Meaning Guide

Bringing abstract ideas to life – advice from the master

Do you have two minutes?  That’s how long it will take Steven Pinker to teach you the most important rule for creating shared meaning.  If you prefer to watch than read, then the conversation is here, and this snippet is from 14:20-16:40.  Enjoy!

“I’m a strong believer in examples because abstract descriptions don’t lead to comprehension.  Good writing – in nonfiction as much as fiction – has to show rather than tell.  Comprehension is not a matter of juggling words themselves inside your head, but using the words to form images and other much more concrete thoughts …

“For example, I’m flipping through an article in a journal for trends in cognitive science, written for a wide audience of cognitive scientists on consciousness, and it says: ‘The integrative nature of consciousness is illustrated by the rabbit illusion, in which the perception of a stimulus is influenced by post stimulus events’.

“Now I read that, and I had no idea what they were talking about!  I’ve been in this business for forty years.  I teach introductory psychology … I had never heard of the rabbit illusion, and I don’t know what a ‘stimulus’ is in this context.  I mean, I know what the meaning of the word ‘stimulus’ is, but I don’t know what they mean by a ‘post-stimulus event’, so I had to hit the books and find out.  And after a bit of digging I discovered there’s such a thing as a ‘cutaneous rabbit illusion’ – a fairly obscure illusion in psychology, not in any of the intro textbooks – and it works as follows:

“The person closes his eyes, someone taps them three times on the wrist, three times on the elbow, three times on the shoulder, and it feels like a series of taps running up the length of your arm, like a hopping rabbit (hence the “cutaneous rabbit illusion”).  The theoretical significance is that where you perceive the later taps depends on where the earlier taps were, so consciousness doesn’t actually unfold in real time, but it’s kind of edited retrospectively.

“Now that’s interesting, but why couldn’t they say that?!

“The word ‘stimulus’ actually is no more precise than the phrase ‘tap on the wrist’ – in fact it’s far less precise and less conducive to the advancement of science, because knowing that this is all about taps on the wrist and so on I can then evaluate whether this really does show that consciousness is an integrative process, and I can actually do some science.  Whereas if it’s ‘stimulus’ this and ‘post-stimulus’ that, I have to take the scientist’s word for it, which is exactly how science ought not to proceed.”

Pinker recounts this along with many other lovely anecdotes in his wonderful The Sense of Style.  Although the context here is scientific non-fiction, there couldn’t be a clearer exposition of what’s wrong with a huge proportion of business communication.  How many times have you felt during a presentation “Why couldn’t you just say that?”

Now try reading this as a non-rhetorical question.  Why don’t we say what we mean?  Why do we feel the need to dress content up in impressive-sounding abstractions?

Ego?  Uncertainty?  Ignorance?  Fear? …

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