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Creating Understanding

How Communicating Aligns Minds

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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 Two: Conceptualizing Understanding

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CHAPTER TWO

Conceptualizing Understanding



In this chapter, we introduce foundational constructs for studying understanding, including social stimuli (i.e. sensory input that produces a cognitive, affective, or behavioral reaction), meme states (i.e. mental representations of concepts, ideas, or experiences) and situation models (i.e. multifaceted mental representations of a communicative episode). We then use these concepts to articulate our conceptualization of understanding as two (or more) people experiencing entrainment of their situation models.

In this chapter, we focus on the constructs that serve as a foundation for modeling how people create understanding. In this, we also introduce the associated terminology—some of which will likely be new to readers—that we will use to discuss understanding, and how people create understanding in interaction.

Before proceeding, we would like to offer a brief remark about terminology and language use in this book. One of the biggest challenges we have had discussing understanding—between ourselves as colleagues and co-authors; with our students in classes; and in writing this book—has been that of language. The vocabulary that communication scholars have to discuss communication is an indirect product of decades of theorizing (or in some cases, lack of theorizing) about this topic. In many cases, this means that current ways of talking about communication implicitly reinforce a code model or signal processing perspective. For instance, terms like “sender” and “receiver”, and describing communication ←27 | 28→as a process of “sending messages”, are ubiquitous, and difficult...

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