The Word Problem

Some will recall Neely Fuller, author of the Code Book and Edwards Williams, creator of, saying that they have noticed how words often get in the way of seeing what you’re really looking at. Symbols can never represent (re-present) anything faithfully. Words are inherently deceitful.

Thought I’d pass along an abstract of an academic journal article. This post is intended for the more serious counter-racist scientists who may want to devise methods of making themselves and others more consciously aware of the propaganda of racists (white supremacist) and to make our perceptions less susceptible to tampering. Words are sorcery. Hey self-described white “anti-racists”: A lot less talking…A lot more doing.

Some things are better left unsaid

Jonathan W. Schooler, University of Pittsburgh
Tonya Y. Engstler-Schooler, University of Washington

It is widely believed that verbal processing generally improves memory performance. However, in a series of six experiments, verbalizing the appearance of previously seen visual stimuli impaired subsequent recognition performance. In Experiment 1, subjects viewed a videotape including a salient individual. Later, some subjects described the individual’s face. Subjects who verbalized the face performed less well on a subsequent recognition test than control subjects who did not engage in memory verbalization. The results of Experiment 2 replicated those of Experiment 1 and further clarified the effect of memory verbalization by demonstrating that visualization does not impair face recognition. In Experiments 3 and 4 we explored the hypothesis that memory verbalization impairs memory for stimuli that are difficult to put into words. In Experiment 3 memory impairment followed the verbalization of a different visual stimulus: color. In Experiment 4 marginal memory improvement followed the verbalization of a verbal stimulus: a brief spoken statement. In Experiments 5 and 6 the source of verbally induced memory impairment was explored. The results of Experiment 5 suggested that the impairment does not reflect a temporary verbal set, but rather indicates relatively long-lasting memory interference. Finally, Experiment 6 demonstrated that limiting subjects’ time to make recognition decisions alleviates the impairment, suggesting that memory verbalization overshadows but does not eradicate the original visual memory. This collection of results is consistent with a recoding interference hypothesis: verbalizing a visual memory may produce a verbally biased memory representation that can interfere with the application of the original visual memory.


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