Ideasthesia (alternative spelling ideaesthesia) is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes Ancient Greek ἰδέα (idéa) and αἴσθησις (aísthēsis), meaning “sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas”. The main reason for introducing the notion of ideasthesia was the problems with synesthesia. While “synesthesia” means “union of senses”, empirical evidence indicated that this was an incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. Syn-aesthesis denoting also “co-perceiving”, implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, according to others, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia in fact are induced by the semantic representations. That is, the meaning of the stimulus is what is important rather than its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia. In other words, while synesthesia presumes that both the trigger (inducer) and the resulting experience (concurrent) are of sensory nature, ideasthesia presumes that only the resulting experience is of sensory nature while the trigger is semantic. Meanwhile, the concept of ideasthesia developed into a theory of how we perceive and the research has extended to topics other than synesthesia — as the concept of ideasthesia turned out applicable to our everyday perception. Ideasthesia has been even applied to the theory of art. Research on ideasthesia bears important implications for solving the mystery of human conscious experience, which according to ideasthesia, is grounded in how we activate concepts.
Many of us speak metaphorically when we describe a color as “screaming” or a sound as “sharp”, These are synesthetic associations we all experience, whether we know it or not ––but we pronounce them literally because it makes enough sense to us.
But synesthesia, which is one of the most charming sensory phenomena, has been overly studied and illustrated by many artists. Today, however, a fascinating aspect of this bridge between senses is being discovered: ideasthesia.
Danko Nikolic, a brain researcher from the Max-Plank Institute, has proposed this theory that questions the reality of two philosophical premises 1) the mind and body, and 2) the perception of senses and ideas. His research suggests that, for starters, these dualities might not exist.
Widely speaking, ideasthesia is a type of bridge that metaphorically links rational abstractions, i.e. ideas with sensory stimuli in a dynamic catalyzed by language. Nevertheless, the best way of understanding “ideasthesia” is through a TED talk that Nikolic himself recently gave. And, be warned, his theory might just change your paradigms from their foundation and reinforce the beliefs that Walt Whitman anticipated over a hundred years ago.
…the notion of ideasthesia — that one can feel or physically experience an idea. Instead of a letter or a sound or a single word as being physically felt, an entire idea or construct or abstract is experienced phenomenologically.
But this seems abstract in and of itself, right? Like, what would it mean to ‘feel’ an idea? The classic example, linked to here, would be to imagine two shapes. One is a curvy splatter, kind of like the old 90s Nickelodeon logo, and the other is an angular, jagged, pointy sort of shape. Which would you call Kiki and which would you call Bouba?
An overwhelming majority (95% according to one source) would say that the splatter is Bouba and the pointy thing is Kiki.
But why though?
Bouba and Kiki are random sounds, absolutely meaningless and the figures were similarly meaningless. Some contend that it is a linguistic effect, since ‘K’ is an angular letter and ‘B’ is more rounded. Yet, there seems to be a consensus on which is which, even cross-culturally to some extent. Because just the idea of the pointy shape feels like a Kiki and the blobbier shape feels like a Bouba.
Another way I think it is felt is when we talk about highly polarizing topics, often political or religious in nature. In the podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney talks about being confronted with a differing view point as having a gut-wrenching, physical effect on him. Researchers pointed out that the feeling is so strong that it actually elicits a fight-or-flight response.
But it’s just words, right? It’s not like someone saying “I don’t believe in universal healthcare” or “You should have the right to pull the plug in a coma” actually makes it so, or will cause it to happen to you. It is simply one person’s thought, so why does it trigger such a deep-seated emotion? The researchers in the episode hypothesize that the core ideas are related to you identity which is being threatened, but I think the explanation is somewhat simpler and stranger.
It’s because the ideas actually feel dangerous to you.
This is why what feels perfectly rational to you feels irrational to others.
It also makes more sense when talking about geniuses or highly gifted individuals. Although they exist, the Dr. House-type hyper-rational savants aren’t usually what you hear about when you look at the biographies of highly intelligent or gifted peoples. Da Vinci, Goethe, Tesla, Einstein and others all seem to describe an intensely phenomenological approach to creating their works.
Even in what is traditionally considered to be more rational pursuits, like math, have occasional introspective debates about whether string theory or higher order mathematics is created or discovered. This seems like a question about whether one feels out a thought or collects and constructs evidence to make a case.
What’s more is that, while I think most people can feel an idea to some extent (kiki vs bouba), gifted peoples and geniuses are more sensitive to these ideas and can thus navigate it better. Sensitivity seems to really be the hallmark of gifted individuals, so much so that I remember reading about how some gifted students have to wear special socks because the inner stitching was too distracting.
I remember when I was younger (around elementary school) there was a girl who was in our schools gifted program who everyone could not stand. She seemed to have a hairline trigger and would snap at just about anything. I realize now that she was simply incredible sensitive to other children and didn’t really know how to handle it maturely.
I can imagine if this sort of sensitivity applied to ideas and thought processes might actually be a big reason why geniuses can handle seemingly large and complex thoughts that are a struggle for the rest of us — they aren’t just thinking through it, they are also feeling their way through it.
It may offer insight into the oft-observed correlation between madness and intellect. Maybe that’s what’s really going on in schizophrenia. It’s not just a disconnect of thoughts, but an oversensitivity to the ideas that breed those thoughts that elicits instinctive, reactionary emotions much like our fight-or-flight responses to polarizing thoughts. The hallucinations are another manifestation of the weaker sensory experience of benign symbols and thoughts.
There is an apt metaphor for the relationship between what we think of as conscious willpower and the openness of perception.
The egoic consciousnes is the helmsman of the boat as it heads along the river of experience, but he is positioned at the back of the boat crowded with passengers. While he controls the steering, he is driving blind and can’t see what is coming. He primarily operates on memory and mental maps, habit and heuristics. He knows the river or else similar rivers, at least most of the time, as long as remains within the familiar. Still, his predictive abilities are limited and hence so are his steering abilities.
This is why a lookout is needed at the front of the boat. The lookout, although having no direct control, can give warnings. Stop! Don’t go that direction! The lookout has the information the helmsman needs, but the helmsman only listens to the lookout when something is wrong. The lookout is the veto power of volition, what is called free-won’t rather than freewill.
“Recent neuroscientific models of the brain stress the importance of prediction within perceptual experience.3 The tenets of the predictive model of the brain can be described with a useful analogy: that of helmsmen steering collective boats on the rivers of lowland South America.
“In the Amazon, to go from one riparian town to another, people usually take a collective boat. Most boats carry between 20 to 60 passengers. These boats are steered in an intriguing way. The helmsman is positioned at the rear part of the boat. Because of this, he cannot see much of the river; what he sees in front of him are mostly the backs of passengers. Yet, the helmsman critically needs to know in minute detail where he is going, as the river is replete with shallows and floating tree trunks that must be avoided by any means. The usual way to make sure that the helmsman is able to steer the boat safely is to position a lookout at the front part of the boat and to have him warn the helmsman in case anything dangerous shows up ahead.
“The human perceptual system roughly works like these collective boats! “Predictive models” of perception strongly contrast with “constructive models,” developed in the 1970s. According to constructive models of visual perception, the retina collects very gross and sparse information about the world, and each level of the visual system elaborates on this limited primary information and makes it gradually richer and more complex.4
“Let us say that the lookout stands for primary perceptual areas—low-level areas of the brain—and the helmsman stands for more frontal areas; the high-level areas of the brain. Furthermore, the trajectory of the boat stands for conscious perception. In the case of classical constructive models of the brain, perception is taken to be a gradual enrichment of information coming from lower areas of the brain. So, to use the boat analogy, constructive models of perception have it that the trajectory of the boat—i.e., conscious perception—is determined by the lookout sending warning signals to the helmsman—i.e., by bottom-up processes.
“Predictive models conceive of perception in a very different way. The first step of determining the trajectory of the boat is the helmsman guessing, on the basis of his past experience, where the boat can safely go. So, within the predictive model, the lookout plays no constitutive role. The lookout influences the trajectory of the boat only when the helmsman’s predictions are proved wrong, and when the lookout needs to warn him.
“Two niceties must be added. First, bottom-up error signals can be variously weighted. In noisy or uncertain situations, bottom-up prediction errors have a smaller influence than usual:5 in noisy or uncertain situations, the lookout’s warnings are not taken into account by the helmsman as much as usual. Second, in the boat analogy, there is only one lookout and one helmsman. In the brain, several duos of lookouts and helmsmen are working together, and each of these duos is specialized in a specific perceptual modality.”
This usually works well. Still, the egoic consciousness can be tiring, especially when it attempts to play both roles. If we never relax, we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety. That is how we get suck in loops of thought, where what the helmsman imagines about the world becomes his reality and so he stops listening as much to the lookout.
This has become ever more problematic for humanity as the boundaries of egoic consciousness have rigidified. Despite egoic self-confidence, we have limited ability to influence our situation and, as research shows, overtaxing ourselves causes us to become ineffective. No matter how hard it tries, the ego-self can’t force the ideology of freewill onto the world. Sometimes, we need to relax and allow ourselves to float along, with trust that the lookout will warn us when necessary.
There are many practices that help us with this non-egoic state. Meditation is the simplest, in which we train the mind to take a passive role but with full alertness. It allows the lookout to relax and take in the world without all of the nervous-inducing jerking around of a helmsman out of control while obsessed with control.
Another method is that of psychedelics, the experience of which is often referred to as a ‘trip’. Traditionally, a shaman or priest would have taken over the role of helmsman, allowing the participants to temporarily drop that role. Without someone else to play that role, a standard recommendation has been to let go and allow yourself to float along, just go with the current and trust where it takes you. In doing this, the environment is important in supporting this state of mind. This is a way of priming the mind with set and setting.
Richard M. Doyle explained this strategy, in Darwin’s Pharmacy (p. 18):
“If psychedelics left any consistent trace on the literature of trip reports and the investigation of psychedelic states, it is that “resistance” is unlikely to be a useful tactic and that experiment is unavoidable. Leary, whose own “setting” was consistently clustered around practices of the sacred, offered this most compressed algorithm for the manipulation (“programming”) of psychedelic experience, a script asking us to experimentally give ourselves over to the turbulence: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” Such an experiment begins, but is not completed, by a serene letting go of the self under the pull of a transhuman and improbable itinerary. This letting go, of course, can be among the greatest of human achievements, the very goal of human life: Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German heretic, reminds us that this gelassenheit is very old and not easily accomplished.”
For anyone who has experienced it, the transformative power of psychedelics is undeniable. Many modern people find themselves near permanently stuck in egoic control mode, their hand ever on the steering mechanism. We don’t easily let our guard down and we hardly can even imagine what that might feel like, until something shuts down that part of our mind-brain.
“The observed effect, if you do brain imaging of people who are tripping, you find some very interesting patterns of activity in the brain – specifically something called the default mode network, which is a very kind of important hub in the brain, linking parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older areas having to do with memory and emotion. This network is kind of a regulator of all brain activities. One neuroscientist called it, ‘The conductor of the neural symphony,’ and it’s deactivated by psychedelics, which is very interesting because the assumption going in was that they would see lots of strange activity everywhere in the brain because there’s such fireworks in the experience, but in fact, this particular network almost goes off line.
“Now what does this network responsible for? Well, in addition to being this transportation hub for signals in the brain, it is involved with self reflection. It’s where we go to ruminate or mind wander – thinking about the past or thinking about the future – therefore worrying takes place here. Our sense of self, if it can be said to have an address and real, resides in this particular brain network. So this is a very interesting clue to how psychedelics affect the brain and how they create the psychological experience, the experience in the mind, that is so transformative.
“When it goes off line, parts of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate to one another, strike up conversation. And those connections may represent what people feel during the psychedelic experience as things like synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is when one sense gets cross wired with another. And so you suddenly smell musical notes or taste things that you see.
“It may produce insights. It may produce new metaphors – literally connecting the dots in new ways. Now that I’m being speculative – I’m going a little beyond what we’ve established – we know there are new connections, we don’t know what’s happening with them, or which of them endure. But the fact is, the brain is temporarily rewired. And that rewiring – whether the new connections actually produce the useful material or just shaking up the system – ‘shaking the snow globe,’ as one of the neuroscientists put it, is what’s therapeutic. It is a reboot of the brain.
“If you think about, you know, mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, many of them involve these loops of thought that we can’t control and we get stuck on these stories we tell ourselves – that we can’t get through the next hour without a drink, or we’re worthless and unworthy of love. We get stuck in these stories. This temporarily dissolves those stories and gives us a chance to write new stories.”
Psychedelics give the average person the rare opportunity of full-blown negative capability, as our egoic boundaries become thinner or disappear altogether. When the chatter of the ego-mind ceases, the passengers on the boat can hear themselves and begin talking among themselves. The bundle theory of the mind suddenly becomes apparent. We might even come to the realization that the ego was never all that much in control in the first place, that consciousness is a much more limited phenomenon.
The Proteus effect is how our appearance on media results in mediating our experience, perception, and identity. It also shapes how we relate and how others relate to us. Most of this happens unconsciously.
There are many ways this might relate to other psychological phenomenon. And there are real world equivalents to this. Consider that how we dress influences how we act such as wearing a black uniform will increase aggressive behavior. Another powerful example is that children imagining themselves as a superhero while doing a task will exceed the ability they would otherwise have.
Most interesting is how the Proteus effect might begin to overlap with so much else as immersive media comes to dominate our lives. We already see the power of such influences by way of placebo effect, Pygmalion/Rosenthal effect, golem effect, stereotype threat, and much else. I’ve been particularly interested in the placebo effect as the efficacy of antidepressants for most people are no more statistically significant than that of a placebo, demonstrating how something can allow us to imagine ourselves into a different state of mind. Or consider how simply interacting with a doctor or someone acting like a doctor brings relief without any actual procedure having been involved.
Our imaginations are powerful, imagination of both of ourselves and others along with the imagination of others of ourselves. Tell a doctor or a teacher something about a patient or student, even if not true, and the individual will respond in such a way as if it is true with real world measurable effects. New media could have similar effects, even when we know it isn’t ‘real’ but merely virtual. Imagination doesn’t necessarily concern itself with the constraints of supposed rationality, as shown how people will viscerally react to a fake arm being cut after they’ve come to identify with that fake arm, despite their consciously knowing it is not actually their arm.
Our minds are highly plastic and our experience easily influenced. The implications are immense, from education to mental health, from advertising to propaganda. The Proteus effect could play a transformative role in the further development of the modern mind, either through potential greater self-control or greater social control.
“If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy.”
“If you owe the bank $100 that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”
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“a TEN-YEAR-OLD lad in Indianapolis who was arrested for picking up coal along the side of railroad tracks is now in jail. If the boy had known enough to steal the whole railroad he would be heralded as a Napoleon of finance.”
~ Mother Jones
Jogging this morning, a pebble got into my shoe. I was on a sidewalk that wasn’t covered in rocks. The shoes I had on have high tops and were tied tightly. The thought occurred to me about probability, considering all the perfect conditions that have to come together to lead to even such a simple result as a pebble in my shoe.
I had to step on one of the few tiny rocks that happened to be in the right spot. Somehow the rock got kicked up about 6 inches where it caught the back edge of my shoe. It had to land perfectly right in order to lodge in the slight space between my foot and the shoe. Then it had to make its way down my shoe without first getting kicked back out.
It just got me thinking. For any given person at any given moment, a rock getting in their shoe is highly improbable. I run and/or walk numerous times every single day. And I can go years without getting a rock in my shoe. Even when it does happen, it would usually be because I was walking on a gravel road or alley, not on a standard sidewalk. Yet for all of the billions of people who are out and about every single day, the probability of numerous people getting rocks in their shoes at any given moment is quite high.
A more exciting example is getting struck by lightning. The vast majority of people go through their entire lives without getting hit. Still, there is a miniscule minority of the world’s population that gets hit on any day. Some rare people even get struck by lightning multiple times in their lifetime. Lightning directly hitting any single person is extremely improbable, while lightning directly hitting some person somewhere is extremely probable.
Most people don’t go around worrying about lightning, but right at this moment multiple people in the world are probably getting struck. Someone somewhere inevitably will get struck. It could be you, right now where you are. And sometimes lightning comes seemingly out of nowhere with no storm in sight, even on occasion hitting people in their houses.
Probability is dependent on context. So it depends on our perspective, on how we look at the data and how we calculate the probability. Our view of probability tends to be biased by the personal, of course. So it tends to be biased by what we know and have experienced, what is familiar to us. It is hard to think about probability in purely rational terms.
Given the right perspective, almost anything can be seen as improbable.
The entire existence of the universe, if one thinks too much about it, starts to seem improbable. Also improbable is life emerging on a particular planet, then that life leading to consciousness, intelligence, and advanced civilizations. Even so, because of the immense number of planets in the immense number of solar systems in the immense number of galaxies, it is probable to the point of near inevitability that there are vast numbers of planets with conscious, intelligent lifeforms and advanced civilizations.
Heck, we might be surrounded by lifeforms on our planet and in our own solar system while being unable to perceive and recognize them. We think of the probability of life, along with all that goes with it, in terms of the life we know immediately around us. But the actual probability is that other lifeforms would be bizarre to us, even if we could even discern them. Other lifeforms might simply be beings of energy or fluids, might be too small to detect with our senses or too large to comprehend with our minds. If a gut microbe gained intelligence and you were able to ask it what the probability was that their world was a giant ambling creature, the response would probably be amused laughter or else they’d look at you as though you were crazy. Maybe our own imaginations toward that which is beyond us is as relatively limited as that of the gut microbe.
Another aspect is cultural bias. People living in a society that wears sandals would have a different view of the probability of rocks in their ‘shoes’ than those in a society that wears tall boots. Societies that don’t wear any footwear at all wouldn’t even comprehend the issue of rocks in shoes. The same thing for beings that can’t be seen, as in some societies it would be common belief that such beings are all around us (ghosts, spirits, demons, elves, supernatural creatures, etc), and they may claim to know how to interact with them.
How do we determine the probability of bicameral societies having existed in the ancient world? Some say it isn’t even plausible, much less probable. I was reading Hearing Voices by Simon McCarthy-Jones and the author was in this doubting camp. He basically argued that, interpreting ancient non-Western texts based on modern Western preconceptions, it is highly improbable that ancient non-Western societies could exist that contradicted modern Western preconceptions. Uh, well, yeah, I guess. Within that circular logic, it indeed is a coherent opinion. But obviously others disagree based on the possibility of other ways of interpreting the same evidence. For example, unlike McCarthy-Jones, some people would point to the anthropological record to see possible examples of bicameralism or something akin to it, such as the Ugandan Ik and the Amazonian Pirahã.
My point isn’t whether or not bicameral theory is the best possible explanation of the data. But even ignoring the theory, the anthropological record makes absolutely clear there are societies that seem very strange to our modern Western sensibility. Then again, to those other societies, we would appear strange. Considering how perfect conditions have had to be, all of modern Western civilization is highly improbable. If it were possible to re-create the entire world in a vast laboratory, you could run an experiment numerous times and probably never be able to repeat these same results. Supposedly strange societies like the Ik and Pirahã are immensely more probable than our own strange society. Some other societies have lasted for thousands of years and we might be lucky to last the coming century.
Although it’s possible that the world perfectly matches our present beliefs and biases, it is ridiculously improbable that such is the case. Future generations surely will look back on us as we look back on the ignorance and barbarity of ancient societies. So, who are we to hold ourselves up as the norm for all of humanity? And who are we to use our cultural biases to judge all of reality?
We have no way to determine the probability of most things or often even their plausibility. All we know is what we know. And we don’t know what we don’t know. Usually, we don’t even know that we don’t know what we don’t know. Our state of ignorance is almost entirely self-enclosed, as what we know or think we know is inseparable from what we don’t know. As it has been said: The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
The world is full of kicked-up pebbles and lightning strikes, strange lifeforms and even stranger cultures. Everything is improbable from some perspective, until it happens to you or is experienced by you and then it’s the most probable thing in the world. Then it simply is the reality you know.
For the past few months, I’ve been reading about color perception, cognition, and terminology. I finally got around to finishing a post on it. The topic is a lot more complex and confusing than what one might expect. The specific inspiration was the color blue, a word that apparently doesn’t signify a universal human experience. There is no condition of blueness objectively existing in the external world. It’s easy to forget that a distinction always exists between perception and reality or rather between one perception of reality and another.
How do you prove something is real when it feels real in your experience? For example, how would you attempt to prove your consciousness, interior experience, and individuality? What does it mean for your sense of self to be real? You can’t even verify your experience of blue matches that of anyone else, much less show that blueness is a salient hue for all people. All you have is the experience itself. Your experience can motivate, influence, and shape what and how you communicate or try to communicate, but you can’t communicate the experience itself. This inability is a stumbling block of all human interactions. The gap between cultures can be even more vast.
This is why language is so important to us. Language doesn’t only serve the purpose of communication but more importantly the purpose of creating a shared worldview. This is the deeply ingrained human impulse to bond with others, no matter how imperfect this is achieved in practice. When we have a shared language, we can forget about the philosophical dilemmas of experience and to what degree it is shared. We’d rather not have to constantly worry about such perplexing and disturbing issues.
These contemplations were stirred up by one book in particular, Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In my post on color, I brought up some of his observations about the Piraha (read pp. 136-141 from that book and have your mind blown). Their experience is far beyond what most people experience in the modern West. They rely on immediacy of experience. If they don’t experience or someone they know doesn’t experience something, it has little relevance to their lives and no truth value in their minds. Yet what they consider to be immediate experience can seem bizarre for us outsiders.
Piraha spirituality isn’t otherworldly. Spirits exist, just as humans exist. In fact, there is no certain distinction. When someone is possessed by a spirit, they are that spirit and the Piraha treat them as such. The person who is possessed is simply not there. The spirit is real because they experience the spirit with their physical senses. Sometimes in coming into contact with a spirit, a Piraha individual will lose their old identity and gain a new one, the change being permanent and another name to go along with it. The previous person is no longer there and I suppose never comes back. They aren’t pretending to change personalities. That is their direct experience of reality. Talk about the power of language. A spirit gives someone a new name and they become a different person. The name has power, represents an entire way of being, a personality unto itself. The person becomes what they are named. This is why the Piraha don’t automatically assume someone is the same person the next time they meet them, for they live in a fluid world where change is to be expected.
A modern Westerner sees the Piraha individual. To their mind, it’s the same person. They can see he or she is physically the same person. But another Piraha tribal member doesn’t see the same person. For example, when possessed, the person is apparently not conscious of the experience and won’t remember it later. During possession, they will be in an entirely dissociated state of mind, literally being someone else with different behaviors and a different voice. The Piraha audience watching the possession also won’t remember anything other than a spirit having visited. It isn’t a possession to them. The spirit literally was there. That is their perceived reality, what they know in their direct experience.
What the Piraha consider crazy and absurd is the Western faith in a monotheistic tradition not based on direct experience. If you never met Jesus, they can’t comprehend why you’d believe in him. The very notion of ‘faith’ makes absolutely no sense to them, as it seems like an act of believing what you know not to be real in your own experience. They are sincere Doubting Thomases. Jesus isn’t real, until he physically walks into their village to be seen with their own eyes, touched with their own hands, and heard with their own ears. To them, spirituality is as real as the physical world around them and is proven by the same means, through direct experience or else the direct experience of someone who is personally trusted to speak honestly.
Calling the Piraha experience of spirits a mass hallucination is to miss the point. To the degree that is true, we are all mass hallucinating all the time. It’s just one culture’s mass hallucinations differ from that of another. We modern Westerners, however, so desperately want to believe there can only be one objective reality to rule them all. The problem is we humans aren’t objective beings. Our perceived reality is unavoidably subjective. We can’t see our own cultural biases because they are the only reality we know.
In reading Everett’s description of the Piraha, I couldn’t help thinking about Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Jaynes wasn’t primarily focused on hunter-gatherers such as the Piraha. Even so, one could see the Piraha culture as having elements of bicameralism, whether or not they ever were fully bicameral. They don’t hallucinate hearing voices from spirits. They literally hear them. How such voices are spoken is apparently not the issue. What matters is that they are spoken and heard. And those spirit voices will sometimes tell the Piraha important information that will influence, if not determine, their behaviors and actions. These spirit visitations are obviously treated seriously and play a central role in the functioning of their society.
What is strangest of all is that the Piraha are not fundamentally different than you or I. They point to one of the near infinite possibilities that exist within our shared human nature. If a baby from Western society was raised by the Piraha, we have no reason to assume that he or she wouldn’t grow up to be like any other Piraha. It was only a few centuries ago when it also was common for Europeans to have regular contact with spirits. The distance between the modern mind and what came before is shorter than it first appears, for what came before still exists within us, as what we will become is a seed already planted.*
I don’t want this point to be missed. What is being discussed here isn’t ultimately about colors or spirits. This is a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves. What we see reflected back isn’t what we expected, isn’t how we appeared in our own imaginings. What if we aren’t what we thought we were? What if we turn out to be a much more amazing kind of creature, one that holds a multitude within?
(*Actually, that isn’t stated quite correctly. It isn’t what came before. The Piraha are still here, as are many other societies far different from the modern West. It’s not just that we carry the past within us. That is as true for the Piraha, considering they too carry a past within them, most of it being a past of human evolution shared with the rest of humanity. Modern individuality has only existed in a blip of time, a few hundred years in the hundreds of thousands of years of hominid existence. The supposed bicameral mind lasted for thousands of years longer than the entire post-bicameral age, not to mention the bundled mind in general (e.g., animism) probably going back millions of years. What are the chances that our present experience of egoic hyper-individuality will last as long? Highly unlikely.)
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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel L Everett
Pirahãs occasionally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one another, “Is this the same one who entered the river or is it kapioxiai?”
When I heard them discuss what was the same and what was different about me after I emerged from the river, I was reminded of Heraclitus, who was concerned about the nature of identities through time. Heraclitus posed the question of whether one could step twice into the same river. The water that we stepped into the first time is no longer there. The banks have been altered by the flow so that they are not exactly the same. So apparently we step into a different river. But that is not a satisfying conclusion. Surely it is the same river. So what does it mean to say that something or someone is the same this instant as they were a minute ago? What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was a toddler? None of my cells are the same. Few if any of my thoughts are. To the Pirahãs, people are not the same in each phase of their lives. When you get a new name from a spirit, something anyone can do anytime they see a spirit, you are not exactly the same person as you were before.
Once when I arrived in Posto Novo, I went up to Kóhoibiíihíai and asked him to work with me, as he always did. No answer. So I asked again, “Ko Kóhoi, kapiigakagakaísogoxoihí?” (Hey Kóhoi, do you want to mark paper with me?) Still no answer. So I asked him why he wasn’t talking to me. He responded, “Were you talking to me? My name is Tiáapahai. There is no Kóhoi here. Once I was called Kóhoi, but he is gone now and Tiáapahai is here.”
So, unsurprisingly, they wondered if I had become a different person. But in my case their concern was greater. Because if, in spite of evidence to the contrary, I turned out not to be a xíbiisi, I might really be a different entity altogether and, therefore, a threat to them. I assured them that I was still Dan. I was not kapioxiai.
On many rainless nights, a high falsetto voice can be heard from the jungle near a Pirahã village. This falsetto sounds spiritlike to me. Indeed, it is taken by all the Pirahãs in the village to be a kaoáíbógí, or fast mouth. The voice gives the villagers suggestions and advice, as on how to spend the next day, or on possible night dangers (jaguars, other spirits, attacks by other Indians). This kaoáíbógí also likes sex, and he frequently talks about his desire to copulate with village women, with considerable detail provided.
One night I wanted to see the kaoáíbógí myself. I walked through the brush about a hundred feet to the source of that night’s voice. The man talking in the falsetto was Xagábi, a Pirahã from the village of Pequial and someone known to be very interested in spirits. “Mind if I record you?” I asked, not knowing how he might react, but having a good idea that he would not mind.
“Sure, go ahead,” he answered immediately in his normal voice. I recorded about ten minutes of his kaoáíbógí speech and then returned to my house.
The next day, I went to Xagábi’s place and asked, “Say, Xagábi, why were you talking like a kaoáíbógí last night?”
He acted surprised. “Was there a kaoáíbógí last night? I didn’t hear one. But, then, I wasn’t here.”
After some delay, which I could not help but ascribe to the spirits’ sense of theatrical timing, Peter and I simultaneously heard a falsetto voice and saw a man dressed as a woman emerge from the jungle. It was Xisaóoxoi dressed as a recently deceased Pirahã woman. He was using a falsetto to indicate that it was the woman talking. He had a cloth on his head to represent the long hair of a woman, hanging back like a Pirahã woman’s long tresses. “She” was wearing a dress.
Xisaóoxoi’s character talked about how cold and dark it was under the ground where she was buried. She talked about what it felt like to die and about how there were other spirits under the ground. The spirit Xisaóoxoi was “channeling” spoke in a rhythm different from normal Pirahã speech, dividing syllables into groups of two (binary feet) instead of the groups of three (ternary feet) used in everyday talking. I was just thinking how interesting this would be in my eventual analysis of rhythm in Pirahã, when the “woman” rose and left.
Within a few minutes Peter and I heard Xisaóoxoi again, but this time speaking in a low, gruff voice. Those in the “audience” started laughing. A well-known comical spirit was about to appear. Suddenly, out of the jungle, Xisaóoxoi emerged, naked, and pounding the ground with a heavy section of the trunk of a small tree. As he pounded, he talked about how he would hurt people who got in his way, how he was not afraid, and other testosterone-inspired bits of braggadocio.
I had discovered, with Peter, a form of Pirahã theater! But this was of course only my classification of what I was seeing. This was not how the Pirahãs would have described it at all, regardless of the fact that it might have had exactly this function for them. To them they were seeing spirits. They never once addressed Xisaóoxoi by his name, but only by the names of the spirits.
What we had seen was not the same as shamanism, because there was no one man among the Pirahãs who could speak for or to the spirits. Some men did this more frequently than others, but any Pirahã man could, and over the years I was with them most did, speak as a spirit in this way.
The next morning when Peter and I tried to tell Xisaóoxoi how much we enjoyed seeing the spirits, he, like Xagábi, refused to acknowledge knowing anything about it, saying he wasn’t there.
This led me to investigate Pirahã beliefs more aggressively. Did the Pirahãs, including Xisaóoxoi, interpret what we had just seen as fiction or as fact, as real spirits or as theater? Everyone, including Pirahãs who listened to the tape later, Pirahãs from other villages, stated categorically that this was a spirit. And as Peter and I were watching the “spirit show,” I was given a running commentary by a young man sitting next to me, who assured me that this was a spirit, not Xisaóoxoi. Moreover, based on previous episodes in which the Pirahãs doubted that I was the same person and their expressed belief that other white people were spirits, changing forms at will, the only conclusion I could come to was that for the Pirahãs these were encounters with spirits— similar to Western culture’s seances and mediums.
Pirahãs see spirits in their mind, literally. They talk to spirits, literally. Whatever anyone else might think of these claims, all Pirahãs will say that they experience spirits. For this reason, Pirahã spirits exemplify the immediacy of experience principle. And the myths of any other culture must also obey this constraint or there is no appropriate way to talk about them in the Pirahã language.
One might legitimately ask whether something that is not true to Western minds can be experienced. There is reason to believe that it can. When the Pirahãs claim to experience a spirit they have experienced something, and they label this something a spirit. They attribute properties to this experience, as well as the label spirit. Are all the properties, such as existence and lack of blood, correct? I am sure that they are not. But I am equally sure that we attribute properties to many experiences in our daily lives that are incorrect.
“Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.”
~ Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
“This blue was the principle that transcended principles. This was the taste, the wish, the Binah that understands, the dainty fingers of personality and the swirling fingerprint lines of individuality, this sigh that returns like a forgotten and indescribable scent that never dies but only you ever knew, this tingle between familiar and strange, this you that never there was word for, this identifiable but untransmittable sensation, this atmosphere without reason, this illicit fairy kiss for which you are more fool than sinner, this only thing that God and Satan mistakenly left you for your own and which both (and everyone else besides) insist to you is worthless— this, your only and invisible, your peculiar— this secret blue.”
~ Quentin S. Crisp, Blue on Blue
Perception is as much cognition as sensation. Colors don’t exist in the world. It is our brain’s way of processing light waves detected by the eyes. Someone unable to see from birth will never be able to see normal colors, even if they gain sight as an adult. The brain has to learn how to see the world and that is a process that primarily happens in infancy and childhood.
Radical questions follow from this insight. Do we experience blue, forgiveness, individuality, etc before our culture has the language for it? And, conversely, does the language we use and how we use it indicate our actual experience? Or does it filter and shape it? Did the ancients lack not only perceived blueness but also individuated/interiorized consciousness and artistic perspective because they had no way of communicating and expressing it? If they possessed such things as their human birthright, why did they not communicate them in their texts and show them in their art?
The most ancient people would refer to the sky as black. Some isolated people in more recent times have also been observed offering this same description. This apparently isn’t a strange exception. Guy Deutscher mentions that, in an informal color experiment, his young daughter once pointed to the “pitch-black sky late at night” and declared it blue—that was at the age of four, long after having learned the color names for blue and black. She had the language to make the distinction and yet she made a similar ‘mistake’ as some isolated island people. How could that be? Aren’t ‘black’ and ‘blue’ obviously different?
The ancients described physical appearances in some ways that seem bizarre to the modern sensibility. Homer says the sea appears something like wine and so do sheep. Or else the sea is violet, just as are oxen and iron. Even more strangely, green is the color of honey and the color human faces turn under emotional distress. Yet no where in the ancient world is anything blue for no word for it existed. Things that seem blue to us are either green, black or simply dark in ancient texts.
It has been argued that Homer’s language such as the word for ‘bronze’ might not have referred to color at all. But that just adds to the strangeness. We not only can’t determine what colors he might have been referring to or even if he was describing colors at all. There weren’t abstractly generalized color terms that were exclusively dedicated to colors, instead also describing other physical features, psychological experiences, and symbolic values. This might imply that synesthesia once was a more common experience, related to the greater capacity preliterate individuals had for memorizing vast amounts of information (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly).
The paucity and confusion of ancient color language indicates color wasn’t perceived as all that significant, to the degree it was consciously perceived at all, at least not in the way we moderns think about it. Color hue might have not seemed all that relevant in the ancient world that was mostly lacking artificially colored objects and entirely lacking in bright garden flowers. Besides the ancient Egyptians, no one in the earliest civilizations had developed blue pigment and hence a word to describe it. Blue is a rare color in nature. Even water and sky is rarely a bright clear blue, when blue at all.
This isn’t just about color. There is something extremely bizarre going on, according to what we moderns assume to the case about the human mind and perception.
Consider the case of the Piraha, as studied by Daniel L. Everett (a man who personally understands the power of their cultural worldview). The Piraha have no color terms, not as single words, although they are able to describe colors using multiple words and concrete comparisons—such as red described as being like blood or green as like not yet ripe. Of course, they’ve been in contact with non-Piraha for a while now and so no one knows how they would’ve talked about colors before interaction with outsiders.
From a Western perspective, there are many other odd things about the Piraha. Their language does not fit the expectations of what many have thought as universal to all human language. They have no terms for numbers and counting, as well as no “quantifiers like all, each, every, and so on” (Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 119). Originally, they had no pronouns and the pronouns they borrowed from other languages are used limitedly. They refer to ‘say’ in place of ‘think’, which makes one wonder what this indicates about their experience—is their thought an act of speaking?
Along with lacking ancestor worship, there aren’t even words to refer to family one never personally knew. Also, there are no creation stories or myths or fiction or any apparent notion of the world having been created or another supernatural world existing. They don’t think in those terms nor, one might presume, perceive reality in those terms. They are epistemological agnostics about anything they haven’t personally experienced or someone they personally know hasn’t personally experienced, and their language is extremely precise in knowledge claims, making early Western philosophers seem simpleminded in comparison. Everett was put in the unfortunate position of having tried to convert them to Christianity, but instead they converted him to atheism. Yet the Piraha live in a world they perceive as filled with spirits. These aren’t otherworldly spirits. They are very much in this world and when a Piraha speaks as a spirit they are that spirit. To put it another way, the world is full of diverse and shifting selves.
Color terms refer to abstract unchanging categories, the very thing that seems least relevant to the Piraha. They favor a subjective mentality, but that doesn’t mean they possess a subjective self similar to Western culture. Like many hunter-gatherers, they have a fluid sense of identity that changes along with their names, their former self treated as no longer existing whatsoever, just gone. There is no evidence of belief in a constant self that would survive death, as there is no belief in gods nor a heaven and hell. Instead of being obsessed with what is beyond, they are endlessly fascinated by what is at the edge of experience, what appears and disappears. In Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha, Everett explains this:
“After discussions and checking of many examples of this, it became clearer that the Piraha are talking about liminality—situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. This concept is found throughout Piraha˜ culture. Piraha˜’s excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as traveling into another dimension. It is interesting, in light of the postulated cultural constraint on grammar, that there is an important Piraha˜ term and cultural value for crossing the border between experience and nonexperience.”
To speak of colors is to speak of particular kinds of perceptions and experiences. The Piraha culture is practically incomprehensible to us, as the Piraha represent an alien view of the world. Everett, in making a conclusion, writes that,
“Piraha thus provides striking evidence for the influence of culture on major grammatical structures, contradicting Newmeyer’s (2002:361) assertion (citing “virtually all linguists today”), that “there is no hope of correlating a language’s gross grammatical properties with sociocultural facts about its speakers.” If I am correct, Piraha shows that gross grammatical properties are not only correlated with sociocultural facts but may be determined by them.”
Even so, Everett is not arguing for a strong Whorfian positon of linguistic determinism. Then again, Vyvyan Evans states that not even Benjamin Lee Whorf made this argument. In Language, Thought and Reality, Whorf wrote (as quoted by Evans in The Language Myth):
“The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur.”
Anyway, Everett observed that the Piraha demonstrated a pattern to how they linguistically treated certain hues of color. It’s just that they had much diversity and complexity in how they described colors, a dark brown object being described differently than a dark-skinned person, and no consistency across all the Piraha members in which phrases they’d use to describe which colors. Still, like any other humans, they had the capacity for color perception, whether or not their color cognition matches that of other cultures.
To emphasize the point, the following is a similar example, as presented by Vyvyan Evans from TheLanguage Myth (p. 207-8):
“The colour system in Yélî Dnye has been studied extensively by linguistic anthropologist Stephen Levinson. 38 Levinson argues that the lesson from Rossel Island is that each of the following claims made by Berlin and Kay is demonstrably false:
Claim 1: All languages have basic colour terms
Claim 2: The colour spectrum is so salient a perceptual field that all cultures must systematically and exhaustively name the colour space
Claim 3: For those basic colour terms that exist in any given language, there are corresponding focal colours – there is an ideal hue that is the prototypical shade for a given basic colour term
Claim 4: The emergence of colour terms follows a universal evolutionary pattern
“A noteworthy feature of Rossel Island culture is this: there is little interest in colour. For instance, there is no native artwork or handiwork in colour. The exception to this is hand-woven patterned baskets, which are usually uncoloured, or, if coloured, are black or blue. Moreover, the Rossel language doesn’t have a word that corresponds to the English word colour: the domain of colour appears not to be a salient conceptual category independent of objects. For instance, in Yélî, it is not normally possible to ask what colour something is, as one can in English. Levinson reports that the equivalent question would be: U pââ ló nté? This translates as “Its body, what is it like?” Furthermore, colours are not usually associated with objects as a whole, but rather with surfaces.”
Evans goes into greater detail. Suffice it to say, she makes a compelling argument that this example contradicts and falsifies the main claims of conventional theory, specifically that of Berlin and Kay. This culture defies expectations. It’s one of the many exceptions that appears to disprove the hypothetical rule.
Part of the challenge is we can’t study other cultures as neutral observers. Researchers end up influencing those cultures they study or else simply projecting their own cultural biases onto them and so interpreting the results accordingly. Even the tests used to analyze color perceptions across cultures are themselves culturally biased. They don’t just measure how people divide up hues. In the process of being tested, the design of the test is teaching the subjects a particular way of thinking about color perception. The test can’t tell us how people think about colors prior to the test itself. And obviously, even if the test could accomplish this impossible feat, we have no way of time traveling back in order to apply the test to ancient people.
We are left with a mystery and no easy way to explore it.
* * *
Here are a few related posts of mine. And below that are other sources of info, including a video at the very bottom.
SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about. […]
For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.
Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction. There are other examples of this phenomenon. What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany. Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.
It wasn’t just the ‘wine-dark sea’. That epithet oinops, ‘wine-looking’ (the version ‘wine-dark’ came from Andrew Lang’s later translation) was applied both to the sea and to oxen, and it was accompanied by other colours just as nonsensical. ‘Violet’, ioeis, (from the flower) was used by Homer of the sea too, but also of wool and iron. Chloros, ‘green’, was used of honey, faces and wood. By far the most common colour words in his reticent vocabulary were black (170 times) and white (100), followed distantly by red (13).
What could account for this alien colour-sense? It wasn’t that Homer (if Homer existed) was blind, for there are parallel usages in other Greek authors.
The image Homer hoped to conjure with his winelike sea greatly depended upon what wine meant to his audience. While the Greeks likely knew of white wine, most ancient wine was red, and in the Homeric epics, red wine is the only wine specifically described. Drunk at feasts, poured onto the earth in sacred rituals, or onto the ashes around funeral pyres, Homeric wine is often mélas, “dark,” or even “black,” a term with broad application, used of a brooding spirit, anger, death, ships, blood, night, and the sea. It is also eruthrós, meaning “red” or the tawny-red hue of bronze; and aíthops, “bright,” “gleaming,” a term also used of bronze and of smoke in firelight. While these terms notably have more to do with light, and the play of light, than with color proper, Homeric wine was clearly dark and red and would have appeared especially so when seen in the terracotta containers in which it was transported. “Winelike sea” cannot mean clear seawater, nor the white splash of sea foam, nor the pale color of a clear sea lapping the shallows of a sandy shore. […]
Homer’s sea, whether háls, thálassa, or póntos, is described as misty, darkly troubled, black-dark, and grayish, as well as bright, deep, clashing, tumultuous, murmuring, and tempestuous—but it is never blue. The Greek word for blue, kuáneos, was not used of the sea until the late sixth or early fifth century BC, in a poem by the lyric poet Simonides—and even here, it is unclear if “blue” is strictly meant, and not, again, “dark”:
the fish straight up from the
dark/blue water leapt
at the beautiful song
After Simonides, the blueness of kuáneos was increasingly asserted, and by the first century, Pliny the Elder was using the Latin form of the word, cyaneus, to describe the cornflower, whose modern scientific name, Centaurea cyanus, still preserves this lineage. But for Homer kuáneos is “dark,” possibly “glossy-dark” with hints of blue, and is used of Hector’s lustrous hair, Zeus’ eyebrows, and the night.
Ancient Greek words for color in general are notoriously baffling: In The Iliad, “chlorós fear” grips the armies at the sound of Zeus’ thunder. The word, according to R. J. Cunliffe’s Homeric lexicon, is “an adjective of color of somewhat indeterminate sense” that is “applied to what we call green”—which is not the same as saying it means “green.” It is also applied “to what we call yellow,” such as honey or sand. The pale green, perhaps, of vulnerable shoots struggling out of soil, the sickly green of men gripped with fear? […]
Rather than being ignorant of color, it seems that the Greeks were less interested in and attentive to hue, or tint, than they were to light. As late as the fourth century BC, Plato named the four primary colors as white, black, red, and bright, and in those cases where a Greek writer lists colors “in order,” they are arranged not by the Newtonian colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—but from lightest to darkest. And The Iliad contains a broad, specialized vocabulary for describing the movement of light: argós meaning “flashing” or “glancing white”; aiólos, “glancing, gleaming, flashing,” or, according to Cunliffe’s Lexicon, “the notion of glancing light passing into that of rapid movement,” and the root of Hector’s most defining epithet, koruthaíolos—great Hector “of the shimmering helm.” Thus, for Homer, the sky is “brazen,” evoking the glare of the Aegean sun and more ambiguously “iron,” perhaps meaning “burnished,” but possibly our sense of a “leaden” sky. Significantly, two of the few unambiguous color terms in The Iliad, and which evoke the sky in accordance with modern sensibilities, are phenomena of light: “Dawn robed in saffron” and dawn shining forth in “rosy fingers of light.”
So too, on close inspection, Homeric terms that appear to describe the color of the sea, have more to do with light. The sea is often glaukós or mélas. In Homer, glaukós (whence glaucoma) is color neutral, meaning “shining” or “gleaming,” although in later Greek it comes to mean “gray.” Mélas (whence melancholy) is “dark in hue, dark,” sometimes, perhaps crudely, translated as “black.” It is used of a range of things associated with water—ships, the sea, the rippled surface of the sea, “the dark hue of water as seen by transmitted light with little or no reflection from the surface.” It is also, as we have seen, commonly used of wine.
So what color is the sea? Silver-pewter at dawn; gray, gray-blue, green-blue, or blue depending on the particular day; yellow or red at sunset; silver-black at dusk; black at night. In other words, no color at all, but rather a phenomenon of reflected light. The phrase “winelike,” then, had little to do with color but must have evoked some attribute of dark wine that would resonate with an audience familiar with the sea—with the póntos, the high sea, that perilous path to distant shores—such as the glint of surface light on impenetrable darkness, like wine in a terracotta vessel. Thus, when Achilles, “weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat/on the shore of the gray salt sea,” stretches forth his hands toward the oínopa pónton, he looks not on the enigmatic “wine-dark sea,” but, more explicitly, and possibly with more weight of melancholy, on a “sea as dark as wine.”
In his writings Homer surprises us by his use of color. His color descriptive palate was limited to metallic colors, black, white, yellowish green and purplish red, and those colors he often used oddly, leaving us with some questions as to his actual ability to see colors properly (1). He calls the sky “bronze” and the sea and sheep as the color of wine, he applies the adjective chloros (meaning green with our understanding) to honey, and a nightingale (2). Chloros is not the only color that Homer uses in this unusual way. He also uses kyanos oddly, “Hector was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him” (3). Here it would seem, to our understanding, that Hector’s hair was blue as we associate the term kyanos with the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, in our thinking kyanos means cyan (4). But we cannot assume that Hector’s hair was blue, rather, in light of the way that Homer consistently uses color adjectives, we must think about his meaning, did he indeed see honey as green, did he not see the ocean as blue, how does his perception of color reflect on himself, his people, and his world.
Homer’s odd color description usage was a cultural phenomenon and not simply color blindness on his part, Pindar describes the dew as chloros, in Euripides chloros describes blood and tears (5). Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red (6). These colors are fairly consistent with the four colors used by Homer in his color description, this leads us to the conclusion that all Ancient Greeks saw color only in the premise of Empedocles’ colors, in some way they lacked the ability to perceive the whole color spectrum. […]
This inability to perceive something because of linguistic restriction is called linguistic relativity (7). Because the Ancient Greeks were not really conscious of seeing, and did not have the words to describe what they unconsciously saw, they simply did not see the full spectrum of color, they were limited by linguistic relativity.
The color spectrum aside, it remains to explain the loose and unconventional application of Homer and other’s limited color descriptions, for an answer we look to the work of Eleanor Irwin. In her work, Irwin suggests that besides perceiving less chromatic distinction, the Ancient Greeks perceived less division between color, texture, and shadow, chroma may have been difficult for them to isolate (8). For the Ancient Greeks, the term chloros has been suggested to mean moistness, fluidity, freshness and living (9). It also seems likely that Ancient Greek perception of color was influenced by the qualities that they associated with colors, for instance the different temperaments being associated with colors probably affected the way they applied color descriptions to things. They didn’t simply see color as a surface, they saw it as a spirited thing and the word to describe it was often fittingly applied as an adjective meaning something related to the color itself but different from the simplicity of a refined color.
Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze. […]
The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky). Ancient Japanese used the same word for blue and green (青 Ao), and even modern Japanese describes, for instance, thriving trees as being “very blue,” retaining this artifact (青々とした: meaning “lush” or “abundant”). […]
Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.
The malleability of our color perception can be demonstrated with a simple diagram, shown here as figure six, “Afterimages”. The more our photoreceptors are exposed to the same color, the more fatigued they become, eventually giving out entirely and creating a reversed “afterimage” (yellow becomes blue, red becomes green). This is really just a parlor trick of sorts, and more purely physical, but it shows how easily shifted our vision is; other famous demonstrations like this selective attention test (its name gives away the trick) emphasize the power our cognitive functions have to suppress what we see. Our brains are pattern-recognizing engines, built around identifying things that are useful to us and discarding the rest of what we perceive as meaningless noise. (And a good thing that they do; deficiencies in this filtering, called sensory gating, are some of what cause neurological dysfunctions such as schizophrenia and autism.)
This suggests the possibility that not only did Homer lack a word for what we know as “blue”—he might never have perceived the color itself. To him, the sky really was bronze, and the sea really was the same color as wine. And because he lacked the concept “blue”—therefore its perception—to him it was invisible, nonexistent. This notion of concepts and language limiting cognitive perception is called linguistic relativism, and is typically used to describe the ways in which various cultures can have difficulty recalling or retaining information about objects or concepts for which they lack identifying language. Very simply: if we don’t have a word for it, we tend to forget it, or sometimes not perceive it at all. […]
So, if we’re all synesthetes, and our minds are extraordinarily plastic, capable of reorienting our entire perception around the addition of a single new concept (“there is a color between green and violet,” “schizophrenia is much more common than previously believed”), the implications of Homer’s wine-dark sea are rich indeed.
We are all creatures of our own time, our realities framed not by the limits of our knowledge but by what we choose to perceive. Do we yet perceive all the colors there are? What concepts are hidden from us by the convention of our language? When a noblewoman of Syracuse looked out across the Mare Siculum, did she see waves of Bacchanalian indigo beneath a sunset of hammered bronze? If a seagull flew east toward Thapsus, did she think of Venus and the fall of Troy?
The myriad details that define our everyday existence may define also the boundaries of our imagination, and with it our dreams, our ethics. We are lenses moving through time, beings of color and shadow.
Why were black, white, and red the first colors to be perceived by our forefathers? The evolutionary explanation is quite straightforward: ancient humans had to distinguish between night and day. And red is important for recognizing blood and danger. Even today, in us moderns, the color red causes an increase in skin galvanic response, a sign of tension and alarm. Green and yellow entered the vocabulary as the need to distinguish ripe fruit from unripe, grasses that are green from grasses that are wilting, etc. But what is the need for naming the color blue? Blue fruits are not very common, and the color of the sky is not really vital for survival.
Some languages have just three basic colors, others have 4, 5, 6, and so on. There’s even a debate as to whether the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon have any specialized color words at all! (If you ask a Pirahã tribe member to label something red, they’ll say that it’s blood-like).
But there’s still a pattern hidden in this diversity. […] You start with a black-and-white world of darks and lights. There are warm colors, and cool colors, but no finer categories. Next, the reds and yellows separate away from white. You can now have a color for fire, or the fiery color of the sunset. There are tribes that have stopped here. Further down, blues and greens break away from black. Forests, skies, and oceans now come of their own in your visual vocabulary. Eventually, these colors separate further. First, red splits from yellow. And finally, blue from green.
The researchers found that there is a real, measurable difference in how we perform on these two tasks. In general, it takes less time to identify that odd blue square compared to the odd green one. This makes sense to anyone who’s ever tried looking for a tennis ball in the grass. It’s not that hard, but I’d rather the ball be blue. In once case you are jumping categories (blue versus green), and in the other, staying with a category (green versus green).
However, and this is where things start to get a bit strange, this result only holds if the differently colored square was in the right half of the circle. If it was in the left half (as in the example images above), then there’s no difference in reaction times – it takes just as long to spot the odd blue as the odd green. It seems that color categories only matter in the right half of your visual field! […]
The crucial point is that everything that we see in the right half of our vision is processed in the left hemisphere of our brain, and everything we see in the left half is processed by the right hemisphere. And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. So perhaps the language savvy half of our brain is helping us out. […]
But how do we know that language is the key here? Back to the previous study. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment, but this time threw in a verbal distraction. The subjects were asked to memorize a word before each color test. The idea was to keep their language circuits distracted. And at the same time, other subjects were shown an image to memorize, not a word. In this case, it’s a visual distraction, and the language part of the brain needn’t be disturbed.
They found that when you’re verbally distracted, it suddenly becomes harder to separate blue from green (you’re slower at straddling color categories). In fact the results showed that people found this more difficult then separating two shades of green. However, if the distraction is visual, not verbal, things are different. It becomes easy to spot the blue among green, so you’re faster at straddling categories.
All of this is only true for your left brain. Meanwhile, your right brain is rather oblivious to these categories (until, of course, the left brain bothers to inform it). The conclusion is that language is somehow enhancing your left brain’s ability to discern different colors with different names. Cultural forces alter our perception in ever so subtle a way, by gently tugging our visual leanings in different directions.
In a category-learning paradigm, there was no evidence that Himba participants perceived the blue – green region of color space in a categorical manner. Like Berinmo speakers, they did not find this division easier to learn than an arbitrary one in the center of the green category. There was also a significant advantage for learning the dumbu-burou division, over the yellow-green division. It thus appears that CP for color category boundaries is tightly linked to the linguistic categories of the participant.
Two experiments attempted to reconcile discrepant recent ﬁndings relating to children’s color naming and categorization. In a replication of Franklin and colleagues ( Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 90 (2005) 114–141), Experiment 1 tested English toddlers’ naming and memory for blue–green and blue–purple colors. It also found advantages for between-category presentations that could be interpreted as support for universal color categories. However, a different deﬁnition of knowing color terms led to quite different conclusions in line with the Whorﬁan view of Roberson and colleagues (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133 (2004) 554–571). Categorical perception in recognition memory was now found only for children with a fuller understanding of the relevant terms. It was concluded that color naming can both under estimate and overestimate toddlers’ knowledge of color terms. Experiment 2 replicated the between-category recognition superiority found in Himba children by Franklin and colleagues for the blue–purple range. But Himba children, whose language does not have separate terms for green and blue, did not show across-category advantage for that set; rather, they behaved like English children who did not know their color terms.
It’s interesting that the Berinmo and Himba tribes have the same number of color terms, as well, because that rules out one possible alternative explanation of their data. It could be that as languages develop, they develop a more sophisticated color vocabulary, which eventually approximates the color categories that are actually innately present in our visual systems. We would expect, then, that two languages that are at similar levels of development (in other words, they both have the same number of color categories) would exhibit similar effects, but the speakers’ of the two languages remembered and perceived the colors differently. Thus it appears that languages do not develop towards any single set of universal color categories. In fact, Roberson et al. (2004) reported a longitudinal study that implies that exactly the opposite may be the case4. They found that children in the Himba tribe, and English-speaking children in the U.S., initially categorized color chips in a similar way, but as they grew older and more familiar with the color terms of their languages, their categorizations diverged, and became more consistent with their color names. This is particularly strong evidence that color names affect color concepts.
The children of the Himba were able to differentiate between many more shades of green than their English counterparts, but did not recognize the color blue as being distinct from green. The research found that the 11 basic English colors have no basis in the visual system, lending further credence to the linguistic theories of Deutscher, Geiger, Gladstone, and other academics.
This is a group of people in Namibia who were asked to do some color matching and similarity judgments for us. It’s a remote part of the world, but not quite so remote that somebody hasn’t got the t-shirt, but it’s pretty remote. That’s the sort of environment they live in, and these are the youngsters that I’m going to show you some particular data on. They are completely monolingual in their own language, which has a tremendous richness in certain types of terms, in cattle terms (I can’t talk about that now), but has a dramatic lack in color terms. They’ve only got five color terms. So all of the particular colors of the world, and this is an illustration which can go from white to black at the top, red to yellow, green, blue, purple, back to red again, if this was shown in terms of the whole colors of the spectrum, but they only have five terms. So they see the world as, perhaps differently than us, perhaps slightly plainer. So we looked at these young children, and we showed them a navy blue color at the top and we asked them to point to the same color again from another group of colors. And those colors included the correct color, but of course sometimes the children made mistakes. What I want to show was that the English children and the Himba children, these people are the Himba of Northwest Namibia, start out from the same place, they have this undefined color space in which, at the beginning of the testing, T1, they make errors in choosing the navy blue, sometimes they’ll choose the blue, sometimes they’ll choose the black, sometimes they’ll choose the purple. Now the purple one, actually if you did a spectral analysis, the blue and the purple, the one on the right, are the closest. And as you can see, as the children got older, the most common error, both for English children and the Himba children, is the increase (that’s going up on the graph) of the purple mistakes. But, their language, the Himba language, has the same word for blue as for black. We, of course, have the same word for the navy blue as the blue on the left, only as the children get older, three or four, the English children only ever confuse the navy blue to the blue on the left, whereas the Himba children confuse the navy blue with the black. So, what’s happening? Someone asked yesterday whether the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis had any currency. Well, if it has a little bit of currency, it has it certainly here, in that what is happening, because the names of colors mean different things in the different cultures, because blue and black are the same in the Himba language, the actual similarity does seem to have been altered in the pictorial register. So, the blues that we call blue, and the claim is that there is no natural category called blue, they were just sensations we want to group together, those natural categories don’t exist. But because we have constructed these categories, blues look more similar to us in the pictorial register, whereas to these people in Northwest Namibia, the blues and the blacks look more similar. So, in brief, I’d like to further add more evidence or more claim that we are constructing the world of colors and in some way at least our memory structures do alter, to a modest extent at least, what we’re seeing.
Not only has no evidence emerged to link the 11 basic English colors to the visual system, but the English-Himba data support the theory that color terms are learned relative to language and culture.
First, for children who didn’t know color terms at the start of the study, the pattern of memory errors in both languages was very similar. Crucially, their mistakes were based on perceptual distances between colors rather than a given set of predetermined categories, arguing against an innate origin for the 11 basic color terms of English. The authors write that an 11-color organization may have become common because it efficiently serves cultures with a greater need to communicate more precisely. Still, they write, “even if [it] were found to be optimal and eventually adopted by all cultures, it need not be innate.”
Second, the children in both cultures didn’t acquire color terms in any particular, predictable order–such as the universalist idea that the primary colors of red, blue, green and yellow are learned first.
Third, the authors say that as both Himba and English children started learning their cultures’ color terms, the link between color memory and color language increased. Their rapid perceptual divergence once they acquired color terms strongly suggests that cognitive color categories are learned rather than innate, according to the authors.
The study also spotlights the power of psychological research conducted outside the lab, notes Barbara Malt, PhD, a cognitive psychologist who studies language and thought and also chairs the psychology department at Lehigh University.
“To do this kind of cross-cultural work at all requires a rather heroic effort, [which] psychologists have traditionally left to linguists and anthropologists,” says Malt. “I hope that [this study] will inspire more cognitive and developmental psychologists to go into the field and pursue these kinds of comparisons, which are the only way to really find out which aspects of perception and cognition are universal and which are culture or language specific.”
Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers.
This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t see blue at all. Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it.
MRI experiments confirm that people who process color through their verbal left brains, where the names of colors are accessed, recognize them more quickly. Language molds us into the image of the culture in which we are born.
Both adults and infants are faster at discriminating between two colors from different categories than two colors from the same category, even when between- and within-category chromatic separation sizes are equated. For adults, this categorical perception (CP) is lateralized; the category effect is stronger for the right visual field (RVF)–left hemisphere (LH) than the left visual field (LVF)–right hemisphere (RH). Converging evidence suggests that the LH bias in color CP in adults is caused by the influence of lexical color codes in the LH. The current study investigates whether prelinguistic color CP is also lateralized to the LH by testing 4- to 6-month-old infants. A colored target was shown on a differently colored background, and time to initiate an eye movement to the target was measured. Target background pairs were either from the same or different categories, but with equal target-background chromatic separations. Infants were faster at initiating an eye movement to targets on different-category than same-category backgrounds, but only for targets in the LVF–RH. In contrast, adults showed a greater category effect when targets were presented to the RVF–LH. These results suggest that whereas color CP is stronger in the LH than RH in adults, prelinguistic CP in infants is lateralized to the RH. The findings suggest that language-driven CP in adults may not build on prelinguistic CP, but that language instead imposes its categories on a LH that is not categorically prepartitioned.
In this study we demonstrate that Korean (but not English) speakers show Categorical perception (CP) on a visual search task for a boundary between two Korean colour categories that is not marked in English. These effects were observed regardless of whether target items were presented to the left or right visual field. Because this boundary is unique to Korean, these results are not consistent with a suggestion made by Drivonikou [Drivonikou, G. V., Kay, P., Regier, T., Ivry, R. B., Gilbert, A. L., Franklin, A. et al. (2007) Further evidence that Whorfian effects are stronger in the right visual field than in the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 1097–1102] that CP effects in the left visual field provide evidence for the existence of a set of universal colour categories. Dividing Korean participants into fast and slow responders demonstrated that fast responders show CP only in the right visual field while slow responders show CP in both visual fields. We argue that this finding is consistent with the view that CP in both visual fields is verbally mediated by the left hemisphere language system.
The other, The Unfolding of Language (2005), deals with the actual evolution of language. […]
Yet, while erosion occurs there is also a creative force in the human development of language. That creativity is revealed in our unique capacity for metaphor. “…metaphor is the indispensible element in the thought-process of every one of us.” (page 117) “It transpired that metaphor is an essential tool of thought, an indispensible conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract concepts in terms of simpler concrete things. It is, in fact, the only way we have of dealing with abstraction.” (page 142) […]
The use of what can be called ‘nouns’ and not just ‘things’ is a fairly recent occurrence in language, reflecting a shift in human experience. This is a ‘fossil’ of linguistics. “The flow from concrete to abstract has created many words for concepts that are no longer physical objects, but nonetheless behave like thing-words in the sentence. The resulting abstract concepts are no longer thing-words, but they inherit their distribution from the thing-words that gave rise to them. A new category of words has thus emerged…which we can now call ‘noun’.” (page 246)
The way language is used, its accepted uses by people through understood rules of grammar, is the residue of collective human experience. “The grammar of a language thus comes to code most compactly and efficiently those constructions that are used most frequently…grammar codes best what it does most often.” (page 261) This is centrally why I hold the grammar of language to be almost a sacred portal into human experience.
In the 2010 work, Deutscher’s emphasis shifts to why different languages reveal that humans actually experience life differently. We do not all feel and act the same way about the things of life. My opinion is that it is a mistake to believe “humanity” thinks, feels and experiences to a high degree of similarity. The fact is language shows that, as it diversified across the earth, humanity has a multitude of diverse ways of experiencing.
First of all, “…a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and perceive the world.” (page 7) […]
The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt; I am interjecting much of my personal beliefs in here. Still, “…fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today….what we find ‘natural’ depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on.” (page 233) There are clear echoes of Nietzsche in here.
The conclusion is that “habits of speech can create habits of mind.” So, language affects culture fundamentally. But, this is a reciprocal arrangement. Language changes due to cultural experience yet cultural experience is affected by language.
In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher addresses the question as to whether the natural language we speak will have an influence on our thought and our perception. He focuses on perceptions, and specifically the perceptions of colours and perceptions of spatial relations. He is very dismissive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and varieties of linguistic relativity which would say that if the natural language we speak is of a certain sort then we cannot have certain types of concepts or experiences. For example, a proponent of this type of linguistic relativity might say that if your language does not have a word for the colour blue then you cannot perceive something as blue. Nonetheless, Deutscher argues that the natural language we speak will have some influence on how we think and see the world, giving several examples, many of which are fascinating. However, I believe that several of his arguments that dismiss views like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are based on serious misunderstandings.
The view that language is the medium in which conceptual thought takes place has a long history in philosophy, and this is the tradition out of which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed. […]
It is important to note that in this tradition the relation between language and conceptual thought is not seen as one in which the ability to speak a language is one capacity and the ability to think conceptually a completely separate faculty, and in which the first merely has a causal influence on the other. It is rather the view that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to think conceptually and that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to have perceptions of certain kinds, such as those in which what is perceived is subsumed under a concept. For example, it might be said that without language it is possible to see a rabbit but not possible to see it as a rabbit (as opposed to a cat, a dog, a squirrel, or any other type of thing). Thus conceptual thinking and perceptions of these types are seen not as separate from language and incidentally influenced by it but dependent on language and taking their general form from language. This does not mean that speech or writing must be taking place every time a person thinks in concepts or has these types of perception, though. To think that it must is a misunderstanding essentially the same as a common misinterpretation of Kant, which I will discuss in more detail in a later post.
While I take this to be the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Deutscher evidently interprets that hypothesis as a very different kind of view. According to this view, the ability to speak a language is separate from the ability to think conceptually and from the ability to have the kinds of perceptions described above and it merely influences such thought and perception from without. Furthermore, it is not a relation in which language makes these types of thought and perception possible but one in which thought and perception are actually constrained by language. This interpretation runs through all of Deutscher’s criticisms of linguistic relativity. […]
Certainly many questionable assertions have been made based on the premise that language conditions the way that we think. Whorf apparently made spurious claims about Hopi conceptions of time. Today a great deal of dubious material is being written about the supposed influence of the internet and hypertext media on the way that we think. This is mainly inspired by Marshall McLuhan but generally lacking his originality and creativity. Nevertheless, there have been complex and sophisticated versions of the idea that the natural language that we speak conditions our thought and our perceptions, and these deserve serious attention. There are certainly more complex and sophisticated versions of these ideas than the crude caricature that Deutscher sets up and knocks down. Consequently, I don’t believe that he has given convincing reasons for seeing the relations between language and thought as limited to the types of relations in the examples he gives, interesting though they may be. For instance, he notes that the aboriginal tribes in question would have to always keep in mind where the cardinal directions were and consequently in this sense the language would require them to think a certain way.
If you think about it, there is not a lot of blue in nature. Most people do not have blue eyes, blue flowers do not occur naturally without human intervention, and blue animals are rare — bluebirds and bluejays only live in isolated areas. The sky is blue — or is it? One theory suggests that before humans had words for the color blue, they actually saw the sky as another color. This theory is supported by the fact that if you never describe the color of the sky to a child, and then ask them what color it is, they often struggle to describe its color. Some describe it as colorless or white. It seems that only after being told that the sky is blue, and after seeing other blue objects over a period of time, does one start seeing the sky as blue. […]
Scientists generally agree that humans began to see blue as a color when they started making blue pigments. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago lack any blue color, since as previously mentioned, blue is rarely present in nature. About 6,000 years ago, humans began to develop blue colorants. Lapis, a semiprecious stone mined in Afghanistan, became highly prized among the Egyptians. They adored the bright blue color of this mineral. They used chemistry to combine the rare lapis with other ingredients, such as calcium and limestone, and generate other saturated blue pigments. It was at this time that an Egyptian word for “blue” emerged.
Slowly, the Egyptians spread their blue dyes throughout the word, passing them on to the Persians, Mesoamericans and Romans. The dyes were expensive — only royalty could afford them. Thus, blue remained rare for many centuries, though it slowly became popular enough to earn its own name in various languages.
Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind
by Geoffrey Lloyd
Kindle Locations 178-208
Standard colour charts and Munsell chips were, of course, used in the research to order to ensure comparability and to discount local differences in :he colours encountered in the natural environment. But their use carried major risks, chiefly that of circularity. The protocols of the enquiry presupposed the differences that were supposed to be under investigation and to that extent and in that regard the investigators just got out what they had put in. That is to say, the researchers presented their interviewees with materials that already incorporated the differentiations the researchers themselves were interested in. Asked to identify, name, or group different items, the respondents’ replies were inevitably matched against those differentiations. Of course the terms in which the replies were made-in the natural languages the respondents used-must have borne some relation to the differences perceived, otherwise they would not have been used in replying to the questions (assuming, as we surely may, that the questions were taken seriously and that the respondents were doing their honest best). But it was assumed that what the respondents were using in their replies were essentially colour terminologies, distinguishing hues, and that assumption was unfounded in general, and in certain cases can be shown to be incorrect.
It was unfounded in general because there are plenty of natural languages in which the basic discrimination relates not to hues, but to luminosities. Ancient Greek is one possible example. Greek colour classifications are rich and varied and were, as we shall see, a matter of dispute among the Greeks themselves. They were certainly capable of drawing distinctions between hues. I have already given one example. When Aristotle analyses the rainbow, where it is clearly hue that separates one end of the spectrum from the other, he identifies three colours using terms that correspond, roughly, to ‘red’ ‘green’, and ‘blue’, with a fourth, corresponding to ‘yellow’, which he treats (as noted) as a mere ‘appearance’ between ‘red’ and ‘green’. But the primary contrariety that figures in ancient Greek (including in Aristotle) is between Ieukon and melan, which usually relate not to hues, so much as to luminosity. Leukos, for instance, is used of the sun and of water, where it is clearly not the case that they share, or were thought to share, the same hue. So the more correct translation of that pair is often ‘bright’ or ‘light’ and ‘dark’, rather than ‘white’ and ‘black’.’ ^ Berlin and Kay (1969: 70) recognized the range of application of Ieukon, yet still glossed the term as ‘white’. Even more strangely they interpreted glaukon as ‘black’. That term is particularly context-dependent, but when Aristotle (On the Generation of Animals 779″z6, b34 ff.) tells us that the eyes of babies are glaukon, that corresponds to ‘blue’ where melon, the usual term for ‘black’ or rather ‘dark’, is represented as its antonym, rather than its synonym, as Berlin and Kay would need it to be.
So one possible source of error in the Berlin and Kay methodology was the privileging of hue over luminosity. But that still does not get to the bottom of the problem, which is that in certain cases the respondents were answering in terms whose primary connotations were not colours at all. The Hanunoo had been studied before Berlin and Kay in a pioneering article by Conklin (1955), and Lyons (1995; 1999) has recently reopened the discussion of this material.? First Conklin observed that the Hanunoo have no word for colour as such. But (as noted) that does not mean, of course, that they are incapable of discriminating between different hues or luminosities. To do so they use four terms, mabiru, malagti, rtarara, and malatuy, which may be thought to correspond, roughly, to ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’, and ‘green’. Hanunoo way then classified as a s:age 3 language, in Berlin and Kay’s taxonomy, one that discriminates between four basic colour terms, indeed those very four. 7 Cf. also Lucy 1992: ch. 5, who similarly criticizes taking purportedly colour terms out of context.
Yet, according to Conklin, chromatic variation was not the primary basis for differentiation of those four terms at all. Rather the two principal dimensions of variation are (T) lightness versus darkness, and (2) wetness versus dryness, or freshness (succulence) versus desiccation. siccation. A third differentiating factor is indelibility versus fadedness, referring to permanence or impermanence, rather than to hue as such.
Berlin and Kay only got to their cross-cultural universals by ignoring ing (they may even sometimes have been unaware of) the primary connotations of the vocabulary in which the respondents expressed their answers to the questions put to them. That is not to say, of course, that the members of the societies concerned are incapable of distinguishing colours whether as hues or as luminosities. That would be to make the mistake that my first philosophical observation was designed to forestall. You do not need colour terms to register colour differences. Indeed Berlin and Kay never encountered-certainly they never reported-a society where tie respondents simply had nothing to say when questioned about how their terms related to what they saw on the Munsell chips. But the methodology was flawed in so far as it was assumed that the replies given always gave access to a classification of colour, when sometimes colours were not the primary connotations of the vocabulary used at all.’
The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
The neo-Whorfians have made four main criticisms of this research tradition as it relates to linguistic relativity. 33 First off, the theoretical construct of the ‘basic colour term’ is based on English. It is then assumed that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to an innate biological specification. But the assumption that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to universal semantic constraints, due to our common biology, biases the findings in advance. The ‘finding’ that other languages also have basic colour terms is a consequence of a self-fufilling prophecy: as English has been ‘found’ to exhibit basic colour terms, all other languages will too. But this is no way to investigate putative cross-linguistic universals; it assumes, much like Chomsky did, that colour in all of the world’s languages will be, underlyingly, English-like. And as we shall see, other languages often do things in startlingly different ways.
Second, the linguistic analysis Berlin and Kay conducted was not very rigorous – to say the least. For most of the languages they ‘examined’, Berlin and Kay relied on second-hand sources, as they had no first-hand knowledge of the languages they were hoping to find basic colour terms in. To give you a sense of the problem, it is not even clear whether many of the putative basic colour terms Berlin and Kay ‘uncovered’, were from the same lexical class; for instance, in English, the basic colour terms – white, black, red and so on – are all adjectives. Yet, for many of the world’s languages, colour expressions often come from different lexical classes. As we shall see shortly, one language, Yélî Dnye, draws its colour terms from several lexical classes, none of which is adjectives. And the Yélî language is far from exceptional in this regard. The difficulty here is that, without a more detailed linguistic analysis, there is relatively little basis for the assumption that what is being compared involves comparable words. And, that being the case, can we still claim that we are dealing with basic colour terms?
Third, many other languages do not conceptualise colour as an abstract domain independent of the objects that colour happens to be a property of. For instance, some languages do not even have a word corresponding to the English word colour – as we shall see later. This shows that colour is often not conceptualised as a stand-alone property in the way that it is in English. In many languages, colour is treated in combination with other surface properties. For English speakers this might sound a little odd. But think about the English ‘colour’ term roan: this encodes a surface pattern, rather than strictly colour – in this case, brown interspersed with white, as when we describe a horse as ‘roan’. Some languages combine colour with other properties, such as dessication, as in the Old Germanic word saur, which meant yellow and dry. The problem, then, is that in languages with relatively simple colour technology − arguably the majority of the world’s languages − lexical systems that combine colour with other aspects of an object’s appearance are artificially excluded from being basic colour terms – as English is being used as the reference point. And this, then, distorts the true picture of how colour is represented in language, as the analysis only focuses on those linguistic features that correspond to the ‘norm’ derived from English. 34
And finally, the ‘basic colour term’ project is flawed, in so far as it constitutes a riposte to linguistic relativity; as John Lucy has tellingly observed, linguistic relativity is the thesis that language influences non-linguistic aspects of thought: one cannot demonstrate that it is wrong by investigating the effect of our innate colour sense on language. 35 In fact, one has to demonstrate the reverse: that language doesn’t influence psychophysics (in the domain of colour). Hence, the theory of basic colour terms cannot be said to refute the principle of linguistic relativity as ironically, it wasn’t in fact investigating it.
The neo-Whorfian critique, led by John Lucy and others, argued that, at its core, the approach taken by Berlin and Kay adopted an unwarranted ethnocentric approach that biased findings in advance. And, in so doing, it failed to rule out the possibility that what other languages and cultures were doing was developing divergent semantic systems – rather than there being a single universal system – in the domain of colour, albeit an adaptation to a common human set of neurobiological constraints. By taking the English language in general, and in particular the culture of the English-speaking peoples – the British Isles, North America and the Antipodes – as its point of reference, it not only failed to establish what different linguistic systems – especially in non-western cultures – were doing, but led, inevitably, to the conclusion that all languages, even when strikingly diverse in terms of their colour systems, were essentially English-like. 36
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
by Iain McGilchrist
Consciousness is not the same as inwardness, although there can be no inwardness without consciousness. To return to Patricia Churchland’s statement that it is reasonable to identify the blueness of an object with its disposition to scatter electromagnetic waves preferentially at about 0.46μm, 52 to see it like this, as though from the outside, excluding the ‘subjective’ experience of the colour blue – as though to get the inwardness of consciousness out of the picture – requires a very high degree of consciousness and self-consciousness. The polarity between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ points of view is a creation of the left hemisphere’s analytic disposition. In reality there can be neither absolutely, only a choice between a betweenness which acknowledges itself, and one which denies its own nature. By identifying blueness solely with the behaviour of electromagnetic particles one is not avoiding value, not avoiding betweenness, not avoiding one’s shadow being cast across the picture. One is using the inwardness of consciousness in a very specialised way to strive to empty itself as much as possible of value, of the self. The paradoxical result is an extremely partial, fragmented version of the colour blue, which is neither value-free nor independent of the self ‘s disposition towards its object.
Another thought-provoking detail about sadness and the right hemisphere involves the perception of colour. Brain regions involved in conscious identification of colour are probably left-sided, perhaps because it involves a process of categorisation and naming; 288 however, it would appear that the perception of colour in mental imagery under normal circumstances activates only the right fusiform area, not the left, 289 and imaging studies, lesion studies and neuropsychological testing all suggest that the right hemisphere is more attuned to colour discrimination and perception. 290 Within this, though, there are hints that the right hemisphere prefers the colour green and the left hemisphere prefers the colour red (as the left hemisphere may prefer horizontal orientation, and the right hemisphere vertical – a point I shall return to in considering the origins of written language in Chapter 8). 291 The colour green has traditionally been associated not just with nature, innocence and jealousy but with – melancholy: ‘She pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief ‘. 292
Is there some connection between the melancholy tendencies of the right hemisphere and the mediaeval belief that the left side of the body was dominated by black bile? Black bile was, of course, associated with melancholy (literally, Greek melan–, black ⊕ chole, bile) and was thought to be produced by the spleen, a left-sided organ. For the same reasons the term spleen itself was, from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, applied to melancholy; though, as if intuiting that melancholy, passion, and sense of humour all came from the same place (in fact the right hemisphere, associated with the left side of the body), ‘spleen’ could also refer to each or any of these.
‘There are hints from many sources that the left hemispheremay innately prefer red over green, just as it may prefer horizontal over vertical. I have already discussed thelanguage-horizontal connection. The connection between the left hemisphere and red is also indirect, but is supported by a remarkable convergence of observations from comparative neurology, which has shown appropriate asymmetries between both the hemispheres and even between the eyes (cone photoreceptor differencesbetween the eyes of birds are consistent with a greater sensitivity to movement and to red on the part of the righteye (Hart, 2000)) and from introspective studies over the millennia in three great religions that have all convergedin the same direction on an association between action, heat, red, horizontal, far etc and the right side of the body (i.e. the left cerebral hemisphere, given the decussation between cerebral hemisphere and output) compared withinaction, cold, green, vertical, near etc and the left side/ right hemisphere respectively’ (Pettigrew, 2001, p. 94).
Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
by Benjamin K. Bergen
We perceive objects in the real world in large part through their color. Are the embodied simulations we construct while understanding language in black and white, or are they in color? It seems like the answer should be obvious. When you imagine a yellow trucker hat, you feel the subjective experience of yellowness that looks a lot like yellow as you would perceive it in the real world. But it turns out that color is actually a comparatively fickle visual property of both perceived and imagined objects. Children can’t use color to identify objects until about a year of age, much later than they can use shape. And even once they acquire this ability, as adults, people’s memory for color is substantially less accurate than their memory for shape, and they have to pay closer attention to detect changes in the color of objects than in their shape or location.
And yet, with all this going against it, color still seeps into our embodied simulations, at least briefly. One study looking at color used the same sentence-picture matching method we’ve been talking about. People read sentences that implied particular colors for objects. For instance, John looked at the steak on his plate implies a cooked and therefore appropriately brown steak, while John looked at the steak in the butcher’s window implies an uncooked and therefore red steak. In the key trials, participants then saw a picture of the same object, which could either match or mismatch the color implied by the sentence— that is, the steak could be red or brown. Once again, this method produced an interaction. Curiously, though, the result was slower reactions to matching-color images (unlike the faster reactions to matching shape and orientation images in the previous studies). One explanation for why this effect appears in the opposite direction is that perhaps people processing sentences only mentally simulate color briefly and then suppress color to represent shape and orientation. This might lead to slower responses to a matching color when an image is subsequently presented.
Another example of how languages make people think differently comes from color perception. Languages have different numbers of color categories, and those categories have different boundaries. For instance, in English, we make a categorical distinction between reds and pinks— we have different names for them, and we judge colors to be one or the other (we don’t think of pinks as a type of red or vice versa— they’re really different categories). And because our language makes this distinction, when we use English and we want to identify something by its color, we have to attend to where in the pink-red range it falls. But other languages don’t make this distinction. For instance, Wobé, a language spoken in Ivory Coast, only has one color category that spans English pinks and reds. So to speak Wobé, you don’t need to pay as close attention to colors in the pink-red range to identify them; all you have to do is recognize that they’re in that range, retrieve the right color term, and you’re set.
We can see this phenomenon in reverse when we look at the blue range. For the purposes of English, light blues and dark blues are all blues; perceptibly different shades, no doubt, but all blues nonetheless. Russian, however, splits blue apart in the way that we separate red and pink. There are two distinct color categories in Russian for our blues: goluboy (light blues) and siniy (dark blues). For the purposes of English, you don’t have to worry about what shade of blue something is to describe it successfully. Of course you can be more specific if you want; you can describe a shade as powder blue or deep blue, or any variety of others. But you don’t have to. In Russian, however, you do. To describe the colors of Cal or UCLA, for example, there would be no way in Russian to say they’re both blue; you’d have to say that Cal is siniy and UCLA is goluboy. And to say that, you’d need to pay attention to the shades of blue that each school wears. The words the language makes available mandate that you pay attention to particular perceptual details in order to speak.
The flip side of thinking for speaking is thinking for understanding. Each time someone describes something as siniy or goluboy in Russian, there’s a little bit more information there than when the same things are described as blue in English. So if you think about it, saying that the sky is blue in English is actually less specific than its equivalent would be in Russian— some languages provide more information about certain things each time you read or hear about them.
The fact that different languages encode different information in everyday words could have a variety of effects on how people understand those languages. For one, when a language systematically encodes something, that might lead people to regularly encode that detail as part of their embodied simulations. Russian comprehenders might construct more detailed representations of the shades of blue things than their English-comprehending counterparts. Pormpuraawans might understand language about locations by mentally representing cardinal directions in space while their English-comprehending counterparts use ego-centered mental representations to do the same thing.
Or an alternative possibility is that people might ultimately understand language about the given domain in the same way, regardless of the language, but, in order to get there, they might have to do more mental gymnastics. To get from the word blue in English to the color of the sky might take longer than to go there directly from goluboy in Russian. Or, to take another example, to construct an egocentric idea of where the bay windows are relative to you might be easier when you hear on your right than to your north.
A third possibility, and one that has caught a lot of people’s interest, is that there may be longer-term and more pervasive effects of linguistic differences on people’s cognition, even outside of language. Perhaps, for instance, Pormpuraawan speakers, by dint of years and years of having to pay attention to the cardinal directions, learn to constantly monitor them, even when they’re not using language; perhaps more so than English speakers. Likewise, perhaps the color categories your language provides affect not merely what you attend to and think about when using color words but also what differences you perceive among colors and how easily you distinguish between colors. This is the idea of linguistic relativism, that the language you speak can affect the way you think. The debate about linguistic relativism is a hot one, but the jury is still out on how and when language affects nonlinguistic thought.
All of this is to say that individual languages are demanding of their speakers. To speak and understand a language, you have to think, and languages, to some extent, dictate what things you ought to think, what things you ought to pay attention to, and how you should break the world up into categories. As a result, the routine patterns of thought that an English speaker engages in will differ from those of a Russian or Wobé or Pormpuraaw speaker. Native speakers of these languages are also native thinkers of these languages.
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols
by Genevieve von Petzinger
Kindle Locations 479-499
Not long after the people of Sima de los Huesos began placing their dead in their final resting place, another group of Homo heidelbergensis, this time in Zambia, began collecting colored minerals from the landscape around them. They not only preferred the color red, but also collected minerals ranging in hue from yellow and brown to black and even to a purple shade with sparkling flecks in it. Color symbolism— associating specific colors with particular qualities, ideas, or meanings— is widely recognized among modern human groups. The color red, in particular, seems to have almost universal appeal. These pieces of rock show evidence of grinding and scraping, as though they had been turned into a powder.
This powdering of colors took place in a hilltop cave called Twin Rivers in what is present-day Zambia between 260,000 and 300,000 years ago. 10 At that time, the environment in the region was very similar to what we find there today: humid and semitropical with expansive grasslands broken by stands of short bushy trees. Most of the area’s colorful rocks, which are commonly known as ochre, contain iron oxide, which is the mineral pigment later used to make the red paint on the walls of caves across Ice Age Europe and beyond. In later times, ochre is often associated with nonutilitarian activities, but since the people of Twin Rivers lived before the emergence of modern humans (Homo sapiens, at 200,000 years ago), they were not quite us yet. If this site were, say, 30,000 years old, most anthropologists would agree that the collection and preparation of these colorful minerals had a symbolic function, but because this site is at least 230,000 years older, there is room for debate.
Part of this uncertainty is owing to the fact that ground ochre is also useful for utilitarian reasons. It can act as an adhesive, say, for gluing together parts of a tool. It also works as an insect repellent and in the tanning of hides, and may even have been used for medicinal purposes, such as stopping the bleeding of wounds.
If the selection of the shades of ochre found at this site were for some mundane purpose, then the color shouldn’t matter, right? Yet the people from the Twin Rivers ranged out across the landscape to find these minerals, often much farther afield than necessary if they just required something with iron oxide in it. Instead, they returned to very specific mineral deposits, especially ones containing bright-red ochre, then carried the ochre with them back to their home base. This use of ochre, and the preference for certain colors, particularly bright red, may have been part of a much earlier tradition, and it is currently one of the oldest examples we have of potential symbolism in an ancestral human species.
Kindle Locations 669-683
Four pieces of bright-red ochre collected from a nearby mineral source were also found in the cave. 6 Three of the four pieces had been heated to at least 575 ° F in order to convert them from yellow to red. The inhabitants of Skhul had prospected the landscape specifically for yellowish ochre with the right chemical properties to convert into red pigment. The selective gathering of materials and their probable heat-treatment almost certainly indicates a symbolic aspect to this practice, possibly similar to what we saw with the people at Pinnacle Point about 30,000 years earlier. […]
The combination of the oldest burial with grave goods; the preference for bright-red ochre and the apparent ability to heat-treat pigments to achieve it; and what are likely some of the earliest pieces of personal adornment— all these details make the people from Skhul good candidates for being our cognitive equals. And they appear at least 60,000 years before the traditional timing of the “creative explosion.”
Kindle Locations 1583-1609
There is something about the color red. It can represent happiness, anger, good luck, danger, blood, heat, sun, life, and death. Many cultures around the world attach a special significance to red. Its importance is also reflected in many of the languages spoken today. Not all languages include words for a range of colors, and the simplest systems recognize only white and black, or light and dark, but whenever they do include a third color word in their language, it is always red.
This attachment to red seems to be embedded deep within our collective consciousness. Not only did the earliest humans have a very strong preference for brilliant red ochre (except for the inhabitants of Sai Island, in Sudan, who favored yellow), but even earlier ancestral species were already selecting red ochre over other shades. It may also be significant (although we don’t know how) that the pristine quartzite stone tool found in the Pit of Bones in Spain was of an unusual red hue.
This same preference for red is evident on the walls of caves across Europe during the Ice Age. But by this time, artists had added black to their repertoire and the vast majority of paintings were done in one or both of these colors. I find it intriguing that two of the three most common colors recognized and named across all languages are also the ones most often used to create the earliest art. The third shade, though well represented linguistically, is noticeably absent from Ice Age art. Of all the rock art sites currently known in Europe, only a handful have any white paint in them. Since many of the cave walls are a fairly light gray or a translucent yellowy white, it’s possible that the artists saw the background as representing this shade, or that its absence could have been due to the difficulty in obtaining white pigment: the small number of sites that do have white images all used kaolin clay to create this color. (Since kaolin clay was not as widely available as the materials for making red and black paint, it is certainly possible that scarcity was a factor in color choice.)
While the red pigment was created using ochre, the black paint was made using either ground charcoal or the mineral manganese oxide. The charcoal was usually sourced from burnt wood, though in some instances burnt bone was used instead. Manganese is found in mineral deposits, sometimes in the same vicinity as ochre. Veins of manganese can also occasionally be seen embedded right in the rock at some cave sites. Several other colors do appear on occasion— yellow and brown are the most common— though they appear at only about 10 percent of sites.
There is also a deep purple color that I’ve only ever seen in cave art in northern Spain, and even there it’s rare. La Pasiega (the site where I saw the grinding stone) has a series of paintings in this shade of violet in one section of the cave. Mixed in with more common red paintings, there are several purple signs— dots, stacked lines, rectangular grills— along with a single purple bison that was rendered in great detail (see fig. 4 in insert). Eyes, muzzle, horns— all have been carefully depicted, and yet the purple shade is not an accurate representation of a bison’s coloring. Did the artist use this color simply because it’s what he or she had at hand? Or could it be that the color of the animal was being dictated by something other than a need for this creature to be true to life? We know these artists had access to brown and black pigments, but at many sites they chose to paint animals in shades of red or yellow, or even purple, like the bison here at La Pasiega. These choices are definitely suggestive of there being some type of color symbolism at work, and it could even be that creating accurate replicas of real-life animals was not the main goal of these images.
I’ve often written about various kinds of cognitive blindness.
Sometimes it’s an incomprehensibility. We don’t understand something and so to that extent we can’t really see it, not for what it is. The conceptual or cultural framework is lacking. There is no box to put it into or words to describe it. Maybe it wasn’t part of how we were raised.
Other times, there is a simultaneous knowing and not knowing. This relates to willful ignorance, in that we can go to great efforts at not knowing something that otherwise should be obvious. Even dissociation and splitting of consciousness can be involved, and it is probably more common than people think. It could involved suppressed trauma or even just general discomfort.
There is also context-dependent memories. I’ve had experiences that were some strange mix of emotions, almost visceral. When they happen, I recall having experienced them before. But when not experiencing them, I couldn’t for the life of me dredge up the memory of the experience, what it felt like or even figure out what elicited it. I forget all about them, until they pop back up in my experience.
All of these demonstrate how limited is our consciousness. Our perception is extremely narrow and filtered. We never see what is behind us, so to speak. The world is vast and we are puny. The flashlight of consciousness only lights up a few feet directly in front of us.
He discusses a number of examples of individuals lacking some common experience and not realizing it. These people even learn to speak about the experience, but they don’t realize that others are speaking literally. They assume it is just a metaphorical way of expressing something else.
This could involve color blindness or smell blindness. The blogger also shares his own experience of a medication that blunted his emotions for five years when he was a teenager, long enough that he forgot what he had lost, until he went off the medication.
I had a thought about how this might apply beyond the individual. I’ve been reading books about ancient societies. One of the challenges is that the best evidence left behind are texts, but that requires translation and interpretation. Many words in other languages simply have no equivalent in English. They might not even have any conceptual equivalent in our thinking. This brings up the question if we even have a psychological equivalent of the experience being described. Translation can end up blinding us to how different were those ancient societies and the people who lived in them.
We are creatures of our cultural upbringing, products of out time and place. After a few generations, events are lost from living memory. Experience dies with those who possessed the memory of them.
It isn’t even necessary to look to ancient societies to realize this. Cultural misunderstandings happen all the time. Modern languages also have words that don’t translate into other modern languages. Heck, even when we share the same language, we often seem clueless and oblivious to other people’s experience.
That is why I find it bizarre that many people will assume that ancient people must have thought, felt, and perceived the world basically the same as they do. What immense hubris, considering many people struggle trying to understand their own family members and significant others.
The thing about being blind to something is that you are often blind to your blindness, as you are often ignorant to your ignorance. You just don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know that there is something you could or should know. That is how we live our lives until we stub our toe or walk face first into some aspect of reality or human experience we didn’t realize was there. But for most things we can go our entire lives without ever discovering our blindness.
That is a stereotypical racist statement, an excuse for generalizing, but it isn’t just rhetoric. It is directly related to perception and so is the basis of racism itself. You first have to perceive people as the same in order to perceive them as a race in the first place.
I’ve even heard otherwise well-meaning people make comments like this, with no self-awareness of the racist implications of it. Most racism operates unconsciously and implicitly.
Then this informs specifically how an individual is seen. For example, all people perceived as ‘black’ also are perceived as older and guiltier—see the MNT article:
“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”
Consider another aspect of perception, that of generations over time. Most people, especially as they age, look to the past with nostalgia. The world used to be a better place and the people were better too.
I’ve explored this before with the rates of teen sexuality and all that goes with it. Many older people assume that a generation of sluts has emerged. It is true that kids now talk more openly about sex and no doubt sexual imagery is more easily accessible in movies and on the web.
Even so, it turns out the kids these days are prudes compared to past generations. Abortion rates are going down not just because of improved sex education and increased use of birth control. It’s simply less of an issue because the young’uns apparently are having less sex and it sure is hard to get pregnant without sex. To emphasize this point, they also have lower rates of STDs, another hard thing to get without sex.
On top of that, they are “partaking in less alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” Not just prudes, but “boring prudes.”
None of that fits public perception, though. Everyone seems to know the world is getting worse. I’m not necessarily one to argue against the claim that the world is going to shit. There is no doubt plenty going wrong. Still, I do try to not generalize too much.
The other article I noticed, by Mike Males at CJCJ, is also about changes in crime rates.
Imagine that a time-liberated version of vigilante George Zimmerman sees two youths walking through his neighborhood: black, hoodied Trayvon Martin of 2012, and a white teen from 1959 (say Bud Anderson from Father Knows Best). Based purely on statistics of race and era, which one should Zimmerman most fear of harboring criminal intent? Answer: He should fear (actually, not fear) them equally; each has about the same low odds of committing a crime.
So, why are young blacks such an obsession of our collective fear?
In the town I live in, white kids commit crimes all the time and it rarely get covered by the local media, but any black kids step out of line and it is major news. Over about a decade (1997-2009), there were two incidents where police shot an innocent men, one white and the other black. Guess which caused the most outrage? Guess which one now has a memorial in the local city park? Let me give you a hint: It wasn’t the black guy, despite his having been fairly well known in town and well liked by those who knew him.
Further on in the CJCJ article, the author points out that:
We don’t associate Jim and Margaret Anderson’s 1950s cherubs with juvenile crime—but that’s based on nostalgia and cultural biases, not fact. Back then, nearly 1 in 10 youth were arrested every year; today, around 3 in 100. Limited statistics of the 1950s show juvenile crime wasn’t just pranks and joyriding; “younger and younger children” are committing “the most wanton and senseless of murders… and mass rape,” the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency warned in 1956.
We certainly don’t associate 1950s white kids as having been dangerous criminals. Even so, if you look back at the period, you quickly realize that adults during that era were scared shitless of the new generation, between the new media of television and the emergence of full-blown Cold War paranoia. To get a sense of how kids were perceived back then, watch the movie “Village of the Damned.”
And, with immigration barely a trickle, that was when whites came to hold the largest majority in any time of American history. Following decades of racial laws and practices, it was the perfect white utopia or as perfect as it was going to get.
It is true that there was a decline, having begun with Boomers and perfected with my own GenX peers. I’ve written about that issue a lot. The economy was heading down its slow decline and lead toxicity rates shot up like never before. So, the parents were losing their good jobs while the kids’ brains were being poisoned, a great combination. The whole world was shifting beneath the American population, and it didn’t tend to lead to good results. Communities and families were under extreme stress, often to the breaking point.
Since the sainted Fifties, America has seen rapid teenage population growth and dramatic shifts toward more single parenting, more lethal drugs and weapons, increased middle-aged (that is, parent-age) drug abuse and imprisonment, decreased incarceration of youth, decreased youthful religious affiliation, and more violent and explicit media available to younger ages. Horrifying, as the culture critics far Right to far Left—including Obama, who spends many pages and speeches berating popular culture as some major driver of bad youth behavior—repeatedly insist.
It used to be that blacks were blamed for almost everything. They still are blamed for plenty and disproportionately so. Yet the political right has started to viciously turned on its own favored group, the white working class. Charles Murray did that in his recent book, Coming Apart, where he almost entirely ignored blacks in order to focus on the divide emerging between whites, sorting into the low class losers and the upper class meritocracy.
In a post from last year, I pointed to some articles discussing Murray’s book. One article (by Paul Krugman over at Truthout) makes a relevant point:
Reading Mr. Murray’s book and all the commentary about the sources of moral collapse among working-class whites, I’ve had a nagging question: Is it really all that bad?
I mean, yes, marriage rates are way down, and labor force participation is down among working-age men (although not as much as some of the rhetoric might imply), but it’s generally left as an implication that these trends must be causing huge social ills. Are they?
Well, one thing oddly missing in Mr. Murray’s work is any discussion of that traditional indicator of social breakdown, teenage pregnancy. Why? Because it has actually been falling like a stone, according to National Vital Statistics data.
And what about crime? It’s soaring, right? Wrong, according to Justice Department data.
So here’s a thought: maybe traditional social values are eroding in the white working class — but maybe those traditional social values aren’t as essential to a good society as conservatives like to imagine.
Involuntary sterilization is no longer legal, and intelligence is recognized as a complex interplay between biology and environment. Indeed, the 1960s, the era that Mr. Murray blames for the moral failings that have driven poor and middle-class white America apart, was the very same era that stemmed the human rights abuse of involuntary sterilization. (Not coincidentally, it was the same era that began addressing the discrimination that entrenched black poverty as well.)
The stigmatization of poor white families more than a century ago should provide a warning: behaviors that seem to have begun in the 1960s belong to a much longer and more complex history than ideologically driven writers like Mr. Murray would have us believe.
Considering it all, who should we fear? That is who should we fear, besides Muslims, immigrants, and foreigners. Should we fear blacks? The young? Or the Poor? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between our fears. Any combination of black, young, and poor will do—all three together, of course, being the worst.
When fear drives perception, we perceive a fearful world. To release the tension of anxiety and paranoia, someone has to be the scapegoat, whatever group is easiest to generalize about without any confusing emotions of empathy, which in practice means those with the least power to speak out and be heard. The generalizations don’t need to correspond to reality, just as long as a good narrative can be spun in the mainstream media.
The lack of necessary concepts and the language to describe them, hypocognition, might explain so many of the problems and conflicts in our society. It might at least partly explain why people are ignorant of their ignorance, why people simultaneously know and don’t know so much that seems obvious once you see it.
So many can’t see the racism, the environmental destruction, the cronyism, all the problems all around us. They can’t see because they don’t know how to see, how to think about, understand, and put into words what they see and yet can’t see. Color blind ideology leads to a blindness of concepts and perception. We lose the capacity to speak about suffering, to give voice to injustice.
But, once you see something, really see it with both the body’s eye and the mind’s eye, it can be hard to not see it everywhere. You wonder how you didn’t see it before. A personal framework of understanding begins to form, the seeds of hypercognition planted.
A picture of patterned squiggly lines suddenly becomes a 3D image. Nothing changed in external reality. It was your perception that shifted. Now, any time you come across a similar pattern of squiggly lines, you remember how to make that shift and so see what is revealed, no matter what is the specific image.
However, with many things, we are already perceiving what is there before our consciousness recognizes it, if our consciousness ever recognizes it. Researchers have found that some color blind people aren’t actually color blind. Their eyes take in the information of color, their brains process and perceive the color, but it somehow doesn’t get translated into consciousness. That is similar to how racial color blindness operates in our society.
The signal gets interrupted when the pathways of communication are broken or blocked, dysfunctional or ineffective. Signaling is a concept often used in economics. A signal only works if there is a functioning system in place, and that requires an infrastructure.
We need an infrastructure of an actual ‘free’ market. The signal has to be freed and so communication of information has to be freed. This requires not just the physical infrastructure of roads, but also the conceptual infrastructure and media infrastructure. All of this is dependent on the infrastructure of natural resources, especially air and water, and the infrastructure of a healthy biosphere and ecosystems.
We need the infrastructure for the signal to pass through the system. And we need signaling to give us information about the infrastructure itself. What results when signaling fails or is intentionally disrupted is the externalization of costs such as pollution and poverty along with moral hazards such as cronyism and corporatism.
As social animals, the most important infrastructure is the social infrastructure and that is dependent on social capital. Ultimately, social capital is about human relationships, human connections. In a human system, it is only through humans that a signal can pass, that a signal can be communicated and comprehended. Hypocognition is not just a lack of concepts, but a lack of the social capital that those concepts represent.
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