The Speaker Controls The Thoughts Of The Listener

27 December, 2020
We think of speech as a process where the speaker "gives" information to the listener.
Actually, speech requires the listener to give something to the speaker: control of the listener's thoughts.

Speaker or Listener: Who "gives" the most?

The relationship between speaker and listener is not symmetrical.

We tend to think of speech as a transaction where the speaker "gives" something to the listener, where that "something" consists of information.

Under this view, the speaker has some information, which is of potential value to the listener, and when the speaker gives this information to the listener, by speaking, the listener gratefully receives this information, benefiting from the value of that information.

But I would like to propose an alternative view of speech, as a transaction where the direction of "giving" is exactly the opposite, ie:

Speech is a process where the listener allows the speaker to create thoughts in the listener's mind. That is, when listening to speech, the listener is giving control of their thoughts to the speaker.

An Example

To make this hypothesis more concrete, I will give a specific example.

Let us suppose that we have a speaker, who is speaking to one listener, and the speaker says:

"My car crashed into a cow."

On hearing this sentence, regardless of context, the listener is compelled to understand the meaning of that sentence, which results in a thought consisting of the assertion that the speaker's car crashed into a cow.

The listener is not compelled by any means to believe that the speaker's car crashed into a cow. But, upon hearing the sentence spoken, the listener cannot avoid thinking about the idea that the speaker's car crashed into a cow.

The listener cannot avoid the conversion of perceived sounds of speech into ideas representing the meaning of that speech, because that is exactly what listening is, in the context of listening to speech.

The Controlling Nature of Speech

We are so familiar with speech and listening as a form of human interaction, that we never really think about how much control the listener gives to the speaker every time that the speaker speaks.

If the listener wants to prevent the speaker creating thoughts in the brain of the listener, then the listener has only a few options:

Of course most speech is conversational, and this reduces the overall asymmetry. For example, in a conversation between two people, the participants take turns at speaking and listening, which implies that they are taking turns at controlling each other's thoughts. If each participant gets a fair share of speaking time, there will be an even amount of control flowing in both directions, and the result will be a corresponding balance in the power dynamics of the conversation.

But, for each individual act of speech, the direction of control is very much in one direction only, where it is the speaker who exerts control over the mind of the listener.

What is a Thought?

I have asserted that speech gives the speaker power to create thoughts in the mind of the listener.

This raises the question of what exactly is a "thought", and what are the consequences of the surrender of power involved in being a listener.

For the purpose of this analysis, I will define a thought as a statement of a possible belief.

To put it another way, a thought is the idea that something, ie the content of the thought, might be true.

A naive theory of beliefs and mind is that the significant state of a person's mind consists of actual beliefs. (We might include knowledge as something additional to beliefs, but for the purposes of this discussion we can treat "knowledge" as just a special form of belief that has a sufficient degree of certainty attached to it.)

Under this naive theory, possible beliefs are inconsequential, because they are not actual beliefs.

If someone says something to me, for example, they crashed their car into a cow, and I have no reason to believe that this assertion is true, then supposedly this does not result in any significant change to my state of mind.

Nevertheless, thoughts do consume resources in the brain. If I'm thinking about the possibility that the speaker's car crashed into a car, I'm not thinking about something else. The thinking part of my brain – which may actually be a substantial portion of my brain, not necessarily distinct from all the parts of my brain that do stuff that isn't "thinking" – is being occupied by the effort required to process that thought, and this is consuming resources in my brain that might otherwise be spent on doing something more useful.

Also, once a new thought it created in one's brain, it cannot easily be made to disappear. Once I have had the thought that the speaker's car might have crashed into a cow, my brain will never return to the state it was in where such a thought had never occurred – that is, I will not easily forget that the speaker told me that they crashed their car into a cow. So the associated allocation of brain resources which results from the speaker's control of the listener's thoughts is fairly permanent.

How are Thoughts Processed?

I have made a distinction between thoughts and beliefs.

But of course most thoughts created by speech become converted into some degree of belief, depending perhaps on the context of the speech and the social relationship between the speaker and the listener.

So the result of listening to speech is usually not just the creation of thoughts and nothing else. However it is useful to understand the comprehension of speech as the creation of thoughts, followed by further processing which depends on the nature of the thoughts created, and also on the general context of the speech.

I propose the following simple model of how a person's brain processes thoughts resulting from listening to speech (although this model would also apply to thoughts from any source, such as the person's own internal thinking):

  1. The person determines what the consequences of the thought would be, if the corresponding assertion was true. For example, in the example where the person is the listener to the speech example given above, what would be the consequences if indeed the speaker had crashed their car into a cow? (More specifically, what would the consequences be for the listener – which might depend, for example, on how much the listener cares about the speaker, or the speaker's car, or even the cow.)
  2. The person forms an opinion about the truth value of the thought. Ie, in our example, does the listener believe that the speaker crashed their car into a cow? What probability is assigned to this belief? What further information might be required to verify the truth of that proposition?

Who We Choose to Listen to

If speech is something that gives the speaker power over the mind of the listener, then this power is something that can be abused.

It's likely that this power dynamic has a very strong influence on the social choices we make, ie:

We choose to hang out with people who do not abuse the power to use speech to control our thoughts.

There are probably many aspects of human speech behaviour that can be better understood if we take into account how the speech and listening process gives the speaker control over the listener's mind.

However, for the moment I will leave this general question to be analysed in more detail at a later time, and I will return to the main point of the blog which this article belongs to, which is:

What does any of this have to do with Music?

You are reading this article on my "What is Music?" blog, and I haven't said anything yet about music.

These ideas about the power dynamics of speech relate to my current hypothesis about music as a negative superstimulus for an aspect of speech perception.

According to my hypothesis, music relates to the power dynamics of speech and listening as follows:

  • Music is a superstimulus for the listener's perception that a speaker is engaging in a form of speech which is contrived.
  • This contrivance suggests that the speaker has the intention to abuse the power of speech to control the thoughts of the listener, in a manner which will benefit the speaker at the expense of the listener.
  • The listener's brain responds automatically to the perception of this contrivance by suppressing the second step of thought processing, ie the listener's brain suppresses the process of forming an opinion about the truth value of the thoughts generated by the speech spoken by the speaker.
  • This suppression prevents the leakage of information which would otherwise have happened when the listener responded in some way to what the speaker said.

More details about this hypothesis can be found in my articles here, here, here and here.