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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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In this brief introduction, we describe the origins of this book and its primary goals: to offer an explicit conceptualization of understanding, and to offer insight into the process of creating understanding in human communication. We outline why this is an important topic for communication researchers, and offer a brief sketch of contemporary interdisciplinary scholarship on understanding. We conclude with an outline of this book.

We (the authors) are both communication scholars by training; not surprisingly, we have pursued this path because we are interested how communication works. As a field, communication has great breadth, spanning from the fine arts to neuroscience. We are quantitative social scientists; as such, we represent, and work in a narrow slice of the field’s wide span, which we will refer to as the discipline of communication1. Looking across the considerable body of theoretical and empirical work in communication, we were both struck, and surprised, by the lack of research in our discipline on understanding, and how people come to understand each other.

We came to this question from different backgrounds. One of us (JG) pursued an undergraduate degree in foreign languages (French and Italian), and spent time living and working in France and Belgium before pursuing graduate work in communication. In this, she spent countless hours trying to master new communicative systems, and struggling to express herself—and have others ←1 | 2→recognize what she intended to express—using those systems. Living abroad, where multilingualism (with...

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