Context is Everything (Essay, Part 1 of 2)

Next time you are reading anything — a book, an article, this essay — give yourself a pat on the back. You are doing far more work than the author. A word means nothing without context. You are providing the majority of that context.

Every time you read a word, a neural pathway is firing. Your brain is rapidly activating all the associations you have attached to the word you just read. Thousands of words, concepts, memories, and emotions activate in milliseconds, coloring the impact that the word has on your brain. Some associations are linked strongly, like the negative association you get when you eat too much of your favorite food and then vomit, leading to years where you avoid even the smell of that once beloved food. Some association are weaker, like a faint warming of the mind when you read the word “smile”. Your interpretation of a word is being constructed out of nothingness from the associations you provide. Your interpretation is also setting the stage of your mind that the next word will soon arrive on, in turn coloring your perception of it. The process happens again and again for each word, impossibly quick, below our level of perception.

The patterns that are activated by the stimuli determine the interpretation of the stimuli. They are the interpretation of it.

To better visualize this, imagine a vast spiderweb. When one strand of that web is pulled, everything connected to it will also move, will also be activated. The parts of the web closest to the spot being pulled will move the most, and the ones farther away will move less, or not move at all. If some of the strands are thicker and attached more firmly to the thread being pulled, they will move more than those strands that are barely attached. This is the way your mind works: each word, sight, smell, sound, etc. pulling on one thread of your mind and activating all the other contents of your mind that are attached to it.

The process of filling in context has many interesting implications. This nuance of perception is a fact of reality and works in many more areas than just language. It is apparent almost everywhere we look.

For example, a color is observed as darker or lighter because of the shades by which it is surrounded. The concept of a tree is very different than the concept of a forest. More interestingly, you cannot get to the concept of a forest through adding the concept of a tree thousands of times. It is not additive, but instead a complete transformation. A forest is an entirely different concept than a tree. The context of a tree — alone or among other trees — will determine how it is interpreted. Will the string of your neural web labeled “tree” be pulled on, or will the string of “forest” be activated? You could have two vastly different interpretations of the exact same tree, two different neural pathways activated, depending on if there are other trees in your peripheral vision or not.

Back to the spider web analogy: The condition of the spider web (our mind) will also impact which parts of it (which concepts) are activated. Imagine if there was a recent rainstorm and parts of the vast spiderweb have become damp. Areas that normally would be moved when you pull on a certain string may not move at all because they are wet. This is analogous to when you are tired, and you feel like your brain is moving slow, like the stuff that would normally click just isn’t falling into place. You hear a quote from a movie and you just can’t place it.

The reverse situation can happen to the spider web too; perhaps it is very windy and the web is being pulled tight, and so it takes much less of a pull in any area to get parts of the web farther away to move. Maybe this is when you just had a big cup of coffee and your mind is making connections that it normally would not. You read a book review and you remember an interview with the author that you watched a few months ago.

Hunger, pain, happiness, excitement… feelings and mental states impact the way our minds work every second. Beneath our awareness, these dynamic processes color our perception of the world.

The recent history of the spider web (our mind) will also impact which parts are activated. Let’s say you are walking down a street and you see a car crash into the side of a building. All your associations with “car crash” are strongly activated by this jarring event. Everything in the car crash part of the spider web is pulled down taut. So if thirty seconds later you read a word on a street sign, the parts of the web that were recently activated are under greater tension and will re-activate much more readily. Even if these areas are only loosely connected to the word you are reading, they will be far more likely to activate than if you hadn’t just seen that car crash.

We know this intuitively. When you listen to someone say an odd word and you catch yourself using it a few hours later. When you see something traumatic, and the smallest connection can bring us back to the traumatic event. This is part of the mechanism of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: when parts of the neural web (certain concepts or memories) become linked incredibly tightly with anxiety, with the fear and bodily responses of a traumatic event. Any associated “trigger” that causes the traumatized part of the web to activate can bring back the anxiety, the rapid heart rate, the adrenaline rush and the fear associated with the traumatic event. This mechanism is at the heart of the very important psychological phenomenon of priming.

Priming is the psychological term for the phenomenon I described earlier: when one event, word, sound, etc. sets the stage of your mind so you interpret the world in relation to that stimuli. Priming is happening all of the time, normally in ways that are unremarkable. However, stronger stimuli can prime us to behave in ways which we otherwise would not. These stimuli can radically change our mind — the spider web — completely altering our thoughts and behaviors. A great example of this is the Weapons Effect. Imagery and language about weapons has been proven to make people more likely to think and act aggressively. Dr. Bushman explains the results of one fascinating study:

“The weapons effect occurs outside of the lab too. In one field experiment, a confederate driving a pickup truck purposely remained stalled at a traffic light for 12 seconds to see whether the motorists trapped behind him would honk their horns (the measure of aggression). The truck contained either a .303-calibre military rifle in a gun rack mounted to the rear window, or no rifle. The results showed that motorists were more likely to honk their horns if the confederate was driving a truck with a gun visible in the rear window than if the confederate was driving the same truck but with no gun. What is amazing about this study is that you would have to be pretty stupid to honk your horn at a driver with a military rifle in his truck — if you were thinking, that is! But people were not thinking — they just naturally honked their horns after seeing the gun. The mere presence of a weapon automatically triggered aggression.”

The neural network of concepts and ideas has incredible influence. Our environment — the things we see, the words we read — has an impact on the way our minds work. This phenomenon has enormous implications on the way people should structure their daily lives, and how we want to structure society as a whole. We often view ourselves as a rational, autonomous creature that purposefully decides what we will think about, say, and do. Understanding the importance of context — the spider web nature of our brain — should dispel that illusion. Realizing that much of our thought and behavior actually initiates outside of us is an unsettling reality. But it is also empowering. We do have some control in shaping our world, and maybe understanding our brains can help us see how interconnected we are with the outside world. We are not actually separate individuals but parts of the whole, influencing and influenced by everything around us. If we can accept that role, maybe we will become better members of this collective.

Next week, I’ll be exploring more areas that highlight the importance of context and the interplay between perception and cognition. Stay tuned!

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Derrick Jones

Derrick Jones

Just trying to see reality clearly.