Semantic Reaction

[The semantic reaction] can be described as the psycho-logical reaction of a given individual to words and language and other symbols and events in connection with their meanings, and the psychological reactions, which become meanings and relational configurations the moment the given individual begins to analyse them or somebody else does that for him. [sic] [italics original] (S&S 4th. Ed, p. 24).

October 1, 2000

Not that this is a hard and fast category, but I think of semantic reactions as being reactions or responses that incorporate the meaning of the stimulus (to the reactor).  (See a recent research item.)

I think reactions can be ordered on a scale.

  1. Reflex reactions - automatic - hard wired. (example - knee jerk reflex)
  2. Conditioned reactions - near automatic - learned. (example - Pavlov's dog salivating to a bell. (My stomach beginning to rumble at noon.)
  3. Conditional reactions - not automatic - some learned and nearly automatic - like solders responding to marching commands, some largely determined by context, most individualized, some taking a very long time.

Conditioned and conditional reactions (or responses) are semantic reactions in the sense that the response depends upon the "meaning" attributed to the stimulus by the reactor, (whether unconscious, as in the case of conditioned reactions, or conscious, as in the case of agonized decisions).

Consider reactions to a very sharp, loud noise:  I purposefully do not characterize the sharp, loud noise. With modern cars working very well and drive-by shooting fairly common in many gang-infested neighborhoods, the probability now-a-days might be that such a noise would be as likely to have originated from a gunshot as a backfire. In the situation I describe the source of the sound is unknown.

Semantic reactions: "meanings"

The stimulus evokes the past experiences and associations of the reactor. The "raw feel" of the nerve stimulation is dominated by the past associations evoked.

non-semantic reaction:

The stimulus is experienced without benefit of past experiences and associations. The baby just "feels" the raw nerve impulses. The immediate pain experienced is the dominant factor in the response.

Semantic reactions can range on a scale of speed of response from "signal reactions" to symbol responses.

Olympic athletes train so as to learn appropriate immediate responses to a very large number of stimuli. The object is to get as close to a signal reaction as possible in order to provide a speedy and accurate response in any given situation. Goalies blocking a goal have no time to "think" about where the ball is going and what they have to do to stop it, but that only comes from lots of practice. This repertoire of highly desirable signal reactions to various directions, speeds, and angles produces gold medal winners.

The Ph.D. candidate faced with the stimulus of an approved dissertation topic outline, spends several years analyzing, searching for more information, and organizing responses before a final response is produced. (But perhaps I extend the time line far longer than was originally intended.)

We have a tendency to say someone had a "signal reaction" when they respond too quickly and inappropriately, but the term "signal reaction" should not have that negative connotation as a general rule.

"Fido" has semantic reactions, although non-lexical ones.

We can argue about exactly what Korzybski originally meant, but the growth of a system depends upon refining the original tenants, not following them "religiously". Recycling, re-analyzing, and re-formulating at higher levels of abstraction can increase the clarity of a principle, and it can be reformulated in a more concise and compact way that the original formulator ever conceived. That's progress.

Semantic reactions can be trained to be very fast. Soldiers in boot camp practice just such actions. Survivors of Vietnam got good at it. I suppose that you could argue that that makes them "conditioned" reactions. The mechanic's reactions, however could be just as conditioned by long experience working on cantankerous vehicles, especially the older fellows of a generation gone by.

The point in BOTH cases is that the reaction is to the MEANING associated by the hearer with the sound more than to the sound itself. That's what makes the responses "semantic reactions", whether speedy or slow, conditioned or conscious, it's the fact that the hearer responds more to the meaning he or she brings to the sound than to the sound itself.

The newborn baby doesn't yet know danger, so has no meaning to associate with the sound.

Consider the poor Chinese fellow who lives in a gang-infested neighborhood who hears such a sound close to the Chinese new year. Firecracker? something to approach? Gunshot? Something to flee? Such ambivalent associations would tend to evoke associations requiring conflicting responses.

addendum 2005
Copyright 2005 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

Recent publications describing brain function allow us to say what a semantic reaction "is" in more neurological and functional terms at this time. The brain uses an auto-associative memory structure using a mechanism called adaptive resonance. That means that when part of a pattern is "input" the brain responds with the whole pattern. A well-known example of resonance is illustrated when a person depresses the loud pedal on a piano and then hums a note. When he or she stops humming suddenly, the piano can be heard "playing" the same note.  Does anyone remember the old hand operated well-pumps? In order to get the pump to bring up water, one had to put some water into the pump first, called "priming the pump".  A little water brings back a lot of water. While the mechanism is different, the result is similar to auto-association.  Ever have difficulty remembering somebody's name?  I sometimes use a technique of sounding through the alphabet.  When I reach the letter that the name begins with, the name often pops into my head.  The added partial stimulation from the similar sound "auto-associates" with the name.  By adding time delay circuits this process allows recalling whole sequences of events. It's how we can memorize a whole song or poem in the proper sequence.

 The brain is automatically processing stimuli with a particular focus on the current state of the organism, so a "stimulus" consists of the combined abstraction from the sensing of the environment in conjunction with the sensing of the organism itself - interceptive and proprioceptive senses - "the organism in the environment (as a whole)" . The brain records more than this in associated combinations. It records a three part process consisting of the stimulus (as just described), the response (the actions taken by the organism), and the result. Recall that the stimulus consists of both the external sensory abstraction as well as the internal state.  This way the brain records a record of the organism in the environment, the subsequent action taken, and the results of that action. In other words, the brain records what I saw and how I was feeling in conjunction with what I did about the situation along with the resulting benefit or detriment  that resulted.

 I don't just recall only what I saw in previous similar situations; I recall what I saw in previous situations when I was feeling "the same way", what actions I took at that time, and what happened as a result. This way when I see an apple and I am hungry, I can recall the times that I did not take it and got even hungrier, and I can recall the times that I grabbed and ate it and got less hungry.  When I see an apple and I am "stuffed", (say, for example, after a thanksgiving dinner), I can recall the times that I did not take it and nothing much happened, and I can recall the times when I grabbed it and ate it and felt much more unpleasantly stuffed, perhaps even getting abdominal pain.  The external sensory experience (seeing the apple) is coupled with my internal sensory experience (hungry or stuffed), and that is associated with the actions that I subsequently took (did not take it or grabbed and ate it) together with the way I felt afterwards - the positive, negative, or neutral  results.

A stimulus evokes the memories of prior similar experiences together with what was done and what the results were.

  1. saw apple, hungry, left it, felt hungrier

  2. saw apple, hungry, ate it, felt better

  3. saw apple, stuffed, left it, felt neutral

  4. saw apple, stuffed, ate it, felt worse

An object level response to external sensory input together with an object level response to internal sensory inputs evokes the multi-part sequential memories of similar experiences together with the memories of the following motor responses and the subsequent state of the organism and its environment.  This happens primarily at pre-conscious levels, however much conscious experience can be included in the associated memory that is recall. In the example cases, the "meaning" of an apple in  the context of hungry recalls cases 1 and 2 as something to slake my hunger - don't leave it, eat it, but in the context of stuffed, the "meaning" of an apple is something to make me feel worse - leave it, don't eat it.

We can now provide a more specific and science based description or definition for "semantic reaction".  Although this will be somewhat reductionistic, it does not "replace" the other ways of explaining semantic reaction, it describes it at the level of the underlying neurological or brain functioning.

A semantic reaction, in terms of neurological functioning, "is" the integrated sum of all the prior three part memory structures (stimulus, response, and result) evoked by the stimulus (external environment together with organismic state). These prior memories of the combined stimulus together with what we did and the result is what the stimulus "means" to us, so the "meaning" of a word or phrase varies with the experiences and the physical and emotional state of the person. 

One immediate consequence of this, that explains some previously noted results, is that different patterns in the brain are activated during different moods, so different memories will be preferentially stimulated, resulting in recalling semantic reactions more conformable to the current "mood" state. The "mood" or "emotional state" is part of the organism part of the stimulus, which includes sensory data from both external senses and internal senses.  This provides some possible explanation for "superstitious" behavior and its persistence.  The baseball pitcher who turns his hat around twice before each pitch will remember his own motor responses associated with previous times that he did so, "priming the pump" so to speak, and to the degree that those associated motor response resulted in a strike, he is more likely to turn his hat around again. 

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 00:26 and has been accessed 18353 times at 98 hits per month.