The Brain's Linguistic Auto-Pilot

We tend to be not very good at proof-reading and 'proof-hearing' our own words.  It takes mental training and a great deal of concentration even to proof-read other peoples' words, or to notice common slips of speech.  This, I suggest, is because our brain holds a linguistic auto-pilot which is so good at error-correction that we are blissfully unaware of most typos and slurs of speech.

The Jabberwock Effect

Usually, a word mispronounced, misheard, mis-spelled or misread escapes our notice, because the brain's language facility works out the plausibility of substitutes and makes the most appropriate correction.  The human brain seems to auto-correct language-processing errors with such high efficiency that we are generally unaware of ever having heard or seen a language error.  It is only when the auto-correction procedure fails, and brings itself into awareness, that we become consciously aware of 'something not quite right'.  It is a very common experience that something heard or read seems almost, but not quite, to make sense.  This common feeling of almost grasping an idea which should be graspable is the Jabberwock effect.

'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
 Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
   The frumious Bandersnatch!'

'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are!
Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass

The Marley Effect

When we are struggling to grasp the meaning of an unfamiliar phrase or word, we tend to try first to grasp the idea within the current semantic and pragmatic context: the meaning in the words and the meaning to us in the particular situation, heavily influenced by our personal preferred use of language.  The transmitted meaning can thus be distorted by cross-talk between ideas from conversation or writing held in short term memory, other ideas recently or currently in mind, and our personal ideas about how language is, or ought to be used.

Allowing the attention to wander detracts from accuracy in communication.  I suggest that when the brain is making automatic error corrections it reaches first for solutions related to ideas recently held, ideas stored in short-term memory.  Inattention means that some of those ideas may be entirely unrelated to the topic.

Imagine if mental models could be made manifest in hardware.  You could watch a driver pass by and see all sorts of hardware attached to the car by chains: the plans and goals, the frustrations and worries of the driver.  It would be obvious to any observer why the car is not keeping an accurate course.

Now apply that model to the comprehension of speech or writing.  The brain is being dragged one way by the speaker or author, and in many other directions by chains of unrelated ideas.  This is the Marley effect, named for Marley's ghost.

'I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the Ghost. 'I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also enjoy some of my other articles in The Chatter Box.