Cognitive Reshuffling: Derailments in the Train of Thought

Thought processes sometimes unfold smoothly, and that is when we use phrases like "a stream of thought" or "a thread of conversation." However, the thought process can also be interrupted by an unexpected event. Researchers find evidence that reshufflings of the thought process go on under the surface whenever something unexpected happens. Cognitive reshuffling was documented in EEG studies by Kutas and Hillyard (1980). Kutas and Hillyard studied changes in the EEG caused by reading sentences such as "He spread the warm bread with..." The final word was either predictable (like "butter") or slightly unusual (like "mashed avocado") or totally weird (like "socks").

What was the Kutas and Hillyard research on "reprocessing"?

When subjects read sentences of the second, "slightly unusual" variety, Kutas and Hillyard found a distinctive wave in the EEG, 400 milliseconds after the unexpected word was presented. They suggested this was due to "reprocessing" or a "second look" required by an unexpected but meaningful sentence ending. So when you read, "He spread with..." you are already warming up the thought of "butter," and when you read "mashed avocado" instead of "butter," you have to reshuffle your thought process.

What did researchers observe, when they studied reactions in Candid Camera?

Subtle signs like an eyelid fluttering or the corner of the mouth twitching may reveal cognitive reshuffling. Barker (1968) found that people twitch or show minor body seizure-like disturbances on an EEG ("brain wave" machine) when they confront a difficult thought. Babies several months old often get hiccups as a reaction to unexpected events. These bodily reactions seem to be an outward sign of disturbance in mental processes.

When adults are confronted with a new and unexpected event, requiring a reshuffling of thought, they momentarily "go blank" in the face. Scheff (1985) reported a unique study in which researchers examined old tapes of Candid Camera episodes. In Candid Camera people were deceived as a joke. Absurd situations would be set up, then the truth would be revealed as the victim was told, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!" Slow motion replays of the victim's facial expressions at the moment of truth showed what Scheff called a surprise reaction "manifested by widening of the eyes, lifting of the brows, and, in most instances, opening of the mouth." After this surprise-face came an emotional reaction, usually embarrassment "signaled by hiding the face or mouth," sometimes anger or laughter. Most people laughed.

What happened when subjects did not catch on to the joke?

Scheff also analyzed segments in which the person never realized what was going on. Some victims of the practical jokes never comprehended what was happening even after being informed that they were on Candid Camera. They kept playing along with the set-up situation as if it was real. Scheff found that these people did not show the split-second look of surprise, nor did they show an emotional reaction. They did not reset their mental activity, and their train of thought continued along the same track as before.

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