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The Psychology of Communication



The blueprints, detailed instructions, and job orders for building you from scratch would fill about 1,000 encyclopedia volumes if written out in English. Yet every cell in your body has a set of these encyclopedias.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Page 330

So there are three kinds of living systems - organisms, parts of organisms, and communities of organisms - all of which are integrated wholes whose essential properties arise from the interactions and interdependence of their parts. ...... In other words, the web of life consists of networks within networks. At each scale, under closer scrutiny, the nodes of the network reveal themselves as smaller networks.

Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, Page 34

11.1 Boxes Within Boxes

This book so far has focused on the psychological level of analysis - it is, after all, entitled The Psychology of Communication. My argument is that psychology is the study of the nervous system, with the other subsystems of the body considered as internal environment (Chapter 2) and the nervous system is part of a hierarchy of systems within systems (Chapter 3). In the next two chapters, the focus will shift to those other levels of analysis. This chapter will focus on the level below psychology - biology, and the next chapter will focus on the level above psychology - sociology.

Scholars at those various levels often squabble among themselves, with scholars at a higher level complaining about reductionism and scholars at a lower level complaining about emergentism. Edward O. Wilson met both criticisms when he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, using biological terms to discuss sociological phenomena [WILSON 1975]. Sociologists complained about "reducing" their discipline to the biological level and biologists complained about focusing on the properties "emerging" from their discipline. Since new phenomena do indeed emerge as one moves up to a higher level (the whole IS greater than the sum of its parts), no level can indeed be reduced to the level below. Each level thus provides a unique contribution to the psychology of communication.

In the behavioristic approach (Chapter 2), we represented the nervous system as an empty box dealing only with input information; in the humanistic approach (Chapter 3), we put another box into this box representing stored information; in the interactionist approach (Chapter 4), we added another box so that we could also deal with fedback information. We called those boxes within the box Image and Program, by analogy with the computer. Those boxes within boxes are hypothetical constructs designed to provide us with a more sophisticated concept of the nervous system.

New tools - for example, Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) which provides a 3-D image of the brain and functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) which lights up this 3-D image with the parts which are active - promise to enable us to identify the actual biological structures which correspond to those hypothetical constructs.1 Research using such devices reveal that the nervous system is much more complex and subtle than even our most sophisticated model.

The computer is a very clumsy simulation of the nervous system. Let us go back to basics and consider how Mother Nature designed that first generation of media which we have extended with the clumsy, person-made media of the second, third, and fourth generations. Since memory and speech are included in the conception-day gift, there must be some biological basis to them. Let us look at each in turn.

1   When I wrote introductory psychology textbooks in the 1970s, I devoted a section to the reticular activating system (RAS). This was a system in the lower brain which projected diffusely on to the cortex and was viewed as the biological basis of consciousness, awareness, attention. When I returned to writing about psychology 30 years later, I found that this important concept had disappeared. It turned out that it was a hypothetical concept which was no longer hypothetical. The structure which performed this function had been identified as the amygdala.