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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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Chapter One: Communication and Understanding



Communication and Understanding

This chapter addresses the relationship between communication and understanding, in the context of contemporary communication scholarship. Understanding is a topic that communication scholars have largely ignored; we suggest this is a likely a product of the discipline’s history, which we briefly summarize. We then review the key features of “code models” of communication, which have dominated disciplinary theoretical and empirical research in communication, and explain their shortcomings. Finally, we argue that our discipline needs a theoretical framework that addresses understanding as its primary focus, and outline how we believe this should be undertaken.

This book is about how people create understanding through communication. Creating understanding is only one of many things that people do when they communicate, we readily acknowledge. However, we contend that it is one of the most fundamental. Most of the other things people do with communication—for example, influence or persuade; make people happy or sad; build or extinguish relationships; define and maintain group boundaries—follow understanding, or are in some way built on understanding as a foundation. However, in the discipline of communication, the construct of understanding has received surprisingly little direct attention from scholars.

There are many topics, constructs and theories in contemporary social scientific communication research that address understanding indirectly. For example, media effects research offers theories describing how people process and arrive at ←9 | 10→conclusions about the messages they encounter in mass media (e.g. Geise &...

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