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June 3rd, 2020


The syntax of a sentence can be scrambled, and a person can still make sense of it.  When we hear something like:


Sense made you that of.


Chances are we can suss out that the meaning is something like: You made sense of that.  Language doesn’t actually afford us this flexibility because language, when it’s defined as a system throws up it’s flags around improper syntax.  It’s the flexibility of the human mind that allows us such flexibility.  The intellectual soil of the brain is often good enough that it can take a messed up seed like “sense made you that of.” and grow a correct meaning from it.


This of course doesn’t work with all scrambling.  Move some words around in a sentence and a different and definitive new meaning takes place.


Pointing at a picture of a couple guys standing next to a moose that’s just been shot and saying “My brothers’ kill.” has a radically different meaning if the words are rearranged into “Kill my brothers” which occurs because the word ‘kill’ can be both a noun and a verb, and whether it’s one or the other depends on the context of the sentence.


A lack of flexibility is exactly why computers can be so frustrating.  Computers can only interpret instructions with immaculate grammar.  Something humans aren’t very good at, and have little need of when communicating with each other.  Creativity requires such flexibility, which, on the flip side, this is a reason why computers aren’t yet spinning out Pulitzer prize winning novels.  It’s clearly a very difficult challenge to encode a flexible ability within a system that has rigid modes of operation.  But our brain is a system that has rigid modes of operation based on the biology of neurons – they perform in predictable ways much like transistors and diodes.  Then again, programmers have only been taking legitimate swings at the task of computer intelligence for a few decades.  Evolution has had a head start of billions of years.


Flexibility of thought and creativity has more to do with how we interpret the things that come our way more than anything else.  Often we receive some new information and attempt to fit it into a preconceived category or framework.  Intelligent interpretation is a willingness to apply a variety of categories and frameworks in turn and in combination to new information to see which makes the most sense. 


This fluid application of categories, frameworks, and their different combinations in turn requires a certain emotional ease.  The process is one that functions, not just with uncertainty, but because uncertainty is sustained.


It’s the mere difference between saying:



It’s clearly an example of this.




Maybe it’s bit like this, or maybe that, or perhaps neither.


Our brain is doing the later when we are confronted with that original sentence:  Sense made you that of. At first we try to hear it as though it’s a correct sentence.  But the oddness of the syntax forces the brain to consider other options because the sentence, as it stands, doesn’t make sense.  We begin shuffling until the words realign in categories of order that make sense.  It’s only after the process of flexibly trying to interpret when..


You made sense of that.

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Podcast Ep. 780: Intelligent Interpretation

Tinkered Thinking

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