Consider this case. You drive your new BMW down a street, feeling an immense desire to smoke a cigarette, but the cigarettes are in your back pocket. A traffic-light turns red so you stop, happy that you will finally light a cigarette. You take a cigarette out of the packet, and press the car's lighter, while you are watching for the traffic-light to turn green.

After, say, fifteen seconds, the lighter pops out, with its distinctive sound, and you step on the accelerator. At the same time, you realize that the traffic-light is still red, and you hit the brakes. You take a strange look, wondering "what the heck...?!".

Or consider what happened to me some days ago. I was watching The Green Mile with Tom Hanks which lasts nearly three hours, so, as it ended I really wanted to go to the bathroom to have a pee. I turned on the light, but on the switch was something sticky, hopefully honey (no, I did not taste it :-). So, I washed my hands before I proceeded with the Pee. I turn on the tap, take the soap, wash my hands, and instead of putting the soap back to its seat, I throw it in the toilet... As I relieved myself, I realized what had happened... a semiotic short-circuit...

The first incident is an example taken from Umberto Eco's book Semiotics in everyday life. It has happened to me, maybe it has happened to you.

A semiotic short-circuit, says Umberto Eco, can happen when you have at the same time more than one pair of signs-significations. In the first example, we have the first pair of sign-signification:

  • SIGN: traffic-light, waiting to turn green
  • SIGNIFICATION: we can hit the road
and the second pair:
  • SIGN: lighter, waiting to pop out
  • SIGNIFICATION: we can now light our cigarette

So the problem/situation appearing sometimes is that our brain gets confused, triggering with the appearance of the one sign, the wrong signification. Someone might observe that the opposite would be very unlikely to happen. Namely, if the traffic-light turned first green, it is unlikely that we would have tried to light the cigarette. Light it with what?? That raises another issue, which is not mentioned by Eco (at least in the book I read). How much is the sign physically related to the signification.

Let us explain that with a couple of examples. One example in which the sign has absolutely no physical relation with its signification is the example of the green traffic-light and the fact that we can now hit the road. In this example the relation sign-signification is totally a matter of definition. We could as well say, that the red light signifies that we may proceed. We could also have no lights at all, but a policeman gesturing accordingly. Nothing correlates the traffic-light in the physical world with its signification. But in the case of the sign-signification relation of the lighter and the cigarette, the physical relation is of a major practical importance and not just a matter of definition, for we cannot light the cigarette without the lighter.

Something that we should also take into consideration, is the fact that the semiotic short-circuit is much more likely to happen in case we have to take a decision quickly, like in the traffic-light case. If we are in a relatively high level of alertness, it much more probable that we will get things confused. But it is also likely to confuse things in case our mind/thought is wandering or is distracted. This is like my incident with the soap. Although my incident with the soap was of a much more abstract nature than the traffic-light example. In my case the sign-signification pairs were like that:

  • SIGN: I am feeling an immense urge to pee
  • SIGNIFICATION: Quickly! To the toilet!
and the second pair:
  • SIGN: Finished with washing my hands
  • SIGNIFICATION: I must now place the soap to its former position

Due to the dominating nature of the urge to piss, "toilet" is the word and concept now whirling in my mind. I must piss now, and every single neuron, every single gray cell in my brain cries while I wash my hands: "to the toilet!!! Quickly! To the toilet!".

So, as I finish washing the hands, and subconsciously, the question "What do we now do with the soap we 're holding?" is put, the neurons have no time to deal with minor issues (who gives a shit about the soap?!) and they continue to cry: "to the toilet!!! Quickly! To the toilet!". So... I take this subconsciously as an answer and... I simply throw the soap in the toilet!

This case also explains lost wedding-rings found after several weeks in the refrigerator and many other incidents in which we are aiming at doing something in particular, at the same moment something else arises and we just mess things up, many times without even noticing (like putting the ring in the fridge).

Ahhh, the human brain, this fragile miracle!

liveforever informed me about a Danish word, which exactly describes the concept of the "semiotic short-circuit". It's "Tanketorsk" (literally, 'thought'+'cod', signifying the absurdity of the situation).

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