Echoic memory, and the surprises you never notice

Does Rethink Speech make you laugh yourself hoarse? (Sorry) Image from Pixabay

Do you groan when you hear a pun? Here’s a very bad one to get you in the mood:

  • A cross-eyed teacher lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils.

Now puns are great fun – but they also tell us absolutely heaps about speech and how it works.

The one above is a simple one-word pun, but punning humour comes in all shapes and sizes, often spanning several words or phrases. Did you know that a multi-word pun at the end of long convoluted joke, like the one about the mud-crab who left his harp in sand-crab’s disco, is technically called a feghoot?

Now whether these kinds of puns are good or bad – they are all contrived (made up for a joke). But there’s something much funnier about real, spontaneous puns.

The really funny thing about puns

The really funny thing is how little we notice puns hiding in the speech we listen to every day. It takes an Afferbeck Lauder to bring them to our attention. However, if you listen with a mischievous intent, almost every sentence you hear has words than could be taken with a different meaning.

And here’s something even funnier. Puns are going on inside your own head all the time! And not just simple little puns like the jokes we make up.

If you pay attention as you listen, you’ll find lots of long complex multi-word puns come up all the time.

A few examples (but your own will be far better)

Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone say something, then thinking, ‘Hang on, that couldn’t possibly be what they really said’, and kind of ‘replaying’ their utterance in your mind to reach a more plausible interpretation.

Here’s a couple of real-life examples of the kind of thing we mean:

At a cafe:

  • Customer: Those look nice, what are they?
  • Assistant: Curried brownies.
  • Customer (thinking): Curried brownies??!! That sounds horrible. Hang on, could she really have said that? (playing the assistant’s words over in memory) Oh no, it was currant brownies, not curried brownies!
  • Customer (speaking): Great I’ll have two.

Listening to a radio broadcast:

  • Host: Thanks for coming
  • Guest: Thanks for the beer.
  • Listener: (Thinking) What? They give interviewees beer? Hang on, that can’t be right. (replaying words in memory) Oh I see, he didn’t say ‘Thanks for the beer’, he said ‘Thanks. Good to be here’.

In conversation:

  • Speaker: He went with his granddaughter Rose.
  • Listener (thinking): I didn’t know he had a granddaughter. Hang on, maybe that is not what he said. (replaying words in memory) Ah yes, he said ‘He went with his friend, Walter Rhodes’.

Can you relate?

Most people readily relate to these examples, and indeed recognise that they have similar experiences many times every day.

What’s more, once it is brought to attention, you are certain to notice it happens far more frequently than you ever realised before – and that some of the multi-word puns in your own perception that are really quite hilarious. It’s a shame we notice them so little!

Gladly, the cross-eyed (koala) bear. And don’t say he’s not a bear – after all, he has all the koala-fications!

Is all this is making you think about mondegreens? It should!

We often get a laugh from mis-heard song lyrics, like when someone hears ‘Gladly the cross-eyed bear’ instead of ‘Gladly thy cross I’d bear’ or ‘The girl with colitis goes by’ instead of ‘The girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ or ‘There’s a wino down the road’ instead of  ‘As we wind on down the road’. No doubt you have your own favourites – and perhaps you know the technical term for this kind of thing is mondegreen.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a great mondegreen on our Taster page.

Mondegreens are highly relevant to Rethinking Speech. In fact we have a whole module on them in Rethink Speech 101.

One of the main points of the Mondegreens module is to show that mondegreens happen far more frequently in ordinary conversation than you notice. If you pay attention to your listening (as opposed to what you are hearing) you will notice them increasingly frequently.

The rich research material of echoic memory

That ability to ‘replay’ a sound for a few seconds after you hear it is called ‘echoic memory’ (it is like an echo of what you originally heard). It is really important aspect of speech perception. We will have a lot more to say about it in the mondegreens module (some of it taking a view you are unlikely to have come across before!). But for now here’s a couple of points to notice.

First, most people find the existence of echoic memory quite surprising when it is pointed out to them. But if it happens so frequently, isn’t it actually more surprising that we notice it so seldom we are surprised when it is pointed out?

Second, if this kind of thing goes on inside our heads all the time, why do we find similar things quite surprising when they happen in the outside world?

Perhaps worth considering in light of our thoughts on What is surprise? and What does it mean to think about speech?.