Communication, the Basics

I mentioned in my last post that I am very much interested in communication because of my inability to communicate with Mike, my older brother, who is autistic, profoundly retarded and nonverbal. I would like to discuss the concept of communication in general, see how its underlying principles apply to language, and the problems that arise in communication, with and without language, in a series of posts.

What is communication?

“Communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning “to share”) is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior. It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or a group of living creatures.” [1]

Mathematical definition

Claude Shannon developed a mathematical theory of communication. Although the details of this theory are beyond the scope of this post, it is worthwhile to look at his characterization of communication and the terms he uses.

Shannon was concerned about communication in terms of conveying a message from sender to receiver. He defined the engineering aspect of communication as follows, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” [2] The engineering problem with which he is concerned does not address the content or meaning of the message; he is primarily concerned with the fidelity of the message.

The components of Shannon’s of communication system include: 1) An information source that produces a message; 2) A transmitter that produces a signal; 3) A channel, the medium through which the signal travels transmitter to receiver; 4) The receiver that reconstructs the message from the signal; and 5). The destination is that for whom the message is intended” [3]

My interest lies in the semantic meaning of the message transmitted, which is outside the scope of the engineering problem of communication. However, Shannon’s components of a communication system seem to be applicable for all modes of communication.

Looking for food

Can we consider the movement of single-cell creature toward a food source a communication system? Lets apply Shannon’s criteria: 1) Information source – the gradient of food concentration; 2) Transmitter – the medium in which the single-celled organism resides; 3) Channel – the medium between the food and the organism; 4) Receiver – the organism; 5) Destination – the cell machinery that needs the food. Can we characterize the presence of a concentration of food as a message? I don’t think this is what Shannon had in mind, so I would say, this is not a communication system. No message is being relayed from one point to the other. In this case, the food is the message.

Ragnar Granit [4] relates a very interesting account of dance communication in bees originally observed by Karl von Frisch. Bees have compound eyes composed of many elements, each of which are surrounded by cells that can detect different planes of polarization. As a bee flies to its food source – a flower in a field, for example – it sees a map of the naturally polarized, reflected light from the sky. Upon return to the hive, it relates the map information by moving in semi-circular patterns, whose diagonal is oriented in the direction of the food. Other factors such as the length of the dance contribute to the dissemination of knowledge regarding the whereabouts of the food.

Applying Shannon’s criteria for a communication system: 1) Information source – the food-finding bee; 2) Transmitter – the movements of the bee; 3) Channel – the space around the dancing bee; 4) Receiver – the other bees in the hive; 5) Destination – sensory organs of the other bees.

In this case, there is a message deliberately conveyed by the bee that found the food. The dance (and probably other factors only known to bees) contains the information that the other bees need to find the food. I would say yes, this is a communication system as per Shannon’s criteria.

Back to consciousness for a moment

As an interesting side note, I’d like to point out that the idea Alva Noë put forth in Out of Our Heads seems to precisely apply to bees: “Consciousness is more like a dance than it is like digestion.” [5] The knowledge of a food source comes to the hive mind’s consciousness precisely as a result of a dance.


[2] Shannon, C.E. A Mathematical Theory of Communication The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October, 1948.

[3] Ibid pg 380

[4] Granit, R. The Purposive Brain Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1981 print

[5] Noë, A. Out of Our Heads. New York: Hill and Wang 2009 print

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