Colin Cherry

British scientist (1914-1979)

Edward Colin Cherry (23 June 1914 – 23 November 1979) was a British cognitive scientist whose main contributions were in focused auditory attention, specifically regarding the cocktail party problem, regarding the capacity to follow one conversation while many other conversations are going on in a noisy room.



On Human Communication (1957)


What Is It That We Communicate?

  • The dictionary definition of communication [...] includes the communication of goods and supplies. [...] But transport of goods is not communication in the sense we are adopting here, and does not raise the same subtle and difficult questions. What "goods" do we exchange when we send messages to one another?
    • p. 9
    • "… symbols do not carry meaning as trucks carry coal. Their function is to select from alternatives within a given context." (paraphrased by Ernst Gombrich in his Inaugural Lecture at University College London in February 1957, and quoted in memory of Colin Cherry. [1]
    • Reddy, Michael J. (1979). "The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language," in: Andrew Ortony ed., Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press. (See: Metalanguage)
    • The 'transmission' view of communication, as criticized in favor of the 'ritual' view by James Carey (1985) in: Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin-Hyman).
  • Physically, we transmit signals or signs -- audible, visual, tactual. But the mere transmission and reception of a physical signal does not constitute communication. A sign, if it is perceived by the recipient, has the potential for selecting responses in him. Physically, when we communicate, we make noises with our mouths, or gesticulate, or exhibit some token or icon, and these physical signals set up a response behavior.
    • p. 10
  • The theory of communication is partly concerned with the measurement of information content of signals, as their essential property in the establishment of communication links. But the information content of signals is not to be regarded as a commodity; it is more a property or potential of the signals, and as a concept it is closely related to the idea of selection, or discrimination. This mathematical theory first arose in telegraphy and telephony, being developed for the purpose of measuring the information content of telecommunication signals. It concerned only the signals themselves as transmitted along wires, or broadcast through the aether, and is quite abstracted from all questions of "meaning." Nor does it concern the importance, the value, or truth to any particular person. As a theory, it lies at the syntactic level of sign theory and is abstracted from the semantic and pragmatic levels. We shall argue … that, though the theory does not directly involve biological elements, it is nevertheless quite basic to the study of human communication -- basic but insufficient.
    • p. 10
  • The suggestion that words are symbols for things, actions, qualities, relationships, et cetera, is naive, a gross simplification. Words are slippery customers. The full meaning of a word does not appear until it is placed in its context, and the context may serve an extremely subtle function -- as with puns, or double entendre. And even then the "meaning" will depend upon the listener, upon the speaker, upon their entire experience of language, upon their knowledge of one another, and upon the whole situation. Words do not "mean things" in a one-to-one relation like a code. Words, too, are empirical signs, not copies or models of anything; truly, onomatopoeia and gestures frequently seem to possess resemblance, but this resemblance does not bear too close examination. A cockerel may seem to say cook-a-doodle-do to an Englishman, but a German thinks it says kikeriki, and a Japanese kokke-kekko. Each can paint only with the phonetic sound of his own language.
    • p. 10-11

Language: Science and Aesthetics

  • All that we have to do is to pick them out of the dictionary and string them in the right order.... (p.68)
  • Language performs an essentially social function; it helps us to get along together, to communicate and achieve a great measure of concerted action. Words are signs which have significance by convention, and those people who do not adopt the conventions simply fail to communicate. They do not "get along" and a social force arises which encourages them to achieve the correct associations. (p.69)
  • Every individual word in a passage or poetry can no more be said to denote some specific referent than does every brush mark, every line in a painting have its counterpart in reality. The writer or speaker does not communicate his thoughts to us; he communicates a representation for carrying out, this function under the severe discipline of using the only materials he has, sound and gesture. Speech is like painting, a representation made out of given materials -- sound or paint. The function of speech is to stimulate and set up thoughts in us having correspondence with the speaker's desires; he has then communicated with us. But he has not transmitted a copy of his thoughts, a photograph, but only a stream of speech -- a substitute made from the unpromising material of sound.
        The artist, the sculptor, the caricaturist, the composer are akin in this [fact that they have not transmitted a copy of their thoughts], that they express (make representations of) their thoughts using chosen, limited materials. They make the "best" representations, within these self-imposed constraints. A child who builds models of a house, or a train, using only a few colored bricks, is essentially engaged in the same creative task.* Metaphors can play a most forceful role, by importing ideas through a vehicle language, setting up what are purely linguistic associations (we speak of "heavy burden of taxation," "being in a rut"). The imported concepts are, to some extent, artificial in their contexts, and they are by no means universal among different cultures. For instance, the concepts of cleanliness and washing are used within Christendom to imply "freedom from sin." We Westerners speak of the mind's eye, but this idea is unknown amongst the Chinese.[1] After continued use, many metaphorical words become incorporated into the language and lose their original significance; words such as "explain," "ponder," "see (what you mean)" we no longer think of as metaphorical.[2] Metaphors arise because we continually need to stretch the range of words as we accumulate new concepts and abstract relationships.[3]
        A printed text is not simply a chain of individual words, picked one at a time; it is a whole. It has a structure, but it has meaning for us only if it represents a continuity of our experience of past texts. A text in some strange foreign language set up an abrupt change in our experience, a discontinuity, and we make nothing of it. Given a translator's dictionary we may decipher some of the words and attain some understanding, though this understanding through translation has been achieved by projecting the text onto our own language;[4] that is, we are looking at it with the eyes of our English-speaking culture. A grammar book may help us to decipher the text more thoroughly, and help us comprehend something of the language structure, but we may never fully understand if we are not bred in the culture and society that has modeled and shaped the language.
    (p. 74)
    • See Gombrich in reference 348[5]

Words and Meaning: Semantics

  • [...] we can strip off all grammatical clues to sentence structure, all affixes and prepositions, and yet still achieve communication. Thus restricted to nouns, simple "stories" can be told in word chains: Woman, street, crowd, traffic, noise, haste, thief, bag, loss, scream, police.... Again, the reader's past experience of his language is sufficient to restore the missing elements, sufficiently accurately for the purpose. But of course, not only does the reader have experience of sentence structure, enabling him to supply the missing syntactical elements, but also he has experience of typical contexts in which the various words are used; many words bear an aura about with them. It might be more difficult to tell a tale about a policeman who robbed a woman, for instance, with so little redundancy! (p.122)

Syntactic, Semantic, and Pragmatic Information

    • The first section title of CHAPTER SIX On the Logic of communication (Syntactics, Semantics, and Pragmatics)
  • "Information" in most, if not all, of its connotations seems to rest upon the notion of selective power. The Shannon theory regards the information source, in emitting the signals (signs), as exerting a selective power upon the ensemble of messages.[6] In the Carnap-Bar-Hillel semantic theory, the information content of statements relates to the selective power they exert upon ensembles of states. Again, at its pragmatic level, in true communicative situations [...] a source of information has a certain value to a recipient, where "value" may be regarded as a "selective power." Gabor,[7] for example, observes that what people value in a source of information (i.e., what they are prepared to pay for) depends upon its exclusiveness and prediction power; he cites instances of a newspaper editor hoping for a "scoop" and a racegoer receiving information from a tipster. "Exclusiveness" here implies the selecting of that one particular recipient out of the population, while the "prediction" value of information rests upon the power it gives to the recipient to select his future action, out of the whole range of prior uncertainty as to what action to take. Again, signs have the power to select responses in people, such responses depending upon a totality of conditions. Human communication channels consist of individuals in conversation, or in various forms of social intercourse. Each individual and each conversation is unique; different people react to signs in different ways, depending each upon their own past experiences and upon the environment at the time. It is such variations, such differences, which gives rise to the principal problems in the study of human communication. (p. 244-5)

On Cognition and Recognition

  • To take another simile [that the brain is like a machine], if we imagine a great library containing books which have a vast number of cross references one to another, then should one whole shelf be burned, it might be possible to reconstruct the lost books -- but somewhat less perfectly than at first. (p. 302)
  • As we survey the various stages of evolution, from the simplest one-cell creatures up to man. we see a steady improvement in the methods of learning and adaptation to a hostile world. Each step in learning ability gives better adaptation and greater chance of survival. We are carried a long way up the scale by innate reflexes and rudimentary muscular learning faculties. Habits indeed, not rational thought, assist us to surmount most of life's obstacles.

    Most, but by no means all; for learning in the high mammals exhibits the unexplained phenomenon of "insight," which shows itself by sudden changes in behavior in learning situations -- in sudden departures from one method of organizing a task, or solving a problem, to another.[8] Insight, expectancy, set, are the essentially "mind-like" attributes of communication, and it is these, together with the representation of concepts, which require physiological explanation.

    At the higher end of the scale of evolution, this quality we call "mind" appears more and more prominently, but it is at our own level that learning of a radically new type has developed -- through our powers of organizing thoughts, comparing and setting them into relationship, especially with the use of language. We have a remarkable faculty of forming generalizations, of recognizing universals, of associating and developing them. It is our multitude of general concepts, and our powers of organizing them with the aid of language in varied ways, which forms the backbone of human communication, and which distinguishes us from the animals. (p. 304)


  1. I. A. Richards, "Toward a Theory of Translating," (an essay in the volume Studies in Chinese Thoughts, A. F. Wright, editor), Am. Anthrop. Assoc., 55, Memoir 75, Dec. 1953.
  2. H. W. Fowler, et al., The King's English, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 3rd. ed., 1931.
  3. J. R. Davitz, ed., The Communication of Emotional Meaning. McGraw-Hill, New York and London, 1964.
  4. Locke, W. N., and A. D. Booth, Machine Translation of Language, The Technology Press, M.I.T., and John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1955.
  5. Whyte, L. L., Editor, Aspect of Form, A Symposium on Form in Nature and Art, Percy Lund Humphries & Co., Ltd., London, 1951.
  6. See Weaver's section of reference 297.
  7. (1951). Lectures on Communication Theory, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  8. Hebb, D. O., The Organization of Behavior, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1949.
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