Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Neurolinguistics of the Boredome

Neurolinguistics of the Boredome

I have noticed a strange phenomenon at the intersection of politics and linguistics. Speech by bureaucrats, ideologues, militarists, financiers and academics shares a curious quality: mind-numbing boredom. If you read or hear it, then your eyes glaze over. It induces a stultifying agony; something goes squirt in your head, and your mind shuts down.
          I call this effect the Boredome, and I have seen it in action. Once I saw an auditorium full of mathematicians all nodding off in unison. I too had to struggle to retain consciousness. It was like witnessing a wizard utter a magic spell, and everyone around him passes out.
          I have two questions. Why the Boredome? And _how_ the Boredome? The Why question is political, and has been well explored by Orwell and others. The Boredome is usually cast to hide something; the speaker’s injustice or illogic or incapacity. Therefore the political necessity of penetrating the Boredome.
          But the How question is neurolinguistic, and it baffles me. How is such a thing even possible?
          A scientific answer to the How question would have obvious technological applications; the Boredome as a general anaesthetic, say, or as a weapon of war. But perhaps we could also find ways to reverse the effect, and talk in ways that wake people up.


“Bodhi” is usually translated as “enlightenment.” But that is a poor/misleading translation. A better one would be “Awakeness.” Thus, the alternative discourse you seek already exists; it is the Dharma!

People follow their passions, steered by emotions and reason; and the passions are our evolved internal reward-seeking systems, plus anything that has gotten associated with them through learning. Things that seem to point toward our passions are interesting. Boredom is a desire to avoid what is not interesting, and is generated when we pay attention to what does not point toward our passions or evoke our emotions or engage our intellect. And I suspect our intellect is not engaged without association with passion or emotion.
          Therefore, to induce boredom with verbal communication, one should avoid cues in body language, voice tone and pacing, or word choice, that indicate or stimulate interest. For maximum disinterest, not only a word’s primary contextual meaning, but also its other meanings and implications, should lack anything stimulating. Also, brain fatigue can be used to make boredom more likely.
          Brain fatigue can be induced by several methods: Speaking at great length. Passive verbs. Long, complex sentences. Abstract, or otherwise ambiguous, words and phrases, with avoidance of specific, physical examples. For maximum effect, meaningless, but not _obviously_ nonsensical, statements, can be used. Anything that puts a load on the brain’s interpretive functions is useful here; though, if there is a danger of saying something actually interesting, it might be better to just drone on and on with simple, obvious words.
          One possible way to stave off boredom is to be aware of the various boredom-causing structures and methods in the communication, or try to devise methods for detecting any actual information that may have crept in.

Very good. But questions remain.
To recap:
CO2 may help explain the effect in closed rooms, but the effect can be transmitted long-distance.
Boredom can be verbally induced by:
limp body language,
dull pacing and tone,
predictable vocabulary,
unimaginative rhetoric,
lack of coherent meaning.

This signals lack of interesting content, which triggers boredom. But in addition to this are various brain-tiring tricks, such as:
Pointless ambiguity
Empty abstraction
Lightly disguised nonsense

And in general, “ anything that puts a load on the brain’s interpretive functions.” This is an exciting insight; it suggests that the boredom effect (and its dharmic opposite) can be traced to neuro-energetics. Perhaps certain brain structures have energetic limits, that can be deliberately overloaded for the Boredome, and underloaded for Dharma.
I propose this experiment: that volunteers listen to various texts (boring or awakening) with their heads inside a brain-scanning machine. With this perhaps we can get a fix on the neural dynamics involved. Also this sounds like a hella-cool mad-science experiment. I hope the ethics committee approves.
          Finally, you propose that consciousness can be protected under boredom-assault by conscious awareness of the methods used to assault consciousness. I have found that “um”-counting is useful in emergencies. You also propose sophisticated signal analysis to extract meaning from the noise. But please note that noise itself is the main intended signal.

Not all things that bore us have noise as the intend signal. Jargon may be intended to baffle, or it may be the compact technical vocabulary of a specific trade, or even an unfortunate speech habit acquired from too much exposure to one or the other of these. It is useful to be able to distinguish. Underloading the brain’s interpretive abilities might require clarity, precision, variety, and, where possible, concision. The concept of elegance may be applicable here. Note that these properties are what is sought by developing a compact technical vocabulary. Which may be opaque to those who do not share it. A person of my acquaintance once tried with great effort and sincerely to explain his current work in the field of fungus genetics, but did not know how to translate it into layman’s terms.

No comments:

Post a Comment