Sunday, September 18, 2016

New paper: Meaning above the head

I'm happy to announce that our new paper, "Meaning above the head" is now published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology! This one explores the structure of "upfixes" which are the class of visual signs that float above character's heads, like lightbulbs or hearts.

In my book, The Visual Language of Comics, I made a few hypotheses about these elements. First, I argued that they were bound by a few constraints: 1) they are typically above the head, and are weird when moved to the side. 2) the upfix has a particular "agreement" relationship with the face (e.g., storm clouds go with a sad face, but are weird with a happy face). Also, I argued that upfixes are an abstract class, meaning they can easily allow for new ones, though they won't be quite as comprehensible as conventional ones (as in the image below).

With these hypotheses stated, my enterprising student Beena Murthy set out to test these ideas as part of a experiment she ran for a class project (many of the projects from that class are now published). We were then joined by my collaborator Tom Foulsham who aided us in testing additional questions in a second experiment (which you may have taken online!).

Lo and behold, most all of my hypotheses appear to be borne out! Overall, this means that upfixes use particular constraints in their construction, and allow for the creation of new, novel signs! We now plan to follow up these experiments with several more.

Check out the paper, which is available on my Downloadable Papers page, or directly here: PDF.

AND... don't forget that you can also get awesome t-shirts with both the normal and unconventional upfixes. The shirt designs (which are the in this post images) actually feature our stimuli from the experiments!


“Upfixes” are “visual morphemes” originating in comics where an element floats above a character’s head (ex. lightbulbs or gears). We posited that, similar to constructional lexical schemas in language, upfixes use an abstract schema stored in memory, which constrains upfixes to locations above the head and requires them to “agree” with their accompanying facial expressions. We asked participants to rate and interpret both conventional and unconventional upfixes that either matched or mismatched their facial expression (Experiment 1) and/or were placed either above or beside the head (Experiment 2). Interpretations and ratings of conventionality and face–upfix matching (Experiment 1) along with overall comprehensibility (Experiment 2) suggested that both constraints operated on upfix understanding. Because these constraints modulated both conventional and unconventional upfixes, these findings support that an abstract schema stored in long-term memory allows for generalisations beyond memorised individual items.

Full reference:

Cohn, Neil, Beena Murthy, and Tom Foulsham. (2016). Meaning above the head: combinatorial constraints on the visual vocabulary of comics. Journal of Cognitive Psychology. 28(5): 559-574.