Coercion… of meaning!

Today I gave my big first year project presentation to the psychology department. From what everyone has said, it went very well. Of course, the project itself is still underway, and I will be running several more subjects in the lab, while probably continuing the study as a whole throught the summer. This shot is of me and my advisors from afterwards. (R to L: Ray Jackendoff, Phil Holcomb, Me, Gina Kuperberg):

As I’ve mentioned before, my talk involved looking at the “Event Related Potentials” or ERPs involved with processing a certain type of linguistic phenomenon called “semantic coercion.” ERPs are a measure of the electrical activity of the brain. We don’t get a good fix on specific brain areas that are at work, like in fMRI, but we do get very detailed analysis of the time course of events and certain waveforms do seem to indicate types of brain functioning in contrast to each other. We measure this electrical activity by sticking a cap of electrodes on people and feeding the signals into a computer, which then averages out the noise over several subjects and trials to give a smooth wave for time locked events. Here’s me in the cap…

So, I looked at these brain waves for semantic coercion, which involves the extraction of “hidden” meaning from sentences like The chef finished the chicken before the main course. Someone can’t literally “finish a chicken,” they have to finish doing some action with it, like cooking. Since the event isn’t stated outright, it’s said to be “coerced” from the combination of the verb “finished” and the direct object “the chicken.” Here’s a waveform from one of the sites on that cap that I got in the experiment:

While this is interesting as a linguistic phenomenon, I think it’s really just a warm up for more comic related studies. Since I couldn’t resist, I even opened my talk by showing this strip:

Now, if you look carefully, coercion happens here too. We never see the event of Snoopy catching the ball, yet we know the event happens based on the information provided by the other panels. In addition to other things, coercion is perhaps one of the things that McCloud was trying to get at with his notion of “closure.” In many ways, coercion here is an invisible meaning that is created out of the visible components of the graphic sequence. Graphically, it’s the stuff that happens “out of view” of the panels. The problem is that McCloud extended this to the (linear) relationships between all image sequences, which just doesn’t work.

So, if I do find anything fairly robust in the ERPs for verbal coercion, perhaps a study of visual language coercion could be on the horizon as well? Or perhaps a theoretical paper first…


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