Meaning, Apparent Meaning, Loss of Meaning

Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 5 comments

Have you ever been preoccupied by something, a concept, a colour, an object, animal or otherwise, and noticed that suddenly these things are all around you? I mean, not just a couple of times, but it seems that everywhere you turn, whatever it is that’s on your mind is either signified, or present in your surrounds? Have you ever read a book on a particular topic, only to see this topic come up on TV later that day? Have you ever learned a new word, only to have someone unexpectedly use that word in a sentence on you? I had an experience like this only yesterday.

As you might know, I recently finished 2 blog pieces “Lies and Damned Lies” and “Lying Without Lying“, and I also read Sam Harris’ short essay called “Lying“, which, as you can see has a similar topic to the pieces I wrote, and also lent some content to the second piece. Lies were on  my mind, and I even discussed some of the concepts in Harris’ book with Hayley, my partner. Suddenly, on our drive to the local plant nursery, lies, concepts of lies, even songs about lies were everywhere. The word “lies” was on billboards, a newspaper headline screamed of “lies”, and I even was relayed a story of how a white lie had been found out, totally out of context with the original blog pieces. There were people lying on TV, and there were stories I knew to be lies being told in the news. I walked into a convenience store, over the loudspeaker “Would I Lie To You” was playing. Lies were everywhere.

Was God trying to tell me something? Is the concept of “lies” somehow related to my purpose on earth? What is the significance of this? What does it “mean”?

You can see what’s happening here. Put an idea in my head, and suddenly I see it everywhere. This kind of thing has happened to me all my life. There’s is nothing mystical about this, but there is something worth talking about here. It is called “Attentional Bias“, and it strikes us when we have a particular thing on our minds, our source of attention. We tune into these things because these are the things at the top of mind, and we notice that they are everywhere. But they always are there, we just don’t notice them. In this case, the thing that was on my mind, the concept of “lies and lying” was in the front of my mind because I’d spent a significant amount of time reading and writing about it, and it just so happens that this topic is one of the ones we find important enough in our lives to be the inspiration for songs and movies, or the topics of news stories.

I get a similar sensation sometimes when out in the garden when , of all things, I’m picking green beans. At first I don’t notice any beans, they are the same colour and texture as the plant, and are often hidden by the leaves. But after spotting the first one, I notice the whole plant is covered in them, and now my senses are attuned to this, it’s as though they “reveal themselves” to me as if I’ve appeased some kind of bean-god. This is not the same thing as attention bias, but I use it to illustrate one thing; when we attune our senses or our mind toward a particular topic or thing, be it lies or beans, we tend to notice them more.

This is interesting when applied to ideas of seeing the image of Jesus on a piece of toast, the face of a saint in an old tree stump, or the Virgin Mary on a urinal wall. If theses ideas are front of mind for you, you will notice them more. Knowing of this bias already (though I didn’t know the name for it until today) I was not surprised by the sensation of being surrounded by apparent meaningfulness of lies. But of course, these things are devoid of meaning, they are happenstance or coincidence that take on a semblance of synchronicity because of what my mind was already preoccupied with.

In the case of religious pareidolia, the one who sees this “vision” ascribes a meaning to it, because this is what the religions preach; miracles occur, magic is real, spirits surround us, we get sent signs personally, etc. My situation, thinking of lies has no immediate link to spirituality, and I’m not religious, so to me it stood out for what it was. Coincidence.

There are hundreds of cognitive biases we experience consciously and unconsciously every day. This bias, the tendency to attribute meaning to a front-of-mind idea and noticing of these front-of-mind ideas in our daily lives, is an interesting one, particularly with relation to religion. Prayer is an activity which requires concentration, and can put an idea to the front of a person’s mind. If the subject of the prayer is met with a positive outcome, such as “Grandma’s cancer is in regression”, or “My football team won”, the tendency is to attribute the positive outcome to the prayer. Likewise, if someone is asking in prayer for something as vague as “a sign”, then this sign can take any form, and the face of Jesus, or Mary, or the word “Allah” on the side of a goldfish can take the form of an answer, no matter how loosely the image may fit the actual thing in mind.

So we can easily create meaning where there is none, and attribute meaning to coincidence and happenstance. In the modern age, where we are constantly bombarded by all manner of information, these happenstances may actually become more commonplace, because most certainly there is something, somewhere, on a billboard, on a cafe wall, in the side of a bus, every day, that relates to something you’ve been thinking about, and you may just happen to see it.

As a colourful aside, we can also force ourselves to strip meaning from things, in particular, language. Have you ever said a word so many times that it loses its meaning? The word “cork” for instance, when first uttered, conjures images of a cylinder of material used to stuff into a wine bottle to stop it from leaking, or the cork substance itself. But say it many many times, and it loses meaning, and becomes nothing but a sound we make.

“Cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork cork.”

This is called “semantic satiation“, or the French “Jamais vu” and is literally a fatigue of the mind which causes words to which we ascribe meaning to become detached from that meaning. It’s an interesting exercise in psychology, and may help you understand how someone with a brain lesion in the part that controls meaning of words might feel. Try it with your own name, that will make you think!

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  1. This is a big part of that “Law Of Attraction” woo as well.

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  2. Yes! I know this feeling. I talk about it in relation to exploring a new idea or interest. You have no idea that anyone else is doing it . . . and then you see it everywhere and it fills up your world!

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    • Yes, that drives me berserk! I’ve almost given up on the idea of ever having an original thought in my life, sigh. No matter how great an insight I seem to find – sure I’ve never seen it before – suddenly I start to realize that philosophers or someone has been discussing that very idea for 2 thousand years, or so.
      Sigh……. ;)

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  3. A book I highly recommend about this and closely related subjects is Thomas Gilovich’s “How We Know What Isn’t So.” Outstanding.

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  4. I’m thinking “meaning” is in the eye of the beholder.

    What’s a meaningful thing to one observer, usually has a different meaning to another onlooker, and no meaning to a third bystander. Particularly with the religious.

    For example: It’s certainly meaningful to a prophet* that he’s heard the words of God, others with the same God in mind might imbue it with their religious meaning**, whereas to the infidel that prophetic experience I expect is rather meaningless.

    * any living spokeman for God, or Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, etc
    ** based on their Jewish bible, Christian teachings, understanding of Allah, etc

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