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PeerJ. 2015 Oct 27;3:e1361. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1361. eCollection 2015.

Contributions to a neurophysiology of meaning: the interpretation of written messages could be an automatic stimulus-reaction mechanism before becoming conscious processing of information.

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A.L.B.E.R.T. Research group, ARPA-Firenze-Cultural association , Firenze , Italy.



Even though the interpretation of natural language messages is generally conceived as the result of a conscious processing of the message content, the influence of unconscious factors is also well known. What is still insufficiently known is the way such factors work. We have tackled interpretation assuming it is a process, whose basic features are the same for the whole humankind, and employing a naturalistic approach (careful observation of phenomena in conditions the closest to "natural" ones, and precise description before and independently of data statistical analysis).


Our field research involved a random sample of 102 adults. We presented them with a complete real world-like case of written communication using unabridged message texts. We collected data (participants' written reports on their interpretations) in controlled conditions through a specially designed questionnaire (closed and opened answers); then, we treated it through qualitative and quantitative methods.


We gathered some evidence that, in written message interpretation, between reading and the attribution of conscious meaning, an intermediate step could exist (we named it "disassembling") which looks like an automatic reaction to the text words/expressions. Thus, the process of interpretation would be a discontinuous sequence of three steps having different natures: the initial "decoding" step (i.e., reading, which requires technical abilities), disassembling (the automatic reaction, an unconscious passage) and the final conscious attribution of meaning. If this is true, words and expressions would firstly function like physical stimuli, before being taken into account as symbols. Such hypothesis, once confirmed, could help explaining some links between the cultural (human communication) and the biological (stimulus-reaction mechanisms as the basis for meanings) dimension of humankind.


Cognition; Embodied cognition; Human behaviour; Human communication; Interpretation process; Meaning; Natural language interpretation; Perception and natural language

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