Your brain on homonyms

I know very well [posted a friend of mine], really by instinct, the proper placement of apostrophes and other punctuation and the usage of words like “there, their, they’re”, “you your you’re” and so on and yet I get to typing so fast that my brain is constantly pulling the wrong one out of my hat. I get so embarrassed when I discover these mistakes later.

I love when that happens, actually, because I think it shows so much about the brain and language.

This is how I think that happens: we type by listening to the inner voice speaking in our heads…language was strictly spoken for a hundred or so thousand years before we began reading it, and very few people at all were reading and writing it until the last century or two. And typing was not invented till 150 years ago. When we direct our fingers to type we are actually listening to the narrative voice running through our heads, and then some center of the brain in turn directs the actions of our fingers to type what it is “hearing”…an impressive task, as typing is something much more complex than writing with a pen or pencil (or with a stylus on a mud tablet as they did when writing was brand new). We sort of type the way a pianist plays, hearing the music in his head and then coordinating his hands and fingers to play it. Of course, in music you can harmonize so you can use all the fingers, but writing has no harmonies (unfortunately) so its more like playing trumpet, one note on a trumpet equals one letter on a keyboard. (Both language and speech are more like playing the trumpet, too, but that’s another essay). So our typing fingers hear the sounds of the words and not see them. There, their and they’re can be placed interchangeably by our undiscriminating fingers as they are homonyms (though perhaps not in all dialects.) Some people could make the same mistake with merry, marry and Mary, though in my regionally accented ears the three sound like different words, unlike there, their and they’re. It doesn’t always happen, perhaps it’s a matter of context or syntax that enables our typing fingers to figure out the correct homonym. Sometimes, though, they mess up, and probably more than we realize because we catch ourselves making the mistake as we type. But we don’t always so quite often a homonym (i.e., words that sound alike but have different spellings) have to be scene–that is read–and not heard–that is written–to be corrected. And I notice now that I typed scene instead of seen, proving my point. Ha!

Basically, we are typing by dictating to ourselves. We hear but don’t see the words…and if we DO see the words it immediately breaks up our train of thought as reading and writing are two completely separate processes in the brain and we can’t do both simultaneously. So those their/they’re/there’s will keep popping up and their/they’re/there’s not much we can do about it except proofread–and even then if you proofread too soon your brain still has the short term memory of “hearing” what you wrote and your eyes will not always catch the mistake. Sometimes, if writing a story, it’s good to let the draft sit for an hour before proofing it, by which time that short term memory will be gone and you are actually reading what you wrote and not remembering what you narrated.

I also typed are as our….making at least two that made it past two drafts (and spell check) before I noticed them. In a digital format it’s no big deal. But years ago, when they got past me, spellcheck, my editor and at least one copy editor to wind up fast and permanent on paper in my jazz column in the LA Weekly, I would invariably be admonished by readers. You should really learn how to write, somebody would say. Usually from the safety of an email, but sometimes in person, at a jazz club, if they were drunk enough. You should learn how to write, they’d say, then totter off.

Memes and meme theory

There has to be some neurological reason for why people instantly believe Facebook memes. They will even insist that the meme was correct even when shown information  that disproves the meme. So we don’t read memes the way we read, sat, and ordinary Facebook post. We certainly don’t read them the way we read articles or blogs. We retain an element of skepticism when we read something not in a meme. But memes, they are not only believed, but they are believed without question. Somehow, the part of then reading process that takes in the information we read and mulls it over before accepting it–a process that takes a fraction of a second, but it is there, allowing you to tell a lie from fact, a joke from a real story–that process is completely skipped when we look at a meme.

It might be that we read memes like we traffic signs. They come similarly packaged, and we can’t actually edit it or change the letters around, it is a picture of language. As are road signs. We never doubt a road sign. If it says stop we know it means we should stop. If it says merging traffic ahead we know there will be a lane of traffic coming in. If it says no parking we never assume it means we can park there. We just believe. We may not obey, but it doesn’t mean that we deny that what the sign tells us is not true. I’m not sure how that works. I’m not sure why we instantly believe a traffic sign, with no need for reflection, while we find ourselves thinking the traffic laws in the driver’s manual are stupid. But I suspect the reading process for memes and traffic signs are similar. Because most people instantly believe memes, without question. It takes effort to doubt them. None of us who do doubt them began doubting them. We learned to do that, and we are in the minority. And when we do tell people that the memes are wrong, the meme believers will doubt that we are correct. No matter how much information they are shown, they will be skeptical of the actual information presented in a non-meme format–written in a post, say, or presented in a link–and will actually argue that the meme was correct. And that is neurological. That is an automated brain process. That is something very difficult to avoid. A meme–always presented in a picture form, such as jpeg–has an ability to circumvent our critical thinking faculties and become fact in our mind, much as we automatically believe a merging lane ahead sign. Its viral potential is phenomenal because its information is believed, without question, by most people who read it. I remember reading about Dawkins’ meme theory, before these Facebook style memes even existed, and meme theory fell apart because there was no mechanism for transmission. But now, via Facebook, there is a mechanism for transmission. A meme can spread from human brain to human brain via our eye and ability to read language . It can’t be spread to a blind man. It can’t be spread to someone who can’t read, or to someone who can’t read the language in the meme. But it can be spread in picture form–if you rewrote it in text it would not be believed automatically–and will be believed the way traffic signs are believed. There is a way to get people to believe anything they read if it can be put in a picture format. The fact that you can have a meme several hundred words long that is still believed without question in a way an article is not is probably because we read so much more than we ever did before because  we are online so many hours a day and when we are online we are reading constantly. We are just used to more written words now, and as such, we can compartmentalize entire paragraphs into picture-like packets that are looked at the way we read a traffic sign.

The potential for exploitation here is breathtaking, and doubtless it is already happening. Meme theory, long just a nifty idea, a theoretical possibility, can actually happen via Facebook, When we share a meme, we are replicating it in the mind of whoever reads it. It has to be the single fastest way of spreading identical information that there is, and only with discipline can a person learn to read them critically, because memes are designed to be believed exactly as they are written. They are, I suspect, a revolutionary form of spreading information. Probably temporary, eventually people will begun reading them like we read everything else, critically and skeptically. But for now, memes will be spreading world wide, too often sowing misinformation and disinformation and utterly believed by nearly everyone who reads them because the belief is automatic.


Gifting? she said. She hated gifting. Not the action, the verb. She loved when someone gave her a gift, she said, just don’t call it gifting. I said OK and didn’t give her a gift. She laughed. It was a better idea anyway, as she was pretty and young and I am married and not young. Look but don’t gift.

But man, you want to piss some people off, just verb a noun, like gifting. People can get furious about verbed nouns. Which is a little weird, as so many of today’s verbs were originally nouns. And a great many nouns were verbs. In fact, the word gift seems to be a Norse addition to English, and derives from the Old Norwegian (and Old German) gibt, which means, umm, give. (The New German is Geschenck, as in the lovely Weihnachtsgeschenk, or Christmas gift.) So the Old English nouned a perfectly good verb. I’m sure people complained. Just as they complain when it reverts back to being a verb, but language is alive and ever changing, and these things happen.

Think of it this  way…all the first words were nouns. You have to have a word for a thing. But as with sign language, verbs can be construed by gestures. So when verbs developed, they weren’t just coined anew (to verb another noun, sorry). The noun itself began to become a verb. Then, once verbed, the new verb could then be used with other nouns. So all verbs (and all adjectives too, I think, though that would be another essay) would have begun as a noun (or as part of a noun, though that gets complicated, so we’ll just say nouns). A noun is about as basic a bit of information the brain can store. The brain breaks down words into modifying bits, prefixes like de- and un-, or suffixes like -ness, but those are not matched to actual objects. But a noun the brain matches to a mental picture. When you say apple you see a mind’s eye image of an apple. So a noun is essentially just a label that the brain began using once language was invented.

But a verb, on the other hand, is mentally a real conceptual leap (to noun another verb). Since language began as words representing actual things, the language part of the brain has to see an action as a thing, like a noun, in order to perceive it. It can only think like that. It is hardwired as little more than a process to give verbalized sounds to represent things. Our language center can’t actually process actions. In fact, the parts of the brain that do perceive motion or action are non-verbal. There’s no language there at all. This is a part of the brain that goes back to the very origin of thinking itself. For a billion years organisms existed that could respond to movement with no need for language at all, while the need to describe things as nouns is only a couple hundred thousand years old, or, if we go into human proto-language, maybe a couple million years, at most (incidentally, vervet monkeys have a specific alarm calls denoting eagle, leopard and python, each of which implies hunting). Being able to process movement is essential for survival, but being able to use sounds to name an object is just handy if you have the brain large enough to do so. And because of the evolutionary history, our verbal processing–language–is built upon a structure of completely language free processing. The vast majority of what we call thinking involves no language at all.

When you see an apple your brain says apple, but when you see an apple falling your brain doesn’t say falling, it says apple falling. Falling is a gerund, a verb turned into a noun. We use the gerund because there is no way our brain can conceptualize falling without turning it into a thing, a concept, something we can label. The part of the brain that sees the apple falling doesn’t go through the language center at all. The vision center is all pre-language. You look up and see an anvil being dropped off a building onto your head and you will jump before the language part of your brain says dude, an anvil. Try it yourself. Though I don’t know if they make anvils anymore, or even drop them.

So the language center in your head will automatically associate an action with a noun. It does this because the brain began inventing language as a cataloguing of things, objects. (Incidentally, written language began the same way, in symbols representing objects.) The language center thinks in terms of things. It associates an action with a noun, because it cannot conceptualize in language a pure action. It needs a thing, a noun to be acted upon. So every verb there is in a language is associated with a noun. That is automatically. There are no languages that do not do this. All languages are some variation of subject-verb-object (SVO). He threw the ball. You have VSO languages. Threw he the ball. SOV languages. He the ball threw. VSO languages. Threw he the ball. Even a very few OVS. The ball threw he. You do not have any languages with just a V with no S or O. No verb without a subject or object. I’m not even sure if the brain can visualize an action without a subject (an intransitive verb) or without a subject and an object (a transitive verb). It recognizes it–remember the falling anvil–but the voice in your head does not announce Falling! It says Falling anvil! There is always a noun associated with an action.

So whatever action is performed with that noun (such as throwing that damn ball) will automatically make itself available, in your brain’s language center, as an action using the noun itself–the object, grammatically–as a verb. It’s not just throwing…the brain says somebody is throwing, or somebody is throwing something. Therefore, any noun upon which an action is performed can be converted into a verb itself. So the SVO–subject verb object–in I gave her the gift can be turned into I gifted her, melding the verb and object into a verb. This is a built in language process…the brain does it automatically. It is part of the very process of language formation itself, going all the way back in the simplest imaginable form to homo erectus, if not earlier. Speech wasn’t even necessary. Just a sound representing a thing, and gesture representing what will be done with that thing. Later, in homo sapiens, like you and me and that chick I didn’t give a gift to, words developed, and then actual speech. So people can bitch all they want about this obnoxious turning of nouns into verbs, but to no avail, because it is not only hardwired, it is built into our very genetic code, pre-dating words themselves. Verbing nouns and nouning verbs is one of the things that makes us human. It’s part of that tiny percentage of DNA that we don’t share with gorillas. Well, that and huge testicles, or some of us, anyway.

(There’s a longer draft revision of this, but it needs some work, so I just posted the original here until I grind out the complexities of that piece. Stuff like this is real brain hurting stuff, yow.) 

Words and pictures

This is one of those incredible photographs that cannot possibly described in writing. It is so frustrating how you can’t recreate what we see in words, and indeed, almost nothing we see requires words to understand. It’s all pre-language. Vision is nearly a billion years old. Language a couple hundred thousand. Written language maybe five thousand years old. The speech and language thing in the brain is new, very primitive, extremely limited. And when I see a picture like this that tells a whole story, and realize that I could spend hours trying to tease out a few sentences that would do the same, I begin to hate photographers. I mean think about it, someone invented a camera less than two centuries ago and within two or three decades unbelievable photos, these perfect images, begin to appear. Iconic things. Hell, when we think of the Civil War we see Matthew Brady’s dead strewn in a field, not any of the word images in thousands and thousands of histories, memoirs, poems, and novels. That was the secret of Ken Burns’ Civil War–the photos that the television camera would play across, giving an illusion of animation to still life. The narrators would recite passages from people who were there, and the theme would swell, fade and disappear, but what we remember are the images. Not the words, we default instead to the ancient vision centers there in the back of the brain. You don’t need to explain anything to those vision centers. It gets it automatically (which is why it is so easy to fool us with trick photography–the vision center believes what it sees). Photos nail us. We have no defense. And I just wrote a couple hundred words trying to say that.

This is why I’m mean to photographers. Not to angels like the one in this picture, though. They can melt your heart.

OURO PRETO, BRAZIL - APRIL 05: A girl dressed as an angel walks home after marching in the annual Easter procession during traditional Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities on April 5, 2015 in Ouro Preto, Brazil. Holy Week marks Easter celebrations for Catholics and Brazil holds the largest number of Catholics on the planet. Ouro Preto was a colonial mining town founded in the late 17th century and the Semana Santa tradition in Ouro Preto can be traced back to the 18th century Portuguese colonial period. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“A girl dressed as an angel walks home after marching in the annual Easter procession during traditional Holy Week festivities in Ouro Preto, Brazil.”   (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)