Professor Chris Frith – Neural Hermeneutics

The Theme

Neural Hermeneutics

Both artists and scientists are in the business, albeit from different angles, of communicating with their fellow creatures. For artists it is their bread and butter. No communication – no art work, or rather art not working. For scientists it has always been necessary for them to communicate with their peers. Now it has become more and more pressing for them to communicate with the general public. Therefore the gathering of artists and scientists at GV Art on 8 May was even more keen than usual to listen to what our guest speaker had to say on the subject of neural hermaneutics, the mechanisms by which we humans try to understand one another.

Professor Chris Frith, for it was he who had accepted the challenge of explaining neural hermaneutics in 15 minutes to the gathered diners, started by explaining that he would pronounce hermeneutics ‘hermanoitics’ in deference to the German origin of the word, and perhaps to the fact that his German wife, Professor Uta Frith, the world authority on autism, was among the guests.

The basic ideas of neural hermeneutics can be found in an article that Professor Frith wrote for Contact magazine and is published at a full explanation of the subject it is recommended that you have a look at this essay. However, to lay the foundations of a report on the conversation that followed Professor Frith’s presentation, let me attempt a highly simplified introduction to a basic principle.

Neural hermeneutics is concerned with discovering the brain mechanisms that make it possible for us to understand each other. One of the key figurations in the neural hermeneutical (if that is the correct term) investigation is the communications loop. This is where each person on either side of a conversation starts by making predictive inferences about what is about to be said to them (perhaps via the ‘chameleon effect’ wherewith we imitate each other), then taking note of what is actually said, seeing if this matches the original hypothesis and, where necessary, altering that to take account of the new information. As Professor Frith says, ‘Perception depends upon a loop of computations going from inference to evidence and then back again’. During the exchange the loop is repeated continuously at high speed, is unconscious and is happening in the brains of both parties simultaneously. This process continues until a satisfactory agreement is arrived at where both believe they have succeeded in communicating that which they intended. A splendid example of this can be found in the famous ‘Two Ronnies’ sketch where ‘fork handles’ are asked for, only to be interpreted as ‘four candles’. This is corrected until the right interpretation is reached. Not as funny as the original put like that, but you get the idea.

Of course, it is obvious that things are not as simple as that and all sorts of variations on this theme pop up to confuse and complicate matters. But taking this model as a foundation, it is possible to examine a huge variety of attempts at communication, from one to one conversations to vastly complex international conferences, and from the reading and translating of texts to interpreting works of art.

The Conversation

Professor Frith’s presentation had seeded a sort of organic growth of ideas around our table, and when he had finished, these spread out tree like from the central idea. The translation theme was taken up. Translators in the main find it much easier to do their job if watching and listening to a speaker improvising than one reading from a text. The body language and the expressive voice gives them many more clues to the actual intentions of the speaker than a dry reading. Chris Frith commented that this pointed up the difficulty that translators of prose have (working in a one-sided conversation) and that updates of translated books have to be made every so often to keep up with revised hypotheses of the authors’ intentions.

Email and texting were considered as new and developing means of communication, but means that often need augmenting if intention is to be made clear. A text message in capitals can produce the response ‘Stop shouting!’ The use of emoticons in emails and tweets is another example of a basic system being elaborated out of the need for clarification.

What about areas of communication where clarification may be intentionally avoided? In art works it is often the case that the boundaries of communication are pushed to and beyond limits of normal comprehension. It can be said that certain ‘communities’ that grow up within the art world (and other spheres) develop their own language which is understood only by a small number of people. It may or may not then gain a wider acceptance with habitual exposure to a larger audience.

Having one’s expectations confounded, or having doubt sown in an interaction, can make us pay more attention, to back-track over what is being said to us. This permits a certain playfulness and allows for irony and deliberate, maybe predictable, errors being presented. Actors, comedians and conjurors are experts in juggling with forms of misinformation for their own ends.

Part of the interaction of conversation involves convincing an audience of the correctness of a particular viewpoint. This can often involve manipulation of the ‘chameleon’ effect where an observer or listener will readily take on the characteristics of the person they are observing or listening to. This idea can expand to include the manipulation of large numbers of people in political and religious situations.

Cultural differences must have an effect on all this. It was noted that an English person, in discussion with a Japanese friend, might take their nodding of the head as an acceptance of a proposed idea and say ‘Brilliant – that’s wrapped that up!’ The truth would be that the Japanese half of the sketch is indicating a ‘no, no, lets talk about this further’.

The conversation then drifted to the outer regions of the subject when robots and puppets were drawn into the arena. The ‘uncanny valley’ was mentioned. The ‘uncanny valley’ is a hypothesis which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. It was suggested that this might be related to the human response to that which is alive and that which is dead. This lead to the subject of ‘hyper real’ images in art seeming more dead than other more sketched-in representations. This is a fascinating subject which can be explored at and

For excellent examples see

A novelist who is dealing with these ideas of language, communication and translation in some depth is China Miéville. An article about him may be found atéville.

Further thoughts

Having reached the subject of the ‘unliving’, our conversation came appropriately to a dignified dead end. Two points were left in my mind after we had cleared up and I made my way to Baker Street Station. The first was that, in spite of at first telling us how remarkable we humans are at this tricky business of communicating, Professor Frith admitted that the process remains rather crude, and absolute knowledge of what someone else is intending to put across remains an impossible goal. ‘Theory of Mind’, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

But more worrying to me was the Professor’s statement at the end of his talk. He asked, when discussing the interaction between two people, ‘Where is ‘meaning’ in this picture? Some of my colleagues try to find ‘meaning’ in the head. But in fact ‘meaning’ is probably half way between the two, as it depends on both of them together’.

This seems to leave us with some mysterious ether-come-phlogiston-come-dark matter, floating between the gaps in the universe wherein thoughts, ideas and ‘meaning’ swim about – somewhere. It may be that to understand communication we have to examine two or more brains at the same time. But it seems to me there really is nowhere else to find these processes but within the individual brain of each human being.

And it occurred to me that we do not spend all our time trying to communicate with others. For the most part we seem to occupy ourselves in interior conversations where our several personae talk amongst themselves. I wondered whether the matrix of neural hermeneutics applies in these solipsistic discussions as it does when we try to communicate with our fellow creatures in the world outside. And whether these conversations are any more successful, play the same games of irony and misinformation, as we do in our outward directed dialogues?

Garry Kennard. May 2012

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