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).