Tuesday, June 17, 2003

"Some things are better left unsaid"

This conclusion sums up research on the phenomenon of "verbal overshadowing" reported on in a variety of cognitive psychology journals recently. Researchers tested the ability of eyewitnesses to identify a criminal after giving a detailed verbal description of the the criminal immediately after the crime. They found that the amount of detail given, and the time allowed to elapse between the event and the retelling, had direct effects on whether the witness could accurately identify the perpetrator. As little as 24 minutes between witnessing the event and having to describe it, during which the witness was allowed to do an unrelated task or listen to music, improved the reliability of the identification significantly.

This doesn't surprise the student of general semantics. We have heard a great deal about the problems that come from over-verbalization of the non-verbal experience. Now we have a new scientific term for the effect--verbal overshadowing. This terms refers to the loss of perceptual material that results from the abstraction forced on the experience by verbalization. No set of words will completely describe a person's face, or the sound of a voice. But once we have converted the event from a perception to a story, we apparently lose the ability to access the raw perceptual memory. Indeed, researchers found some evidence that the harder we try to describe something, the more likely it becomes that we fill in with guesses, leading to a further distortion of the original event.

Silence on the verbal level, waiting before speaking, allowing the non-verbal to sink in and become stored intact--these practices help improve the quality of the memory.

On the other hand, I have found that these same practices also keep the emotional content of the experience fresh and sharp, not always a desirable thing. A painful event when recalled vividly, seems to replay with the exact set and level of emotions as when it first occurred. In this case, verbalizing the event, telling the story, can help abstract it from the non-verbal level, reducing the impact of the emotions surrounding it. The same effect that renders an eyewitness account less accurate also softens the emotional impact, making it possible for the witness to accommodate the experience without reliving it.

Perhaps "better left unsaid" depends on the purpose for the saying.

Read an article on the subject: http://www.sciencenews.org/20030419/bob10.asp

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