Commentary on the Smart Semiotics Webinar Series 

‘Sensemaking across the human organism’ By Adolofo Garcia

Michael Mair, 2022-2023

This commentary is on a seminar given by Adolfo Garcia in October 23rd 2022 for a ’ Smart Semiotics’ webinar series.

Garcia addressed the rift between the two cultures of ‘personal’ understanding and ‘scientific’ understanding in this webinar. He said  he wanted to surpass the  ‘two cultures divide, a concept popularized in the  controversial 1959 book by the author CP Snow, ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’  (1).  This book’s thesis was that a natural science perspective was the correct in the combat between arts and sciences then current in UK society. It  was opposed by charismatic UK literary critic, FR Leavis, who took a more holistic view.  In the late ‘60s I set out to  find a true connection between personal and scientific understanding, The goal was ‘…the reintegration of culture in nature in all its physical and chemical condition’s’ as Claude Levi Strauss put it.(2)

I met Paul Bouissac at the first international conference on humour and laughter in Wales in 1976 and he told me  I was studying ‘text’. Paul Bouissac suggested the term ‘immutable synchrony’ for a planned circus performance. My recordings from unscripted conversation were an ‘ummuteable synchony’ from which I might gain insights on the ‘text of everyday life’.. Following on from Condon and Ogston in the  ‘A Segmentation of Behaviour’ ‘70s. (3) Now including EEG and fMRI this technology could expand to deliver more measures of text generation and catch them all in ‘the immutable synchrony’ of recordings both soft and hard copy, for study and structural dissection.

Garcia’s approach has been to study  how ‘action words’ are processed in the brain.  He suggested that there is a  re-run of the motor process involved in the action itself, using the same engram. The cortical activity which is in the pre-motor area is faster at 150 msec than  the response evoked from the anterior temporal cortex, where the sensory modalities are known to be brought together. He used the timing of blood flow changes in fMRI studies to establish this . Although nerve conduction is measured in milliseconds, cognitive processes appear to start at 150 msec and continue past the 300 msec of ‘cognitive realization’ to the longer melodic shapes of topic and outcome which are the stuff of interaction. For vision as well the time to analyse an image in a sequence of saccades has been assessed at 150msec, and sensory input from the eye is suppressed for the rest of the 200 msec or so duration of  a saccadic eye movement, a phenomenon known as ‘saccadic supression’. It is real progress that an association between cognitive process and neurophysiology has been demonstrated here.  The synchrony of execution, verbalisation,  and processing suggests that all three are dancing to the same tune simultaneously  or as Garcia put it quoting neurologist Henry Head: ‘things that fire together wire together’. 

Garcia says there are a great many ‘dimensions’ to the study of ‘making sense’.. For a vision-dominated primate, the four space-time dimensions in the external world are crucial variables.  We do our modelling on the edge of 4D space-time, and adding dimensionality gives us control over the 4D world. The natural history of visual behaviour is to execute a series of visual ‘takes’ on the environment.  I suggest that the kinesic dance of speech with movement is also visually dominated, evoking and pointing to a transitory visualized 4D space-time shared by  the participants. The body head eye complex appears engaged in glancing and virtual pointing within this ephemeral virtual construct, which is also mirrored among the participants. 

Letting go of the dichotomy of affect and message  for the interpretation of prosody  and kinesic melody allow  a ‘non dual’ theory of speech in the sense of ‘parole’ or pragmatic utterance. For example, prosody can by itself act grammatically and disambiguate. ‘John has plans to LEAVE’ vs ‘John has PLANS to leave’ achieves such a flip between interpretations of a John that leaves plans, and a John who may depart. The cognitive shift is abrupt, and establishes a new state of play in the evolution of the topic, delivered synchronously to the participants by the ‘S’ shaped fall. This is simultaneously grammatical and ‘affective’. How can this be?

An ‘S’ shaped fall usually goes with making the ‘point’ of an utterance in all languages and it bears in its trajectory the timing of the ‘cognitive change point’ in the minds of the hearers. However it is context bound and it acts on whatever is there whether verbal or not, to deliver the next, and so on. All kinds of implicatures can be going on with this. Emphatic excursions may be needed to shift cognitive impasses, but they work the same way, without invoking a duality of form and feeling.   

Participants sometimes behave as if in a projective mirrored dance which synchronises  their movements and sensory apparatus. It is not prediction that holds it all together but  ‘projection’ in the geometric or optical sense of the text being thrown forward rather than retrieved, projective not derivative. Projection may be based on prediction but is phenomenologically distinct.  AI and cognitive science are similar in that projection is ‘best guess’ from all the predictions  and generative AI and human text can both directly create a limitless amount of unique data or  text strings..

 ‘Projection’ and ‘prediction’ are both ways of trying to control the future. With the dimensionality of space-time being limited to four, additional dimensions used for  modelling in the ‘present’ allows us  to project down onto 4 D space-time and control outcomes. Humans can do multi-dimensional modelling  but a limit of ‘seven plus or minus two’ for subjective understanding was suggested by Miller in his classic fifties paper (4). One study has suggested that modelling activity in ten dimensions as been detected in the working brain (5).

The 150 msec found by Garcia for processing of ‘action words’ in the premotor cortex is shorter than the  timing of cognitive processes themselves. This together with the cognitive role of the basal ganglia, the thalamus, the amygdala, and the cerebellum begins to make a separation between ‘emotion’ and and the content and logic in  text generation look like a cultural artefact. (6) It may stop us getting an overview of the brain’s product considered as text, and the brain as a text generator or story maker. The  meeting of identifiable core brain process and cognitive modelling may be closing the circle of understanding 

Work on mirroring  has actually been able to measure synchronous activity in the brains of participants to interaction using f MRI,  suggesting that it is ‘time to move beyond the single brain’ hypothesis. Neural synchrony exists (7).  We are discussing invisible areas opaque to words, too close to the generation of the text to evoke words, Damasio’s proto self perhaps. Now we can track the process of text generation within and between people in finer detail than the movement of consciousness itself.

In my interpretation of prosody, the ‘S’ shaped fall creates rhythm and is a carrier wave for the models being successively shared, delivering participants to the same ‘point’ in the argument at the same time. This is a cognitive synchrony. Melody is projective, patterning the time immediately ahead. Both acoustic and kinesic melodies are the actual trajectory of the cognitive and  real time dance or as Damasio put it, the ‘self in the act of becoming’. The ‘S’ shaped fall goes with the delivery of the ‘point’ in an utterance,  and determing what this ‘point’ is determines the context in which subsequent contributions ‘make sense’. Such sense making is well described  as seeking out ‘relevance’. Richard Gunter in his book ‘Sentences in Dialogue’ (8) suggested that we actually hear the melodic shapes differently according to the relevance we ascribe to them.   Relevance Theory from Sperber and Wilson is an academic tradition which has holds the middle ground in studies of implicature (9).  Relevance theorists assume there is a relevance finding module which exists somewhere in the brain considered as a  ‘black box’, ruthlessly seeking the most economical and thus most relevant interpretation of inputted data. The negotiation  of relevance itself is often what the argument is about, for example in a conversation that is ‘finding its way’ in a new topic area.  We can have a single theory for melody which encompasses it  grammatically and ‘making sense’ at the same time as the ‘expressive’ role. 

 (10). The new narrative emerging about  the working brain that could liberate us from the prison of ethnocentric concepts and help us get a handle on its most subtle workings. We may now have the outlines of a theory of personal and scientific understanding  emerging from the study of the  minute detail of our behaviour as caught by our technology. With AI assistance, rendering  the brain transparent may be within our technological reach quite soon. The philosophers and other theorists have only tried to interpret our human world, but now we need to know .

Michael Mair                                                

Revised September ‘23


I am grateful to Adolfo Garcia for his groundbreaking webinar and Paul Bouissac for involving me and enabling me to make these comment after so many years,  and for our work and friendship in the ‘70s which is ongoing. 


  1. Snow’s ‘two cultures and the scientific revolution’ was delivered as the ‘Rede lecture’ in 1959 at Cambridge UK. Leavis characterised  Snow’s book as ‘a document for the study of cliché’. He asserted ‘there is no wealth but life’. Guardian article from 2013
  2. from Claude Levi-Strauss
  3.  A Segmentation of Behaviour, C&O
  4. Seven Plus or Minus Two Miller
  6. Super Learning hypothesis
  7. similarity predicts synchronous neural responses in fMRI and EEG
  8. Gunter,  Richard ‘Sentences in Dialogue’ Hornbeam Press 
  9. ……a lead. Into ‘relevance theory’
  10. the ‘proto self’ in Damasio’s ‘the Feeling of What Happens’
  1.  ‘The Melody of the Text’  M Mair’ review of Paul Bouissac ‘Circus and Culture’ Semiotica 1980

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