Primitive Forms Of Communication
The earliest forms of communication, of course, were non-verbal. Through gestures, motions, expressions and sound, early homo sapiens communicated basic needs and feelings. We can observe animals' behavior to get some understanding of pre-verbal human communication.
Many animals such as birds have warning signals – a loud "cheep" in certain situations means "danger!" If you have ever lived with a cat or dog, you know how well they can communicate hunger, a desire to go outside, affection and much more.
The simplest forms of animal communication that I have observed are "moving toward." Moving toward the door indicates a desire to go through the open door. Moving toward the food dish and making a sound indicates the desire to be fed. Moving toward a hand signals, "I want to be petted." All these behaviors are patterns, of course, and it is highly likely that the fulfillment or object of the moving-toward exists as a pattern inside the animal's brain. The behavior pattern is as far as the animal can go replicating the act – it needs your help to supply the food, open the door, etc.
B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists would say that it is pointless to wonder or presume about what goes on inside an animal's head. That is something we can never know. Behaviorists believe that it is sufficient to say that a certain behavior pattern is reinforced by a certain stimulus, that moving toward the door is reinforced by the door being opened, or moving toward the dish by being fed.
From either perspective, the attention-getting behavior is a pattern that the animal uses to communicate, in some way to control its environment.
Words As Patterns
Higher up the ladder of animal behavior we find human language. Words are patterns par excellence. Each word is associated with an array of neural patterns in the brain. When I speak a word, like "ball," I may have associated it with a sub-pattern in my brain that corresponds to "round objects used in sports or play." You may hear it and think I mean "an elaborate dance or social event."
In the section on information theory, we learned the importance of the redundant aspect of communication, and the role of rules in giving order to our verbal communication. Rules are often first learned as patterns, as the young child repeats what he or she has heard "because it sounds right," long before the rules of grammar are understood.
The Components Of Communication
Human communication, as it is usually understood, involves several components:
1. A sender, the source of the communication
2. A receiver, the intended audience of the communication
3. A message, which is the information, feeling or meaning which the sender wishes to communicate
4. A channel or medium, such as the telephone or longhand writing
5. A code or symbolization, in which the message is encoded (for example, as spoken or written words) by the sender and decoded by the receiver.
6. The transmission of the message through the channel or medium.
Since communication is such an uncertain undertaking, with little certainty that the receiver got the message as it was intended, a seventh element is sometimes added:
7. Feedback assures the sender that the receiver did indeed get the message. This is called "closing the loop" of communication. Feedback makes the difference between the mere transmission of information, and true communication.
The patterns that our brains select in decoding words which are heard or read depends a great deal on an 8th element of communication, the context. If the context is a baseball game, "ball" may mean either the hard, round leather-covered object which is thrown and hit, or an umpire's call derived from that use of the word. If the context is a group of well-dressed men and women dancing to orchestral music, an entirely different context exists and a different interpretation is made. The context is another pattern, an environmental pattern, which our brain uses to interpret the intended meaning of words.
All of this is learned, built over time through experience, through association of images and other sensory inputs with words and other stimuli. For example, a wooden bat may stimulate one connotation of "ball," and a glass slipper may stimulate another. Words, images, sounds, feelings and much more are all interconnected by our neural networks as extremely complex patterns.
The Incompleteness Of Communication
Because each of us has a unique combination of neural networks based on prior experience, communication is at best an incomplete and inexact act. It is not possible for a sentence to mean exactly the same to me as it means to you. I can only begin to understand what a sentence or an experience means to you if you explain to me in great detail all the associations you have in your mind with the words in the sentence and the sentence as a whole.
For example, if you are afraid of riding in an elevator, I can only begin to understand your feelings if you explore out loud your past experiences with elevators, with being enclosed in small rooms, with moving up and down without much control, and so forth. This is made much more complex by our minds' repressing some patterns in the unconscious. The real clue to fear of riding in elevators may not be accessible to your conscious mind due to repression. But that is a huge other subject we will not explore in detail here.
All Behavior Communicates
In their widely acclaimed book, Pragmatics of Human Communication, Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson claim that "if it is accepted that all behavior in an interactional situation has message value, i.e., is communication, it follows that no matter how one may try, one cannot not communicate. Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating."
Watzlawick et al. add that "a communication not only conveys information,...at the same time it imposes behavior." Following the work of their mentor Gregory Bateson, the authors note that all communication has two aspects – the "report" and the "command." "The report aspect of a message conveys information and is, therefore, synonymous in human communication with the content of the message....The command aspect, on the other hand, refers to what sort of a message it is to be taken as, and, therefore, ultimately the relationship between the communicants. All such relationship statements are about one or several of the following assertions: 'This is how I see myself . . . this is how I see you . . . this is how I see you seeing me . . .' and so forth in theoretically infinite regress."
The authors note that the messages "‘It is important to release the clutch gradually and smoothly’ and ‘Just let the clutch go, it'll ruin the transmission in no time’ have approximately the same information content (report aspect), but they obviously define very different relationships." This aspect of defining relationships through communication, specifically the command aspect of communication, is rarely done with the full awareness of the participants. ‘In fact, it seems that the more spontaneous and ‘healthy’ a relationship, the more the relationship aspect of communication recedes into the background. Conversely, ‘sick’ relationships are characterized by a constant struggle about the nature of the relationship, with the content aspect of communication becoming less and less important."
In other words, as the old saying goes, it's not what you say – it's how you say it. But how often we all forget this every day of our lives, and how much grief and misery results, with each side claiming only the "report" aspect of his words and behavior, oblivious to the command or relationship-defining aspect.
Patterns In Science And Significance
It is not my intent here to make this chapter a treatise on communication, but to focus on some aspects of the patterns of human communication that many of us are not aware of. As Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson state, "The search for pattern is the basis of all scientific investigation. Where there is pattern there is significance – this...maxim also holds true for the study of human interaction."
The authors quote Bateson again: "...As we go up the scale of orders of learning, we come into regions of more and more abstract patterning, which are less and less subject to conscious inspection. The more abstract – the more general and formal the premises upon which we put our patterns together – the more deeply sunk these are in the neurological or psychological levels and the less accessible they are to conscious control.
"The habit of dependency is much less perceptible to the individual than the fact that on a given occasion he obtained help. This he may be able to recognize, but to recognize the next more complex pattern, that having looked for help, he commonly bites the hand that feeds him, this may be excessively difficult for him to scan in consciousness."
Digital And Analog Patterns
Another relevant insight from Pragmatics of Human Communication relates to earlier examples in this book of how the mind works as it processes patterns. "In the central nervous system the functional units (neurons) receive so-called quantal packages of information through connecting elements (synapses). Upon arrival at the synapses, these ‘packages’ produce excitatory or inhibitory ... potentials that are summed up by the neuron and either cause or inhibit its firing. This specific part of neural activity, consisting in the occurrence or nonoccurrence of its firing, therefore conveys binary digital information. The humoral system (bodily fluids such as blood, bile and enzymes), on the other hand, is not based on digitalization of information (firing vs. non-firing). This system communicates by releasing discrete quantities of specific substances into the bloodstream. It is further known that the neural and the humoral modes of intraorganismic communication exist not only side by side, but that they complement and are contingent upon each other, often in highly complex ways."
The authors point out that digital (binary) communication, with its yes-no qualities, tends to be linear and logical, whereas humoral communication is analogical and controls virtually all nonverbal communication. Analogic communication includes not only body movements but also "posture, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection, the sequence, rhythm, and cadence of the words themselves, and any other nonverbal manifestation of which the organism is capable, as well as the communicational clues unfailingly present in any context in which an interaction takes place."
In human communication, then, we have two kinds of patterns: digital (yes-no, true-false, it's there-it isn't there) and analogical (feelings, movement, expression). Often we try to translate analogic communication into digital – such as talking about relationships and feelings. This is inherently difficult.
If you want to learn more about the intricacies of human communication and relationship, I highly encourage you to read Pragmatics of Human Communication. I have quoted from it at length here because I feel it does such an excellent job of pointing out some of the complexities of patterns, and the reasons for those complexities, in human communication.
Refining The Components
Now, let us renumerate the elements of patterns in human communication:
1. The sender
2. The receiver
3. The relationship
4. The context
5. The message
a. Digital (information content)
b. Analogical (relationship content)
6. The medium
7. Transmission of the message
8. Encoding and decoding (always inexact)
Human communication, including our own internal thoughts, is in many ways the most complex pattern processing in existence. In our next chapter, we will look at the role of patterns and order in civilization, including history and the arts.
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