James Berges 9 min read

Verbal Overshadowing and the Strange Ways Language Can Sabotage Your Mind

Psychology & Happiness Random + Awesome Self Improvement

Verbal Overshadowing and the Strange Ways Language Can Sabotage Your Mind
Chinese antique calligraphic text on beige paper with brush

Imagine you bear witness to a crime and get a crystal clear visual on the suspect’s face. Police bring you in to give as vivid a description as possible, and you effectively comply.

An hour later, they ask you to pick the suspect out of a lineup, but all of a sudden you can’t recall what they looked like for the life of you. But… but why?

A series of laboratory studies by cognitive psychologist Jonathan Schooler suggest that if you do bear witness to a crime, you may be better off not describing the person before you’ve visually identified them.

What’s going on here?

According to Schooler, verbal expression can actually distort an original memory and impede performance in many domains. This phenomenon is known as verbal overshadowing, and it permeates everything from eye-witness testimony to basic problem solving.

And yet, common practice informs us that repeating something out loud improves one’s memory of it. “Talk your way through it” is a common maxim for solving problems. Many would argue that language is the central tool for scaffolding thoughts.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

— Ludwig Wittgentstein

On the other hand, we also know there are experiences that are impossible to put into words; epiphanies we can’t bring back with us from a psychedelic trip, or even the bittersweet nostalgia that is roused by certain scents.

Our instinct as philosophical truth seekers is to rationally dissect reality with language. This is a noble effort worth pursuing; our intuitive assessments of reality are often fraught with subconscious biases and diluted with emotion. But as Alan Watts says, “Nature zigs and zags, and we like to put her in neat little boxes.” Because we can’t directly download someone’s mental imagery, poets like John Keats’ wield figurative language to tell the limits of rationality.

So while language is our most widely used tool for categorizing the world, it often falls short when we attempt to reduce abstract or nuanced revelations to finite words.

John Keats’ Lamia, written in 1819, makes a poetic case for steering clear of the need to label everything:

In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow…

Even with the most precise vernacular, our words can leave us with a mere shadow of the original memory.

The Case for Faces

verbal overshadowing Faces

Since birth, your brain is biologically programmed to recognize faces in preference to other objects. We know this because babies fresh out the womb would rather stare at a mop with two dots and a mouth line drawn on it than the same dots and mouth line scrambled out of order. Now research just confirmed that this preference for faces actually starts in the womb. Fetuses in their third trimester are twice as likely to turn their head towards dots of light in an inverted triangle formation (two dots for eyes and one for a mouth) than towards a regular triangle.

A face implies sentience, and sentience implies intention. It turns out this is really helpful to survival—there’s seldom time to figure out if that’s a lion or a furry thing with two symmetrically spaced round objects. When this recognition system stops working, you may mistake your wife for a hat.

Going deeper, studies suggest that describing someone of the same race impedes memory even more, since we are naturally better at discerning between same-race faces than others. In other words, because you’ve probably had more exposure to all kinds of faces of your own race, your “intuitive” knowledge of faces outweighs your word bank.

Because we descended from small tribes based on family ties, our brain doesn’t spend energy discerning subtle features of outside threats—all we “needed” to know is that they looked different from us and our tribe. Because we categorize the world with language, “outgroups” get lumped in as one category — this is where generalizations start, we do this all the time without knowing it.

These implicit representations aid our survival, but get lost in translation when articulated in explicit descriptions.

In other words, transferring the memory of a face—with all of its nuanced complexities—to your descriptive language centers is akin to playing a game of telephone between two distant parts of your brain. The abstract and holistic right brain serves up vague concepts to the orderly and analytic left brain.

Tripping over words

As a toddler, you learn to crawl and walk before you learn to put together complete sentences. It makes sense that our basic motor skills develop before our higher cognitive ones (although it’s funny to imagine a baby needing to verbally conceptualize the word “walk” before they could physically take their first steps). But unlike walking, learning more nuanced motor movements may actually require some verbal thinking.

For example, learning how to serve a tennis ball requires a player to put together several steps into one smooth movement; they have to toss the ball in the air, bend their elbow just right while keeping their eye on the ball, raise their racket with their other hand, and smack the ball down and diagonally onto the opposite side of the net. The novice player can benefit from a coach yelling,“Twist your wrist and shift your weight,” but — like driving a car or riding a bike — it becomes automatic with practice and repetition.

Once you reach a certain level of expertise, explicitly listing every discrete motion that goes into a tennis serve can hurt performance. Think of it as walking vs consciously thinking about every muscle movement that goes into each step. Rehearsing out loud can have us literally tripping over our words.

So then, are we doomed to a paranoid life of stifled expression, biting our tongues so our brain can speak clearly? Not necessarily. With a little bit of training we can all bring our senses beyond the tip of the tongue.

What We Can Learn From Wine Snobs

verbal overshadowing wine

I don’t know about you, but wine tasting conjures images of the monopoly man swishing a glass, pretentiously labeling subtle hints of rosewood. Meanwhile, I’m in the corner like, “Are those grapes I detect?”

But wine snobs are onto something; by arming themselves with the vocabulary to describe complex aromas, they bring their implicit and explicit knowledge on par with each other. When asked to identify random wines they described earlier, they could recall despite verbalizing their prior experiences.

As we said earlier, your brain is programmed to remember only extreme cases; that’s why subtle nuances are often swapped for generalizations, and why the news is addictive — they focus on stories that fall outside the norm. But most of our perceptual experiences live in the middle.

Overcoming dualistic tendencies is a theme in the HE community, and describing one’s experiences is no different. The good news is you can overcome verbal overshadowing by training your verbal expertise. Specifically, you can improve recall by improving your vocabulary for nuanced descriptors.

Ok, so is the solution to learn as many words as possible so I can match words to my perceptions?

Not exactly.

Most of life’s perceptions and emotions fall on a broad spectrum, and creating a word for each one would be impossible; it’s already hard enough to decipher if the “blue” I see is the same “blue” you see.

So words mask abstract sensory memories, but surely language is the best tool to use for problem solving, right?

Well… it depends.

Verbal Overshadowing: Intuition vs. Logic

Here’s a scenario I know you can relate to:

You’re looking for your keys and growing frustrated as you dismantle your whole house. You pause to take an exasperated breath, when suddenly you remember exactly where they are! This moment of insight didn’t follow a logical path — it just came to you. Moments like this exemplify the interaction between the conscious mind that thinks in terms of language and everything else that lives beneath the shallows.

For strictly analytical problems, most scientists can accurately tell when they are close to the solution, but solutions requiring deep insight may strike out of the blue. In 1937, Dr. H.E. Durkin, observed that problem solvers may start out by talking out their reasoning, but fell completely silent right before they found the solution.

Further, language interacts with intuitive and analytical problems differently. In one study, participants were asked to solve insight problems that require subtle ways of conceptualizing. When problem solvers were asked to verbalize their thinking while trying to solve these problems, they often performed worse than those who stayed silent. However, describing ongoing thoughts had no effect on people’s success at solving analytical problems, such as mental arithmetic.

In other words, articulating one’s inner thoughts disrupts intuition but not logical analysis.

The LSD Factor

verbal overshadowing LSD

Earlier I gave the example of why it may be so difficult to put a psychedelic trip into words. You’ve probably read that Steve Jobs said, “Doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” He wasn’t alone.

In the ‘60s, 22 professionals working on self-described “intractable problems” took a relatively low dose of LSD. They all worked in disparate fields ranging from furniture design to pure mathematics. By the end of the study, all 22 men (there was a lack of diversity in those fields at the time) reported having breakthroughs, and their innovations that followed proved it.

A lot goes on in the brain while on psychedelics, but one common finding is that areas of the brain responsible for autobiographical thinking and categorization become less active during the trip.

That’s right, the voice inside our head that parses the world into language turns down (or off) for a few hours. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but part of the reason so many people report “Aha! moments” after ingesting these substances is because they’re unshackling the more abstract processes in the brain, allowing insights to come to the surface with no verbal gatekeeper to tell them to “get realistic.”

Analogous and lateral thinking not only help us come up with novel concepts, but help us connect seemingly unrelated ideas. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Don’t Explain Away the Process

As it is with insight, verbalization may impair retrieval of analogies.

In another study by Schooler and colleagues, participants were asked to read 16 short stories, then at a later time, 8 more. They were tested on paper and asked to identify which of the 16 test stories were analogous to the 8 new stories. One group was asked to think aloud, and the other was not.

The group that put their thoughts into words were more likely to draw only surface comparisons between stories (setting, characters, age, etc.), while the silent test-takers were more accurate in retrieving the deeper meaning, or true analogies between stories.

Applying this to reasoning about intuition and gut feelings, we may be ‘explaining away’ our process. In fact, our ability to have an idea just ‘strike us’ is a process that distinguishes us from the most powerful computers. IBM’s Watson may find answers faster than the average human, but he/it still does it in a serial manner.

When trying to rationalize how we came to an epiphany, we may lose track of it, getting lost in the words.

As David Hume put it:

“As nature has taught us the use of our limbs, without giving us the knowledge of the muscles and nerves by which they are actuated; so has she implanted in us an instinct, which carries forward the thought in a correspondent course to that which she has established among external objects; though we are ignorant of those powers and forces, on which this regular course and succession of objects totally depends.”

Will We Ever Evolve Beyond Language?

Society currently runs on this left-brained, analytical mentality — if you can’t prove it in math or language, it’s not real. But like the allegory of the cave, our language casts dancing shadows, flickers of reality.

Maybe one day we will find a better way to communicate — more directly beyond translating symbols into sounds and letters. We are already moving toward more visceral modes of communication like virtual reality (right now we communicate with letters/images, like hieroglyphics updated for the 21st century).

verbal overshadowing Heiroglyphs

I dream of being able to achieve direct brain to brain communication, with enrapturing experiences and insights intermingling at the speed of light, uploaded straight to the cloud with no loss of bandwidth.

With virtual reality, we have the capacity to see through the eyes of a Syrian refugee; with brain-computer interfaces, we may be able to feel what it’s like to truly feel what someone else is feeling without words. Your friend can skip telling you about their half-remembered dream because you can project it on a screen, and binge watch your subconscious creations together. Instead of communicating at the speed of light through the world wide web, we’d hook up to a neural network and exchange ideas in real time. This stuff sounds like science fiction, but we are already on our way.

Until then, you may be better off holding on to vivid memory or feeling than translating it to language. Or at least let the abstraction ferment in your mind for a bit, because you may be stumbling upon an epiphany.

Albert Einstein would have agreed. As the great scientist once told an interviewer:

“I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”

Keep these words in mind… literally.

Sometimes things are better left unsaid, and more often than we like to admit, silence may indeed be golden.

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