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Creating Understanding

How Communicating Aligns Minds


Jessica Gasiorek and R. Kelly Aune

What, exactly, is understanding? And how do people create, maintain, and manipulate states of understanding via communication? This book addresses these questions, drawing on interdisciplinary scholarship in cognitive science, communication, psychology, and pragmatics. Rejecting classic descriptions of communication as "sending and receiving messages," this book proposes a novel perspective that depicts communication as a process in which interactants construct, test, and refine mental modes of a joint experience on the basis of the meme states (mental representations) activated by stimuli in social interactions. It explains how this process, when successful, results in interactants' mental models aligning, or becoming entrained—in other words, in creating a state of understanding. This framework is grounded in a set of foundational observations about evolved human cognition that highlight people's intrinsic social orientation, predisposition toward efficiency, and use of predictive interference-making. These principles are also used to explain how codified systems ("codes") emerge in extended or repeated interactions in which people endeavor to create understanding. Integrating and synthesizing research across disciplines, this book offers communication scholars and students a theoretical framework that will transform the way they see understanding, communication, and social connection.

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There are many important people that have contributed to this book, directly and indirectly. We thank the Series Editor, Howie Giles, for his helpful comments and suggestions for improving and refining this text, as well as Marko Dragojevic for his questions and comments on earlier versions of core chapters. We also thank Richard Huskey for his invaluable feedback and time discussing content related to cognitive science and communication neuroscience, and for directing us to resources on these topics. Earlier versions of some of the material in this book were also presented as conference papers (Aune & Gasiorek, 2019; Gasiorek & Aune, 2019), and we appreciate the feedback from peer reviewers we received on those iterations of our work.

We are grateful to our colleagues in the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for supporting the creation of undergraduate and graduate classes on creating understanding. They embraced the arguments that creating understanding should be central to the educational experiences we provide our majors and graduate students. We also thank the hundreds of students in our classes over the past decade that worked with us as we developed the material for this book. Material in this book incorporates and further expands text from an Open Educational Resource we developed for one of these courses (Gasiorek & Aune, 2017), the creation of which was supported by a grant from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Outreach College.

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