Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.18.2015

Novel Descriptions

This is a post I put together for one of my library's blogs, and I'm reproducing it here (after the photo) as part of my series inspired by This Explains Everything.

  • Is the first letter of your first name carbonated, still (flat), or frothy?
  • Are lemons fast or slow?
  • What color is your favorite number?
  • What shape is your favorite taste?
  • Is the smell of baking bread a high, middle, or low musical note?
  • What does your aura sound like?
Often what makes one piece of writing stand out from the rest is its descriptions, the way it captures the feel or essence of things without relying on the same cliches and metaphors that most other descriptions do.  These writers find ways of describing things that are new and unique yet resonant and fitting.  That lemons appear yellow and taste sour is true, yet both are so obvious as to be hardly worth stating.  When asked if lemons are fast or slow, though, most people will respond they've never thought about it before and then answer that lemons are fast.  So describing a lemon as fast will feel both novel and apt to most readers.

Barry C. Smith considered this idea that Lemons Are Fast in response to the question asked at edge.org, What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?*  He describes the phenomenon of such automatic associations as cross-modal correspondences: non-arbitrary associations between features in one sense modality with features in another.  The questions above are examples of ways we can cross modalities.  Smith explains:
There are cross-modal correspondences between taste and shape, between sound and vision, between hearing and smell, many of which are being investigated by neuroscientist Charles Spence and philosopher Ophelia Deroy. These unexpected connections are reliable and shared, unlike cases of synaesthesia, which are idiosyncratic—though individually consistent. And the reason we make these connections in the brain is to give us multiple fixes on objects in the environment that we can both hear and see. It also allows us to communicate elusive aspects of our experience.

We often say that tastes are hard to describe, but when we realise that we can change vocabulary and talk about a taste as round or sharp new possibilities open up. Musical notes are high or low; sour tastes are high, and bitter notes low. Smells can have low notes and high notes. You can feel low, or be incredibly high. This switching of vocabularies allows us to utilise well-understood sensory modalities to map various possibilities of experience.
These unexpected connections are reliable and shared . . . and allow us to communicate elusive aspects of our experience.  Isn't that what we often see in the writing we admire, what we often strive for in creating our own: a way to communicate elusive aspects of our experience with others in ways that make unexpected connections, ways that, though unexpected, can be relied on as shared?  Try looking for these kinds of descriptions the next time you're blown away by a piece of writing to see if the author has found some.  Try playing around with different ways to cross the modalities to find connections that seem unexpected yet feel right (then, of course, look for ways to capture them in your writing).  Neuroscience and philosophy indicate you might just be on to something novel yet apt when you do.



*Smith's essay is included, with many other responses to the same question, in the book This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, edited by John Brockman.

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