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Synaesthesia (ObConlang)

From:H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>
Date:Sunday, December 29, 2002, 2:08

After reading through all this talk about synaesthesia (ok, I promise I'll
learn how to spell it right :-P), I am reminded of one language feature
that seems to be a manifestation of synaesthesic(sp?) associations: idioms
and metaphors.

For example, when we say we got "hit" by a "striking" word or phrase, we
are definitely making an abstract association between hitting, striking,
and the psychological impact (see? "impact".) it has on us. The
colloquialism "that's so cool!" obviously is making an abstract, or one
might say, synaesthetic, association between (physical) cool and a
particular manner or attitude. The phrase "kick the bucket" may have had
historical origins, but it has now taken on synaesthetic-like
connotations, as shown by the occasional phrase "the proverbial bucket".

All this seems to be very much in line with the tendency of the human mind
to abstract and generalize, in this case, more the former than the latter.
We are constantly looking for patterns in the sensory information we
receive from around us; it seems as though the very nature of the mind's
operation is that of making associations and generalizing them into
patterns and principles, which are then applied to subsequent associating
and generalizing. Mathematically, we might say the mind is a highly
recursive pattern-matcher. :-)

Even our memory works that way, as I've already mentioned in another post.
The brain does not appear to store information the way a computer does; a
computer stores information in well-defined units, like a carefully
organized warehouse. But the brain seems to store information by making a
web of associations evoked by the entire experience when that piece of
information was presented. For example, most people would associate
"apple" with "red", but a person who had a special experience involving
apples would be reminded of that experience when "apple" is mentioned, or
perhaps even "red". Some people have said that there is probably no
"object" or unit of information corresponding with an "apple" in our
minds; rather, there is web of associations linking redness, roundness,
and perhaps sweetness, to the word "apple". Some people who suffered brain
injuries may remember an apple is red, but just could not make the link
that it has a round shape. The web of associations linking roundness to
"apple-ness" appears to have been damaged, and so the person fails to make
that link.

And the same seems to apply to language: when we were children, perhaps we
struggled with individual letters and dealt with individual words; but as
we become more well-versed in the language, we start to thinking at a
higher level: phrases, sentences, and eventually, the flow of thought in
an entire paragraph or passage. As we progress to that level, the
lower-level things such as individual words and phrases seem to
unconsciously "fall into place" -- presumably by means of patterns
generalized from previous encounters, all automatically "headed up", or
given direction, by the lead of the higher-level line of thought.

And even at the level of individual phrases, we start to think in phrases
instead of words (if you know what I mean); we no longer think of phrases
like "I don't want to" or "I would like to" as a composition of the
meaning of individual words; but as a unit in itself, carrying its own
unique meaning. (And as I observed myself doing in a previous post, I've
started to contract common phrases in my L1 into a phonetic pattern that
doesn't map to the "proper" pronunciation, but nevertheles still conveys
the meaning of the entire phrase.)

It seems that this is how we can easily learn and understand idioms and
metaphors like "can't see the forest for the trees", which would
completely bewilder a computer program trying to understand it based on
syntax and individual word meanings alone. Once we reach the level we can
understand idioms in a language, it seems that we have learned to think in
phrases and sentences instead of individual words; hence we associate a
meaning with the entire phrase rather than construct it on the fly from
individual words. The grammaticity of the sentences we think in simply
falls into place from the patterns we have previously generalized in an
earlier stage of learning.

Yet at the same time, the words themselves also evoke other sensations and
associations that were present when we learned them. So we have no problem
understanding the substituted phrase "can't see the woods for the trees".
It's not the particular sequence of letters that we think in, but rather
the pattern of associations (pattern of patterns, if you will) made.
Through past experience, we have come to make the same (or at least
similar) associations in both "woods" and "forest"; hence when the
substituted phrase is presented to us, we have no problem recognizing the
same basic pattern that immediately evokes the idiomatic meaning of the
phrase. And these patterns aren't superficial syntactic patterns either;
we can just as easily understand the same idiom when rephrased as "there
are so many trees you can't see the forest". Our brain has somehow learned
to abstract something common from all three phrases and to associate them
with a common idiomatic meaning. You see how the brain is able to make all
kinds of associations, from "forest" with "woods", to the idea of "woods"
being comprised of too many trees, and then an abstract association with
the idea of losing sight of the big picture (associated with woods or
forest) by the abundance of details (the trees).

Another manifestation of the amazing power of this process is in facial
recognition. When presented with a face, we are able to, within a fraction
of a second, map it to previous appearances of the face (which is in all
likelihood at a different angle, under different lighting conditions,
carrying a different expression, with a different hairdo, and maybe a lot
younger), and *recognize* it as such; moreover, in the same instant of
time, we are able from the expression borne on it to associate it with a
particular emotion, or perhaps even an entire event (ever seen how a
single look from a wife can speak volumes to her husband?).

A computer may beat us at tasks that require a lot of symbol-pushing, such
as arithmetic and algebra; but when it comes to such association-based
tasks as reading facial expressions, we beat the symbol-pushers flat out.

Perhaps this is why natural (and naturalistic) languages always bends the
rules -- it's probably because straightforward, simple rules are woefully
inadequate to express the kind of abstraction and associative patterns
that our minds operate at. The fact that Christophe can imagine such a
thing as Maggel shows something operating on a much higher level than
merely pushing syntactic symbols around as a computer parser would do. :-)


OK, I'm really rambling endlessly here, so I'll stop now. Apologies for
thinking aloud in public. But it's just that the recent posts about
synaesthesia triggered too compelling a pattern in my mind. :-P


If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one? -- Abraham Lincoln