What Will I Say Next?


An Excerpt from How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains?
by Max Velmans

Speech production is one of the most complex tasks humans are able to perform. Yet, one has no awareness whatsoever of the motor commands issued from the central nervous system that travel down efferent fires to innervate the muscles, nor of the complex motor programming that enables muscular co-ordination and control. In speech, for example, the tongue may make as many as twelve adjustments of shape per second—adjustments which need to be precisely coordinated with other rapid, dynamic changes within the articulatory system. According to Lenneberg (1967), within one minute of discourse as many as ten to fifteen thousand neuromuscular events occur. Yet only the results of this activity (the overt speech) normally enters consciousness.

Preconscious speech control might of course be the result of prior conscious activity, for example, planning what to say might be conscious, particularly if one is expressing some new idea, or expressing some old idea in a novel way. Speech production is commonly thought to involve hierarchically arranged, semantic, syntactic and motor control systems in which communicative intentions are translated into overt speech in a largely top-down fashion. Planning what to say and translating nonverbal conceptual content into linguistic forms requires effort. But to what extent is such planning conscious? Let us see.

A number of theorists have observed that periods of conceptual, semantic and syntactic planing are characterized by gaps in the otherwise relatively continuous stream of speech (Goldman-Eisler, 1968; Boomer, 1970). The neurologist John Hughlings Jackson, for example, suggested that the amount of planning required depends on whether the speech is ‘new’ speech or ‘old’ speech. Old speech (well-known phrases, etc.) requires little planning and is relatively continuous. New speech (saying things in a new way) requires planning and is characterized by hesitation pauses. Fodor et al. (1974) point out that breathing pauses also occur (gaps in the speech stream caused by the intake of breath). However, breathing pauses do not generally coincide with hesitation pauses.

Breathing pauses nearly always occur at the beginnings and ends of major linguistic constituents (such as clauses and sentences). So these appear to be coordinated with the syntactic organization of such constituents into a clausal or sentential structure. Such organization is largely automatic and preconscious. By contrast, hesitation pauses tend to occur within clauses and sentences and appear to be associated with the formulation of ideas, deciding which words best express one’s meaning, and so on. If this analysis is correct, conscious planning of what to say should be evident during hesitation pauses—and a little examination of what one experiences during a hesitation pause should settle the matter. Try it. During a hesitation pause one might experience a certain sense of effort (perhaps the effort to put something in an appropriate way). But nothing is revealed of the processes that formulate ideas, translate these into a form suitable for expression in language, search for and retrieve words from memory, or assess which words are the most appropriate. In short, no more is revealed of conceptual or semantic planning in hesitation pauses than is revealed of syntactic planning in breathing pauses. The fact that a process demands processing effort does not ensure that it is conscious. Indeed, there is a sense in which one is only conscious of what one wants to say after one has said it!

Max Velmans is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He co-founded the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in 1994, and served as its chair from 2003 to 2006. In 2011, he was elected to the British Academy of Social Sciences. Velmans has around 100 publications in the area of consciousness studies, including Understanding Consciousness (2000, 2009).







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*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. ‎I personally curate all of the book excerpts, and I always obtain the author’s final approval before posting their work on my blog.