Re: reading a book

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Fri 22 Apr 2005 - 11:31:05 GMT

  • Next message: Chris Taylor: "Re: reading a book"

    Scott Chase wrote:

    > In his 1958 paper "Cerebral organization and behavior"
    > here's an interesting quote from Karl Lashley to
    > ruminate upon, given the tension that exists between
    > notions of replication, transformation and
    > re-creation.
    > Lashley writes (found in Orbach, p 371):
    > [KL] "We remember the content of a book, not in the
    > author's words but in meanings which fit into previous
    > knowledge of the subject. During the reading the
    > meanings are not necessarily formulated clearly in
    > verbal or other thought forms, but they may be so
    > formulated later. That is, associations may be formed
    > during reading with traces in the system which are not
    > activated above tonic levels during learning."
    > Would this passage support replication, transformation
    > or recreation? Words are supposedly "digital" and we'd
    > thus assume a replication based on transmission of
    > language content, yet Lashley's saying we don't recall
    > the author's words but meanings. Previous knowledge
    > may influence how what we read fits into our mnemic
    > trace system (or engram store). If we're not actually
    > replicating the author's words in our knowledge base,
    > maybe we are transforming them based on our personal
    > history or we recreate them later? I'll need to digest
    > Sperber and Bloch for more on these tangents.

    Isn't this description also true of any cultural input? If I report the content of a telephone conversation then I paraphrase it according to my interepretation, rather than repeating it verbatim - just as I would do if asked to recall the content of a book.

    This is partly due to memory constraints: not having a photographic memory I cannot recall the author's words. But if he has expressed himself clearly enough then I can remember what he was trying to say through those words. Any information needs a medium for transmission - but what gets tranmitted is the information itself.

    As you know I regard Sperber and Bloch as both much too pessimistic about the possibility of cultural replication. When we read a text of course we bring our existing memes to it. The content of the text may be recombined with these existing memes to produce new memes - which we then incorrectly assign to the text. (And then when we go back to the text later we are surprised and a little humbled to find that our recollection is not justified by the text!) But this doesn't mean that it's not *possible* for the information contained in the text to be replicated in our minds. If a child wanted to know what his teacher had meant by "Einstein's famous equation", and her parent showed her a book in which was written "E=mc2" - and if later she proudly tells her grandparent that she knows what Einstein's famous equation is, and repeats it correctly - then in what sense has the information in the text not "really" been replicated in her mind? (We can argue about her understanding of what the equation means, but she is now able to repeat, write down, convey to others the symbols that she read in the text.)

    How much the information in a text "sticks and spreads" - how much of an effect it is able to produce on the reader's behaviour - will also be influenced by the reader's existing memes. But again this is not to do with transformation, but with the affects of context on a replicator's selection and effectiveness.


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