How to Do Conversation Research

Carl H. Flygt

August 2006


I believe conversation research is a real and actual possibility. By conversation research I mean a theoretical framework enabling empirical questions about subconscious responses, self-conscious judgments, semantic references and inferences, political and sociological consensus, biological fields and even, and most importantly, mystical insight in conversation. I believe such questions and the answers to them are likely to have a significant effect on long run cultural adaptations, on social mores and values, on background practices, and on institutional conventions and codifications in Western societies. I believe these effects will be largely beneficial because they will tend to supplant, or at least provide an alternative to, the forces of vulgarity and degeneracy that come with free societies more or less by necessity. I believe that such research will lead society into an evolved form of life that will reflect and support the beauty and goodness of human nature, and its all-pervading desire to lift itself and the world into a spiritual mode of self-consciousness and activity.

Fig. 1. Chart depicting possible measurements and indices under conditions of well-formed conversation. view larger

Science, of course, imposes no normativity on its subjects, and this great principle will apply to conversation just as it does to basic research in genetics, for example. Spirituality and the capacity for mystical insight, I think, are in general objective features of human nature, not arbitrary constructions of society or of individual pathology, as one might conceivably assert. These are something that must pertain, by transcendental necessity, to rationality and all deployments of rationality. The peculiar thing about the objectivity of consciousness and the products of consciousness is that human beings appear to be responsible by necessity for putting them there in any explicit form. Conversation and other products of rational self-consciousness, dreams for example, have an autonomous and objective character because of what rational individuals must do under certain conditions, such as speaking and listening in an appropriate way, or having an intelligible experience while largely unconscious. Conversation research, then, seeks to frame these a priori features of intentionality and rationality as objective conditions with practical exploitability. It relies on an attitude in consciousness of objectivity, impersonality and commitment to truth, even toward itself, and studies phenomena associated with that stance.

The video camera and the digital clock then are fundamental to the study of conversation. People in conversation must be willing to be recorded as they are, down to the microexpression, and their stances and experiences analyzed from that point of view. A certain taste for such a situation, its potential embarrassments and discomforts as well as its occasions of excitement and enlightenment, must develop among conversation researchers, a taste for the spirit of truth. A systematic qualifying process for its subjects will thus probably be required for basic conversation research to emerge as a field of science. A spontaneous individual preference for meditation and prayer, for aesthetic expression and appreciation and for scientific and philosophical thinking seem to be logical requirements for the conversation researcher to possess. As a practical matter, the scientific tone and tenor of conversation research, and its overall objectives, will probably prove sufficient, in most cases, to maintain attitudes and practices at a level that preclude propensities to manipulate feelings out of curiosity or a need for self-satisfaction, to dominate arbitrarily or to deceive oneself or others.

Attached (Fig. 1) is a chart depicting a research outcome that I believe can be obtained with the tools and preparedness available today. Graph 1 illustrates galvanic skin responses in a group of five people over the course of the first thirty minutes of a formal conversation. Two things are noteworthy about this graph. One is that a set of significantly coordinated bodily responses has emerged from a conversation of freely acting individuals. This is the purport of the coordinated arousal spikes at the 52nd and 35th minutes. A certain unity of psychological state appears to obtain among these free individuals. What is the nature of this unity? By what mechanism has it been produced? Is there a mental object of some sort in play? Is everyone looking at the same thing with individual inner eyes? What is actually there in people’s minds? The second is that the apparent unity has been willed individually. The people here know enough about conversation and its purposes to conduct themselves in a way that makes such a unity possible at all. This unity has emerged from a collective sense of freedom. The social contract underwriting this freedom is the basic purport of my theoretical treatment of conversation (Flygt, 2006), and graph 1, should such a result prove possible to obtain in actuality, would be evidence in favor of that basic theory.

Graph 2 is no less significant. Here the individuals in conversation have pressed a concealed switch to indicate moments during the conversation when they perceived a certain change of state in the conversational atmosphere. In this case again, significant patterns have emerged. It is as though the atmosphere in which the individuals are working has objective, sensible features. Data such as this would be evidence for a field phenomenon of some sort among or within the social matrix. What is the nature of this field? What are its flux characteristics? Which of the four fundamental physical forces (electromagnetism, gravity, nuclear, weak nuclear) does it represent, is it a combination of some of these forces or is it a fifth such force? Can instruments that can directly detect this field be designed? What is the possible significance of this field for consciousness before birth and after death? What manner of consciousness is conceivable or intuitable in this field alone, without the intervention of material bodies? What manner of propositionality and language might be sustainable there, creating a bridge between this world and the next one?

In the third graph we have something that may prove formidable as a practical matter, but has been demonstrated to be possible in principle. The graph represents the inferential semantics of Robert Brandom, which views the logical entailments of sentences, contextualized by commitments and entitlements preceding them, as sufficient to determine intentionality and volition in general. Brandom’s idea is that words and sentences have a binding force on consciousness because of what they authorize and prohibit, thus working out of a super-egoic realm of pure meaning and inference. Brandom’s project is to render that pure realm explicit, a kind of set-theoretical structure at work in the mind wherein with each sentence uttered in conversation, certain new inferences are entailed and others are cancelled. On Brandom’s theory, it should be possible, in principle, at any conversational juncture, if the conversation is well-behaved, to spell out all of the commitments each conversationist accepts or should accept, and all of the beliefs to which he (she) is entitled. In graph 3, because of the nature of the social contract framing these sorts of conversations, the entitlement structure remains rather uniform, and changes in states of consciousness can be mapped onto objective semantic entailments.

Any conversation framed by my general theory will have moments in time where universal satisfaction with the current content is asserted, and graph 4 is a representation of that progression. Thus at t = 52, t = 45 and t = 35, there were moments of unanimity, and at least two such moments (t = 52, t = 35) correlated tolerably with measurable state changes and linguistic patterns at that time. Graph 4 can be compiled by reviewing the videotape of the conversation, by asking the participants for corroboration in real time or in retrospect and by making inferences from body language and other signs. Graph 5 is simply the time scale, the basic condition under which the conversation is performed.

I believe results of this sort can be obtained empirically and at relatively low cost, although such costs are always relative to the value one sees in them. Should promising results obtain in some initial trials, I believe it will be justifiable to deploy greater resources in the direction of computer programming and of physiological hardware, such as direct measurement of brain activity, blood circulation and temperature. Other factors will also affect costs, such as general laboratory conditions (architecture and seating), preparation and training of subjects, academic research on compatible techniques and lines of inquiry and travel. In general, however, given the fact that a working theory is now in print, I believe it is reasonable to assert that conversation research has a future and that interested individuals need only apply their talents to making it a reality.


Brandom, Robert B. Making It Explicit – Reasoning, Representing and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1994.

Flygt, Carl H. Conversation - A New Theory of Language. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006.

Sheldrake, Rupert. The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Unexplained Powers of the Human Mind. New York: Crown, 2003.