Author Archives: Giulianni Hardy-gerena

Understanding the Language of Internet Memes

Over the past week, I have fallen in love with Patti LaBelle–or her pies, to be exact. Let me explain. Last week, as I scrolled through my feed on Facebook, I found this video review of a sweet potato pie that singer Patti LaBelle is currently selling in US Walmart stores. With millions of views and a TV news interview to his credit, it is clear that this video and its creator James Wright are viral sensations. Many people created video responses to Wright’s review. Some also created image macro memes (like this one)—another common form of content shared on various social media platforms. An image macro refers to the rules for adding text to an image (Davison, 2012). But how do we understand the meaning of the sentences that image macro memes carry? How can this unique form of communication help us understand our ability to understand other sentences? Past language research suggests at least one way to answer these questions.

Some scientists believe we understand sentences by first making sense of their structure. Others believe we simultaneously analyze sentences for their meaning. Goldstein (2011) defines these ideas, respectively, as the syntax-first approach and the interactionist approach. Tanenhaus and coworkers (Goldstein, 2011) conducted an experiment that, like memes, relied on the juxtaposition of images and sentences. Participants were presented with a set of objects as they listened to recorded instructions related to those objects. Although all the participants listened to the same instructions, some were presented with a slightly different set of objects. To measure their comprehension, Tanenhaus tracked their eye movements. The syntax-first approach predicts that their eye movements of participants in both conditions would be the same since the structure of the sentences is identical. The eye movements across conditions were significantly different, however. This result implies that our understanding of sentences is not determined by syntax alone, but is also influenced by other information, like the scene we happen to be observing.

An image macro meme carries cultural information. Formally, it can be defined as “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence though online transmission (Davison, 2012).” In other words, image macro memes communicate humor based on shared cultural knowledge. The meme linked to above assumes the viewer knows who Aretha Franklin is and why her purportedly tense relationship with Patti LaBelle would be relevant to LaBelle’s pies. Since knowledge of LaBelle’s pies and her feud with Franklin be considered esoteric, I will offer a simpler example: Advice Dog. The rules of this meme require a would-be jokester to 1) start with a specific image of a dog in the center of a rainbow, 2) write one line of advice at the top of the image, and 3) write a second line of advice (usually a punch line) at the bottom of them image (Davison, 2012). Like the recorded instructions used in Tanenhaus’s experiment, this meme communicates a consistent message—funny advice. Additionally, Advice Dog provides visual stimuli which might influence comprehension the same way the sets of objects did for Tanenhaus’s participants.

So, what could this image macro meme experiment look like? Perhaps, it could be set up as a timed task. Participants would be primed with an Advice Dog meme that follows the abovementioned rules. Then, after a short delay, they would be presented a meme containing the same image as the prime stimulus, this time imposed with a sentence that follows the rules (related), doesn’t follow the rules (unrelated), or is ungrammatical (non-sentence). The participants would complete several trials, indicating whether the meme contained a grammatical sentence. The syntax-first approach would predict similar reaction times for both grammatical sentences. However, I would be curious to see if the reaction time for the related condition was significantly shorter than for the unrelated condition. If it was shorter, I think it would provide further evidence that context—a visual stimulus, in this case—is processed along with syntactic information. Maybe then knowledge of Patti’s pies would move from the esoteric to the mainstream and scientists, as well as psychology students, could have a reason (or a second one) to appreciate this legend.


Davison, P. (2012). The language of internet memes (M. Mandiberg, Ed.). In The social media reader (pp. 120-134). New York: New York University Press.

Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Language. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (pp. 306-308). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet?

In response to a study published this year on the effect of social media on student performance, one commenter wrote “Yet another study proving what someone with half a brain already: if you are distracted, you are not going to learn very much (petercherman, 2015).” The author of the study, Jeffrey Kuznekoff, would probably disagree. Kuznekoff wondered how social media us in the classroom, like texting and tweeting, affected a student’s ability to learn new material. So, he conducted an experiment comparing the effects of tweeting, texting, and note-taking on test performance. The procedures he used reflect several of those developed by memory scientists. In the end, Kuznekoff showed that the implementation of mobile devices in the classroom has the potential to improve how we learn in ways that reflect our current understanding of memory.

Kuznekoff’s study demonstrates the generation effect discussed in our textbook’s chapter on encoding and retrieval. According textbook author, generating material helps us transfer memories more effectively to long-term memory than passively receiving it (Goldstein, 2011). Goldstein cites the research of Slameka and Graf, in which participants remembered more words when they used them to answer fill-in-the-blank questions rather than just reading them (2011). Kuznekoff took advantage of the generation effect by asking some participants to text or tweet messages that were relevant to material being taught to them in class (Straumsheim, 2015). There scores were nearly as high as those who old-fashioned notes and much better than those who sent irrelevant texts or tweets.

Kuznekoff also makes use of the testing effect. This study demonstrates the testing effect discussed in the same chapter. The testing effect predicts improved memory when we are tested on material that we want to commit to memory (Goldstein, 2011). Roediger and Karpicke tested this hypothesis by comparing the performance of groups that were tested after either rereading a prose passage or taking a recall test (Goldstein 2011). A week later, those who took the recall test forgot much less about the passage than those who simply reread it. In Kuznekoff’s study, some participants received text messages with prompts about the material as it was being presented, testing their recall in real-time (Straumsheim, 2015). Significantly, participants who received these text messages performed much better than even those who sent relevant tweets during class.

Social media are powerful tools. Even this blog assignment is an example of how social media can improve memory. Writing a good thesis statement is an example of the generation effect. Like with encoding strategies, some social media are more effective memory enhancers than others. However, social media is not just a distraction. Advances in technology can help us learn the advances made in science, like memory research. Just because they have a bad reputation, it doesn’t mean that social media can’t play a positive role in learning. Or as tamaraz, who replied to the commenter quoted at the beginning of this entry, said “It is important to critically examine things that ‘everyone already knows’ (2015).”


Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Long-term memory: Encoding and retrieval. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (pp. 178-180). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Petercherman. (2015, June 8). Re: Take note [Web log comment]. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from

Straumsheim, C. (2015, June 8). Take note [Web log post]. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from P. (2015, June 8). Re: Take note [Web log comment]. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from

Tamaraz. (2015, January 8). Re: Take note [Web log comment]. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from P. (2015, June 8). Re: Take note [Web log comment]. Retrieved October 18, 2015, from



Advances in fMRI Technology and Ethical Concerns

In 2007, Time warned us that advances in brain-imaging technology were raising serious ethical concerns (Russo, 2007). The article mentions how advances in our understanding about the mind have led many people to question what limits should be placed on this technology. It gives the example of CEPHOS, a company claiming to perfect a lie detection test using brain scans with a 90% accuracy rate. Two years later, a psychologist hired CEPHOS to conduct this test as part of his defense (Lowenberg, 2010). Although many researchers have expressed serious doubts about the accuracy and the ethics of these kinds of brain-imaging applications, we are living in a world where our thoughts are quickly not remaining our own. We must be careful of the impact of brain-imaging technology on our daily lives.

Research suggests that our thoughts correspond to specific patterns of brain activity, but there is a lot about the human thought that we still don’t understand (Goldstein, 2011). Scientists capture images of brain activity with an fMRI scanner and then they use a computer program to make sense of images they collect. Scientists can now recognize the pattern of brain activity of a person thinking or seeing an object. One study has even demonstrated how similar the patterns of brain activity are between different people. However, human thought involves more complicated patterns of activity than the perception of a simple object.

Despite the limitations of the fMRI, CEPHOS tried to use brain scans to provide expert testimony in a federal court case (Lowenberg, 2010). In 2009, psychologist Dr. Lorne Semrau was charged with defrauding Medicare, a federal crime. To prove he was telling the truth, he underwent a lie detection test conducted by CEPHOS. CEPHOS used an fMRI scanner to compare the activity in the doctor’s brain when he claimed to be lying with the activity when he claimed to be telling the truth. In order to be considered expert testimony, the scans had to be scientifically valid. However, the presiding judge concluded that the fMRI lie detection test did not satisfy all of the necessary criteria for scientific. The judge also cited an article, authored by researchers affiliated with CEPHOS, explaining that the fMRI “is currently not ready to be used in real-world lie detection (Lowenberg, 2010).” Even CEPHOS researchers could not prevent their company from attempting to use brain-imaging technology for applications it has not been proven capable of performing.

This is just one example of the concerns that fMRI scans raise. The case of Dr. Semau involves a defendant who asked for a scan. Time warns of the potential for criminal suspects to be forced to undergo brain scans “like a search warrant for the brain (Russo, 2007).” After all, criminal law allows police to draw blood after a suspected drunk driving accident. Of course, there is no reason to assume that all applications of fMRI scans are designed to encroach on our freedom, but this technology does raise questions that require answers—and soon.

We must encourage the skepticism of the CEPHOS researchers cited by the judge in Dr. Semrau’s case. Otherwise, we risk putting too much trust in technologies that already have an increasingly large impact on our lives, including how we serve justice and protect individual liberty.


Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Neuroscience. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed., pp. 39-43). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Lowenberg, K. (2010, June 10). FMRI Lie Detection Fails Its First Hearing on Reliability [Web log post]. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from

Russo, F. (2007, January 29). The Brain: Who Should Read Your Mind? Retrieved September 15, 2015, from,9171,1580378-2,00.html