I am going to tell you a story because it is a good example of how easy it is to interpret, or extrapolate from, research in a direction a study does not support. Let's trace the steps of what happened in this case.
Research was conducted this year looking at the neuroscience of the repeated-name penalty. That's when one's reading speed slows down when reading a repeated name instead of a pronoun. For example, the second of the two following paragraphs (using pronouns instead of names) will be read more quickly.
Susan is really into animals. The other day Susan gave Betsey a pet hamster. Susan reminded Betsey that such hamsters are quite shy and need gentle handling.
Susan is really into animals. The other day she gave Betsey a pet hamster. She reminded Betsey that such hamsters are quite shy and need gentle handling.
Using functional MRI (fMRI), researchers looked at what the brain did when reading the repeated name versus a pronoun. The researchers saw a difference in how the brain processes the reading of each and wrote that the findings suggest that pronouns reduce interference and lessen needed brain processing.
Enter the blogosphere.
A new study by Dr. Amit Almor of the University of South Carolina used fMRI brain scans to show the different responses when a subject hears [emphasis added] a proper name or a pronoun referring to a previously named person.
PROOF: A new study by Dr. Amit Almor of the University of South Carolina used MRI brain scans to show the different responses when a subject hears [emphasis added] a proper name or a pronoun referring to a previously named person.
“The brain lit up with activity when proper names were used, including areas that are not associated with language,” Almor said. “We saw considerable activity in areas of the parietal lobe that involve spatial processing that was absent when pronouns were used.”
That lighting up of the brain when a name is used (read not heard) that Riskin cites was described in the article as not an enhancement but a disruption!
Pronouns, while faulty for their potential ambiguity, don’t cause the same disruptions in the brain that proper names do when used in the right context. In fact, they allow the brain to move easily from one thought or sentence to another. This seamless transition allows a person to digest more fully the meaning or intent of the thought being conveyed without the neural circuitry interference that proper names cause, said Almor.
So we went from reading the name to hearing it and from the name being a disruption to a benefit.
Using a person's name when speaking to them likely has great value and Riskin posts some excellent reasons why people avoid using names and ways to make using names easier. That value is just not supported by this study.
This is a good cautionary tale for all of us. I hold both Dooley and Riskin in very high esteem. I read their blogs loyally. This telephone-game effect can happen to the best of us.
Remember the telephone game we played as children? Because of what it demonstrates about communication, I often use that game in seminars. A short and simple story is read to one participant who then tells it to another participant who has not heard the original story. That person then tells it to another person who is hearing it for the first time. After a few rounds, the story is unrecognizable.
What lessons can we learn from this recent sequence of events? First, be careful about the conclusions we draw from studies. Second, related to the process of conflict resolution, remember the tricky telephone-game effect. In both our personal and professional lives, I am sure many of us have been both a witness and a party to telephone-game connections showing us communication can be very slippery.
We will be talking about the neuroscience of the telephone game in an upcoming post. Jeff and I are creating a list (rather long already) of topics for future BonP blogging. Is there anything you would like us to add? If so, please let us know in the comments or by e-mail.
Read the study: What is in a name? Spatial brain circuits are used to track discourse references (PDF)
Web site of Dr. Amit Almor at University of South Carolina