Friday, 22 August 2008

Not Pictures, Words Make One See

It is not pictures, it is words that make one see.
Consider this (from Steven Pinker: 'The Language Instinct'):

"When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eight arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female."

These words have created images in your mind. They have made you see. What exactly you have seen I’m not able to tell yet that there were images in your mind that had something to do with the words that told you about the male and the female octopus … of this I’m quite sure.

Now picture this (again from 'The Language Instinct'):
"Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics."

I’m pretty sure you have just seen cherries jubilee on a white suit and (presumably red) wine stains on a (presumably white) altar cloth. I can’t of course know what suit you had in mind or what altar cloth or what kind of stains (big, small, round …?), so in order to make you see the same suit, the same altar cloth and stains that I imagine, I need to show you an illustration, a photograph for instance. Only now can your eyes see what my eyes see.

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