My $5 Worth: Speech Slip-Ups

My first paycheck for pontificating in a professorial manner was a five dollar bill.

It was Thanksgiving of my third year in graduate school, and my seventh year of studying cognitive science. My father, older sister, sister’s boyfriend, and I were visiting my aunt’s palatial California abode, and I had indulged in a mid-afternoon nap on the living room sofa. At one point I awoke just enough from my nap to hear my sister wander into the room saying to someone, “I’m just trying to figure out where my sister and my boyfriend are”. For whatever reason, I decided to mention this when we headed to the dinner table – except that I said “I heard you wondering where your sister and brother were”.

This being my older sister, of course, she couldn’t just let it go. Of course not. I was studying psychology, after all, and she was more than ready to interpret a “Freudian slip”: “My brother? You think I’d be in some kind of weird gross relationship with my own brother? Or does this mean you’re starting to think of him as your brother already?”, and more. So I drew myself up, narrowed my eyes, and informed her that it was a simple speech error with a perfectly logical explanation that I could explain easily. Her response was not quite a dare, more than a challenge.

All the words we know are linked together in a network. Saying or even thinking one word will activate other words that are closely connected. When I say “sister” my mind begins to power up “mother” and “father” and, yes, “brother”. It will also start to activate words that are more distantly connected, like “cousin” and “spouse”, but these aren’t as strongly connected to “sister” and take longer. So the moment I said “sister”, my brain was getting itself ready to say “brother” too.

At this point we had already taken our seats at the table, me to the left of our dad and my sister on my right, but I hadn’t let this interrupt the full flow of my knowledge about language and cognition.

These connections between words aren’t just meaning, either; words are connected by how they sound too. When I say “b…” my mind begins to power up all the different words starting with a “b”. It doesn’t have to be the first sound, either; since our minds think faster than our mouths, we’ll start powering up all the words that rhyme with a word we want to say before  we say it. The “er” of “sister” will start powering up other words that end in “er” too, like “brother” again.

So I had planned a sentence that included “sister and boyfriend”. But the moment I said “sister”, “brother” got a double-whammy of a wake-up call, first from being so like “sister” in meaning and second from matching the ending of “er”.

 My dad reached into his breast pocket, extracting his bundle of cash and receipts.

Then I wanted to say “boyfriend”, but the “b” at the beginning gave even more power to “brother”.

He started thumbing through the bills, extracting a five.

The word “boyfriend” isn’t as connected to sister (after all, you haven’t been dating very long), and it would have just barely been powering up when “brother” maxed out and was ready to go. The mind says the word that’s most active, so “brother” it was.

He carefully placed the five dollar bill at the top my plate, where a soup spoon might have gone in fancier surroundings, and tucked everything else back in his pocket.

It’s nothing to do with Freud or what I think of you and your boyfriend specifically; it’s all in the words themselves, how they sound, what they mean, and how often they’re used together. 

When I finally finished, he may have applauded in golf style. I can’t remember the specifics, beyond a general sense of amusement around the table, with maybe the slightest dash of being impressed thrown in. Enough that I did get to keep the $5, anyway.

And as I pocketed this first paycheck, I realized two things. First, all that education had paid off to the point that I could not just understand the process of semantic and phonological spreading activation in a lexical network, but also explain it to my family without needing to pause for more than a breath. Second, I really enjoyed it. There’s something immensely satisfying in taking a complex and relatively dry scientific idea, and repackaging it so that it is understandable and even interesting to a general audience.

That thrill led me to my current career as a liberal arts professor, where translating scientific research for my students  is my full-time job (with a better payrate that $5 per lesson, too). It has also led me to create this blog, so I can share those translations with more than the four dozen students I see each semester. Each story I write is my $5 worth on some way that our minds work.


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