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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 Five: Creating Understanding



Creating Understanding

This chapter outlines a process model of how people create understanding. We propose that when people communicate ostensively, they present social stimuli that activate meme states. They also construct, test, and refine situation models of a social interaction on the basis of these meme states. More specifically, we propose that people go through an iterative process of (a) comparing predictions generated by their situation models to the meme states that are most accessible to them in context, and (b) confirming or revising the content of their situation model to address prediction errors. By continuously updating their situation models to minimize prediction error in a shared experience (i.e. an interaction), communicators’ situation models become entrained. When communicators successfully entrain their situation models, they create a state of understanding.

Summarizing and drawing together our foundational assumptions (Chapter 2), observations about human behavior and cognition (Chapter 3), and the components of communicating (Chapter 4) proposed in the previous chapters, we now outline our process model of how people create understanding. In what follows, our description is written in a manner that presumes that communicators share a goal of creating understanding—that is, of entraining situation models, and their associated meme states. We do recognize that this is not always the case, and that understanding is not always communicators’ primary goal in interaction; we discuss such situations in greater detail in the next chapter. However, we contend that even when a communicator...

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