What Makes Sound Bites So Powerful? The Story of the Story Engram.

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2004 by Renée Fuller

     A small group of us had stopped at a newsstand. There was laughter as we looked at the tabloid headline: BUSH TO CITY, DROP DEAD. All of us immediately understood the meaning of those few words. They described in blunt terms the outcome of a political battle. The President had said "no" to the city's request for extra funds.

     Tabloid headlines summarizing a happening are an example of that powerful communication device, a sound bite. Other headlines might tersely announce the win or loss of the home team. On each occasion the newsprint editors are certain their readers will instantly grasp the meaning of the sparse message. Similarly, politicians know the power of their sparse messages, their sound bites. An adroit campaign sound bite has communication power, and can help determine an election. Similarly advertisers know that a clever sound bite can make a product stand out, making it desirable, thereby earning it millions.

     Creators of sound bites expect their creations to be readily understood. They expect that with a few well-chosen words they will bring about a short circuit of understanding. This short circuit into the essential meaning of simple phrases already makes its appearance in early childhood when we first acquire language. As toddlers we talk in headlines, in sound bites. And loving parents usually understand the meaning that our few mauled words seek to convey. Just the word "cookie" all by itself indicates what is wanted. Already as tiny tots we have begun to master a fundamental in communication. We have grasped how to convey the essence of a story in just a word or two. Before long this story essence becomes elaborated as more words are mastered. However, even as adults we rarely exceed the succinctness of those few words with which we learned to communicate when we first acquired language. And we return to that clarity when we produce a sound bite.

     With the acquisition of a bigger vocabulary during early childhood, what had begun as communication composed primarily with nouns and simple verbs becomes enriched in rapid succession by adjectives and adverbs. The use of pronouns, and articles follow before long. Prepositions are the last to make their appearance, some being cognitively the most difficult, initiating us into the complications of grammar. With the mastery of grammar it becomes possible to communicate nuances and details that a sound bite summarizes.

     Nor are we humans the only ones who understand a simple sound bite. My dogs readily respond to a vocabulary of at least 50 words: primarily nouns and verbs not dissimilar to our early childhood acquisitions. The phrase "Come, Kibbles" called from the open door produces a slow amble back into the house. On the other hand the call "Come, beef chunks" results in a mad scramble, sending the rugs flying, accompanied by a trail of dripping saliva. The dogs clearly understand the difference between "come for Kibbles" compared to "come for beef chunks." Although the doggie sound bites are usually restricted to nouns and simple verbs there can be surprises. For my dogs the word "Car" had always produced delighted leaps and a scramble to the door. But the first time I used the phrase "No car" as I made to leave was also understood and met with sagging bodies.

     It was by accident that I learned how fundamental simple sound bites (especially ones that resemble early language acquisition) are to human thinking and communication. The accidental learning was a consequence of research findings in our cognitive laboratory. We found that contrary to intelligence theory we could teach severely retarded and four-year old students to read with full comprehension. Key to the surprising results were the innovations of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system. These highlighted the importance of sound bites in communicating with others and with ourselves (thinking).

     I had designed the system so that beginning readers would have to decipher only a few words to understand where the exciting story was heading. To accomplish this the system mimics children's language acquisition. Essentially the first part of the story in both books #1 and #2 is developed through a series of simple sound bites composed primarily with nouns and verbs in the present tense. Gradually the more complicated parts of speech are added and the sentences grow longer. The intent was that by rapidly involving students in the fast-paced story they would begin to anticipate the next word which would help them in deciphering it. In this way story context would facilitate learning to read. Since adults use story context to speed up their decoding of a reading passage, teaching this important reading technique introduces beginning readers, right from the start, into the rationale as well as the joy of reading.

     The approach was effective beyond my wildest expectations. Our research demonstrated that this methodology was one of the main ingredients in teaching all the students, including dyslexics, the learning disabled, the severely retarded, and four year olds to read in record time. But more than reading had been learned. The eager students used the sound bite approach that mimics early language acquisition in developing their own written communications. They would begin with the essential noun and then add the verb that describes what the noun does. Piling these noun phrases on top of each other they were able to build an elaborate story. Nor was this effect restricted to written communication. The severely retarded students also used this approach to communicate verbally on an advanced level. Struggling first with a noun, then the appropriate verb and subsequent adjectives and adverbs they created sound bites that helped them think. Frequently on finishing, the effort was accompanied by a triumphant smile. Our severely retarded students understood that they had just achieved something truly special.

     As the data came in with research results so contrary to both IQ expectations and learning disabilities diagnoses, it became apparent that the reading system had inadvertently tapped into a fundamental aspect of human cognition. What exactly was it that had such a powerful effect on the ability to think and communicate? Since the reading system was successful with even the severely retarded, the acutely dyslexic and learning disabled, the innovations had to involve an aspect of cognition that was not either measured by intelligence tests or the various disability tests. From the letters, messages and stories that the severely retarded and the four-year-old students had written, as well as listening to them talk, it became evident that they had been taught how to make use of basic building blocks of cognitive functioning. I gave these basic building blocks of cognition the name of engram and story engram.

     So what is a cognitive engram? Nouns are engrams. They require the neurological ability to recognize an object, not as a series of disconnected visual stimuli the way insects perceive them, but as an entity. Called object constancy, the ability to recognize a series of neurological stimuli as an entity requires a spinal cord and at a minimum the beginnings of a brain. Object constancy makes it possible for an animal to be aware that a predator or prey is still there even if it has disappeared behind a rock or tree. Some monkeys can even make calls that signify different entities such as a snake, a leopard, or a raptor. Cognitively these monkeys are not only in possession of numerous noun engrams; they have different sounds (words?) for several of them.

     We humans, by verbally elaborating noun engrams, first with verbs then with other parts of speech expand the noun engram into a miniature story. I gave this elaboration of an engram the name of story engram. Sound bites are an example of story engrams. The toddler with his demand for "cookie" was already implying the story engram of "I want a cookie."

     Story engrams function as building blocks of human cognition creating short circuits of meaning, as well as describing the world around us: real or imaginary. We humans make a story out of our experiences, out of our speculations, out of our desires, out of our imaginings. Story engrams are how we organize the happenings around us, and how we organize the stimuli from our senses. As a result they determine how and what we think. The reason sound bites are such powerful communication devices is because they are story engrams. They tap directly into the fundamental way our nervous system organizes the world around us: real or imagined. The story engram organization rules our thinking and the communication with our fellow humans.

     After observing the success of our severely retarded students I deliberately began to make use of story engrams (sound bites) to help me think and write. It was my turn to learn from our severely retarded students. Like them I would start with the principal noun, then find a way to describe that noun, which usually required a verb. However, sometimes another noun served the purpose. That is how this article came into being with the story engram: THE POWER OF THE SOUND BITE.

     As I began to elaborate this idea, subordinate story engrams came into being. Staring at the results I realized that I had created an outline of the article to be. Here was an effective way to teach how to produce an outline. But there is more. For an effective outline can become a study in logic.

     In order to develop an outline we have to delve into the short circuits of meaning that are implied by the overarching story engram and the subordinate story engrams that elaborate it. To achieve this requires a description of the details, even the logic that create the story engrams (the sound bites) with their short circuits of meaning. A curious aspect of story engrams, which we have all experienced, is that the conclusions they imply are sometimes ours long before we are able to explain how we arrived at them. In this we resemble the toddler who can say "cookie" but has trouble with the elaboration of the obvious short circuit of meaning.

     Note: even some highly advanced scholars at times resemble the toddler with his "cookie." This is true of the physicists, the chemists, and the biologists, whose overarching story engrams we refer to as the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. These scholars often spend a lifetime in assembling the data that will develop the subordinate story engrams that can support and explain the conclusions of their overarching story engrams. In the same way the mathematician who makes an overarching mathematical story engram discovery may have to spend years working out the proof of his discovery. Even the novelist who begins with the main character (a story engram) in mind may spend years gradually developing the narrative that surround his main character. Like the mathematician, the novelist starts with the story engram of his trade then proceeds to elaborate it by creating subordinate story engrams which evolve into a narrative. The scientists, the mathematicians and many novelists demonstrate how the devil is in the cognitive details; in the elaboration, in the explanations of the overarching story engram which may require thousands of subordinate story engrams. What becomes apparent is that story engrams in both their simple and advanced forms are abstractions. To be fully meaningful they require clarification through the use of advanced language.

     And that leads us to what can be either positive or negative attributes of story-engrams as cognitive organizers. On the positive side, the testing and elaboration of overarching story engrams have been essential in the development of the sciences and mathematics. However, because story engrams are abstractions that are readily accepted as truth they have also helped lead countries into devastating adventures while adhering to a false story engram (sound bite). Example: "Deutschland über Alles." And then there are the story engrams like, "the earth is flat" that took centuries and overwhelming contrary evidence to finally disappear from people's conceptualization of the world. Being powerful cognitive organizers, story engrams can determine how we see the world even when that worldview fails to hold up under closer examination. Human history is replete with false myths, religions, as well as incorrect scientific story engrams.

     Because overarching story engrams are fundamental to cognitive organization they can be powerful teaching tools. But by themselves they represent only the beginning. Essential are the important components that must follow: the subordinate story engrams. These serve as the explanations and further development of the initial overarching story engram. Explanations, further elaborations, and sometimes testing are what make it possible to verify the veracity, the meaningfulness of an overarching story engram.

     As parents and teachers, as a society, it is our responsibility to maintain vigilance against false story engrams (sound bites) that can and have been used as depraved indoctrination tools. However, when used responsibly, story engrams can be marvelous introductions into the heights of human thinking. That is what happened to our learning disabled, dyslexics, our four-year olds, and our severely retarded students through a simple reading system.

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© 2002 Renée Fuller
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