ICC student symposium 2013 at the Amsterdam University Colleg...
Of slips and spoonerisms: When you say one thing but you mean your mother
A few months ago, I accidentally said “vagina” instead of “lasagne”; a classy example of a Freudian slip. This slip of the tongue got to me: I could not reason as to why I made this mistake. I was not thinking of anything to do with sex or the female organ at all (or as Freud would speculate: not that I was aware of). In fact, I was very much focused on the tasty Italian food some friends and I were eating. However, it was not quickly shoved into the pit of cringe-worthy memories; it motivated me to research. Considering that good ol' Freud is very much remembered but not so much an important part of modern cognitive discourse, I was inclined to research the now established cognitive explanations for the occurrence of such verbal slips.
In analysing such errors, the functional area of language production must be taken into account. According to Marlsen-Wilson (2006), there are two approaches to understanding speech production: the localist model and the distributed model. The former refers to lexicons (a 'vocabulary list' grouping words of similar meaning) and symbolism: the nodes in the language area of the brain are symbolic, becoming active when a lexically relevant word is heard (Marlsen-Wilson, 2006, p. 107). This is the one I believe is relevant, and will therefore sacrifice the explanation of the latter for now.
To take an example of the localist explanation: lexical slips, such as saying “closed” and “open”, can be explained by the fact that their semantic (meaning) relationship will result in their designation to the same symbolic node; when this node is activated, both words may come to mind, whether this is consciously processed or not, and so a slip is not unlikely (Turkle, 2004) – nor is it an insight into one's repressed urges towards his or her opposite sex parent.
Experiments conducted by Michael T. Motley and Bernard J. Baars (1976) confirm the unconscious influence that phonetically (sound), semantically, and lexically similar words can have on each other. If what one is attempting to process and eventually speak out is preceded by phonetically, semantically or lexically relevant words, activated nodes that perhaps overlap due to such similarities may get in the way of language production and result in a verbal slip.
In another article, Motley and Baars, with Donald Mackay (1975), concluded that given that slips are sometimes embarrassing, they are unintentional. In our conscious minds we may be quite aware of what it is that we want to say, but our dirty unconscious beats us to it, perhaps due to a node that “sees” more connections with what has been previously processed and thus “sees” more reason to provide our speech with the unintended word. Both “vagina” and “lasagne” are made up of three syllables that have a relatively similar sound (the “-ah” sound). Though semantically and lexically there is no apparent relation, Motley and Baars (1976) show that phonetic similarity is enough to induce a verbal slip – and much entertainment (you can only imagine the bouts of laugher that ensued mine).
This, I believe, provides clean-cut insight into the questions of how the environment, cognition and human communication all merge to shape the wonderful phenomenon that is the brain and its neurons.
And to those who may claim that this seems far fetched (I hope there aren't many), or who perhaps simply find Freud's explanation more appealing, I say this: unfortunately, I am not a dirty minded, repressed individual. At least not any more than the rest of you.
Baars, B.J., Mackay, D.G. & Motely, M.T., (1975). Output editing for lexical status in artificially elicited slips of the tongue. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 14, 389-90.
Baars, B.J. & Motely, M.T., (1976). Semantic bias effects on the outcomes of verbal slips. Cognition, 4, 177-87.
Marlsen-Wilson, W.D. (2006). Speech and language. In R. Morris, L. Tarassenko & M. Kenward (Eds), Cognitive systems: Information processing meets brain science. (pp. 105-7). London. Elsevier Academic Press.
Turkle, S., (2004). How computers change the way we think. Chronicle of Higher Educaiton, 50(21).