.

  4. The clue for the black and white picture is "Moo..." ;-)


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