Contributions to a neurophysiology of meaning: The interpretation of a written message could be an automatic stimulus-reaction mechanism before becoming conscious processing of information
Background. Interpretation is the process through which humans attribute meanings to the inputs they receive from their natural or social environment. Formulation and exchange of meanings (through natural language) are fundamental aspects of human behaviour and important neuroscience subjects. The current concepts mainly refer to conscious treating of incoming information; however, available data does not provide definitive answers and scientific comprehension of the interpretation process is
... ill unsatisfactory. Our work proposes some contributions aimed to improve it. Methodology. Our field research involved a random sample of 102 adults. We submitted to the sample a real world-like written communication example using complete and unabridged message texts. We collected data (written accounts by participants about their interpretations) in controlled conditions through a specially designed questionnaire (closed and opened answers). Finally, we carried out qualitative and quantitative analyses through some fundamental statistics. Principal Findings. While readers are expected to concentrate on the text's information content, they rather focus on the most varied and unpredictable components: certain physical features of the message (such as the message's period length) as well as meta-information like the position of a statement or even the lack of some content. Actually, just about 12% of the participants' indications point at the text's content; in addition, the reader's selective focusing appears a random picking-up of message components. Our data converge on the hypothesis that such observed behaviours could depend on automatic physiological reactions of the reader to the message components: the components would work like physical stimuli and the reactions would precede the conscious attribution of meaning to the message. So, interpretation would be a (learned) stimulus-reaction mechanism, before switching to information processing, and the basis of meaning could be perceptual/analogical, before logical/digital. We have carried out a first check of our hypothesis through focusing on its critical requisite: priority of automatic reaction over the conscious attribution of meaning. The employed example contained the emerging of a conflict and two versions (same content, ad-hoc different forms) of a reply to be sent at a certain point. We collected the participants' (independent) interpretations of the two versions; then, we asked them to choose which version could solve the conflict and we assessed (through a special indicator) the coherence between interpretations and choices. The study of the coherence level in the two subsamples revealed highly significantly different distributions (p<<0.01). Such difference seems to be linked to the choice, rather than to the previous interpretations; this result is consistent with the hypothesis that choice is based on an individual's automatic reactions and precedes conscious information processing.