A few years ago, a photograph went “viral” on the internet. It was just a simple picture of a dress. What was so compelling about it?
Well, what was so incredible about this particular photo was that nobody could agree about what color it was. Some people said it was white with gold stripes. Others insisted, just as firmly, that it was blue with black stripes (which is what I saw). As the BBC reported, even Kim and Kanye couldn’t agree, but decided to stay together for the sake of the money and the fame.
White & Gold or Blue & Black? Science of the Mystery Dress (Live Science)
Relevant xkcd: https://xkcd.com/1492/
This brings to mind an old adage I head a long time ago: “You don’t see with your eyes. You see with your brain with the help of your eyes.”
And that simple, yet profound, distinction makes all the difference. Once you grasp that, a lot of these ideas begin falling into place.
For another example somewhat more pertinent to our discussion of auditory hallucinations, a sound clip went viral in much the same way. When the clip was played, some people heard the name “Laurel”. Others insisted that what the clip really said was “Yanny”. As one researcher said of these illusions, “All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.”
Of course, the ultimate reason for the illusion was exactly the same: You don’t hear with your ears. You hear with your brain with the help of your ears.
Now, you need to keep this in mind with the discussion we’re about to have.
We’ve talked previously about how metaphor, analogy, language, and culture shape our perceptions of the world around us. It turns out that numerous studies have confirmed that the classification schemes, metaphors, models, and language that we use colors our perception of the so-called “objective” world. And ‘colors’ turns out to be an apt word.
For example, many cultures around the world do not make a distinction between the colors blue and green. That is, they don’t actually have a for ‘blue’; rather blue and green are classified as different shades of the same color. In fact, 68 languages use green-or-blue (grue) words compared to only 30 languages that use distinct words for green and blue.This does not mean that people in these cultures literally cannot ‘see’ the color blue, as if they perceived it as another color, or as somehow invisible (color perception is created by light wavelengths striking cone cells on the retina). Rather, they simply felt that no special distinction needed to be made between these colors in the language.
It turns out that this actually affects how such cultures perceive the world around them. The Himba (whom we mentioned previously) also do not make a distinction. When given a task of identifying which shades of blue and green were different, they were slower than cultures which do make such a distinction. By contrast, they do differentiate multiple shades of green, and were able to identify a different shade of green faster than people in cultures who do not make such a distinction (such as ours).
…there’s actually evidence that, until modern times, humans didn’t actually see the colour blue…the evidence dates all the way back to the 1800s. That’s when scholar William Gladstone – who later went on to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain – noticed that, in the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as “wine-dark” and other strange hues, but he never uses the word ‘blue’.
A few years later, a philologist (someone who studies language and words) called Lazarus Geiger decided to follow up on this observation, and analysed ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew texts to see if they used the colour. He found no mention of the word blue.
When you think about it, it’s not that crazy. Other than the sky, there isn’t really much in nature that is inherently a vibrant blue.
In fact, the first society to have a word for the colour blue was the Egyptians, the only culture that could produce blue dyes. From then, it seems that awareness of the colour spread throughout the modern world…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) [голубой] and dark blue (siniy) [синий], 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 actually see blue. Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it…
There’s Evidence Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times (Science Alert – note the title is misleading)
In fact, the way color is described throughout the Iliad is distinctly odd, a fact that scholars have long noted:
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.
It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).
The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Clarkesworld Magazine)
Perhaps the blind poet was, indeed, tripping. But the ancient Greeks were hardly alone in their unusual description of colors:
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”).
It turns out that the appearance of color in ancient texts, while also reasonably paralleling the frequency of colors that can be found in nature (blue and purple are very rare, red is quite frequent, and greens and browns are everywhere), tends to happen in the same sequence regardless of civilization: red : ochre : green : violet : yellow—and eventually, at least with the Egyptians and Byzantines, blue.
The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World (Clarkesworld Magazine)
Of course, biology has a role to play here too. If someone is red/green color blind, which about 1 in 10 men are, they will make no differentiation between red and green. Nor will they be able to adequately describe what they are seeing to those of us who are not color-blind.
I always remember a discussion I had many years ago with a friend of mine who was color-blind (the one who drowned, incidentally). I asked him if he saw red and green as both red or both green. Here’s what he told me: “They’re the same.”
Me: “‘The same’ as in they’re both red, or ‘the same’ as in they’re both green?”
Him: Neither. They’re just the same.
Me: So…they’re both gray then? No color at all.
Him: No, it’s not gray. It’s a color.
Me: Okay, which color? Red or green?
Me: How can it be neither? It has to be a color. Which color is it, red or green? Or some other color?
Him: I don’t know. they’re just…the same.
And on and on we went…
The Radiolab podcast did a whole episode on the topic which is worth a listen: Why the sky isn’t blue (Radiolab)
And a video explanation: The Invention Of Blue (YouTube)
The World Atlas of Language Structures Online has an entire entry devoted to terms for Green and Blue that is worth reading. https://wals.info/chapter/134
This post: Blue on Blue goes into this topic in exhaustive detail.
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?
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.
Blue on Blue (Benjamin David Steele – a lot of material on Jaynes’s ideas here)
Another example is the fact that some cultures don’t have words of the type of relative directions that we have (left, right, etc.). Instead, they only have the cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west. This “exocentric orientation” gives them an almost superhuman sense of direction and orientation compared to people in Industrialized cultures:
In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying.
Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals.
There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? (New York Times)
The reference to perfect pitch is interesting, since it’s more likely for speakers of tonal languages (say, Mandarin Chinese or Vietnamese) to have perfect pitch than people who do not speak a tonal language (such as English). Another common feature of many languages is that statements, by their very syntactic structure, establish whether the speaker knows something for sure, or is making an extrapolation. For example:
…some languages, like Matsés in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie.
So if, for instance, you ask a Matsés man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation?
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? (New York Times)
The Pirahã of the Brazilian Amazon have a number of these linguistic anomalies, as reported by Daniel Everett. Most famously, they do not use recursion in their language. They have essentially no numbering system—their only numbers are, one, two, and many. Nouns have no plural form. They have no simple categorical words for colors, rather they describe color in terms of various things in their environment, somewhat reminiscent of Homer’s graphic descriptions above:
I next noticed…that the Pirahãs had no simple color words, that is, no terms for color that were not composed of other words. I had originally simply accepted Steve Sheldon’s analysis that there were color terms in Pirahã. Sheldon’s list of colors consisted of the terms for black, white, red (also referring to yellow), and green (also referring to blue).
However, these were not simple words, as it turned out. They were phrases. More accurate translations of the Pirahã words showed them to mean: “blood is dirty” for black; “it sees” or “it is transparent” for white; “it is blood” for red; and “it is temporarily being immature” for green.
I believe that color terms share at least one property with numbers. Numbers are generalizations that group entities into sets that share general arithmetical properties, rather than object-particular, immediate properties. Likewise, as numerous studies by psychologists, linguists, and philosophers have demonstrated, color terms are unlike other adjectives or other words because they involve special generalizations that put artificial boundaries in the spectrum of visible light.
This doesn’t mean that the Pirahãs cannot perceive colors or refer to them. They perceive the colors around them like any of us. But they don’t codify their color experiences with single worlds that are inflexibly used to generalize color experiences. They use phrases.
“Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett, p. 119
They also do not have any relative directions like ‘left’ and ‘right’; only absolute ones, much like Australian groups. In their culture, everything is oriented relative to the river beside which they live:
During the rest of our hunt, I noticed that directions were given either in terms of the river (upriver, downriver, to the river) or the jungle (into the jungle). The Pirahãs knew where the river was (I couldn’t tell-I was thoroughly disoriented). They all seemed to orient themselves to their geography rather than to their bodies, as we do when we use left hand and right hand for directions.
I didn’t understand this. I had never found the words for left hand and right hand. The discovery of the Pirahãs’ use of the river in giving directions did explain, however, why when the Pirahãs visited towns with me, one of their first questions was “Where is the river?” They needed to know how to orient themselves in the world!
Only years later did I read the fascinating research coming from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, under the direction of Dr. Stephen C. Levinson. In studies from different cultures and languages, Levinson’s team discovered two broad divisions in the ways cultures and languages give local directions. Many cultures are like American and European cultures and orient themselves in relative terms, dependent on body orientation, such as left and right. This is called by some endocentric orientation. Others, like the Pirahas, orient themselves to objects external to their body, what some refer to as exocentric orientation.
“Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett p. 216
Despite what some might characterize as simplicity, the verbs in the language display a remarkable complexity and nuance:
Although Pirahã nouns are simple, Pirahã verbs are much more complicated. Each verb can have as many as sixteen suffixes-that is, up to sixteen suffixes in a row. Not all suffixes are always required, however. Since a suffix can be present or absent, this gives us two possibilities for each of the sixteen suffixes-216 or 65,536, possible forms for any Pirahã verb. The number is not this large in reality because some of the meanings of different suffixes are incompatible and could not both appear simultaneously. But the number is still many times larger than in any European language. English only has in the neighborhood of five forms for any verb-sing, sang, sung, sings, singing. Spanish, Portuguese, and some other Romance languages have forty or fifty forms for each verb.
Perhaps the most interesting suffixes, however (though these are not unique to Pirahã), are what linguists call evidentials, elements that represent the speaker’s evaluation of his or her knowledge of what he or she is saying. There are three of these in Pirahã: hearsay, observation, and deduction…The placement of all the various suffixes on the basic verb is a feature of grammar. There are sixteen of these suffixes. Meaning plays at least a partial role in how they are placed. So, for example, the evidentials are at the very end because they represent a judgment about the entire event being described. DSTAS; pp. 196-197
This brings to mind a fascinating point that is not widely known: as material cultures become more complex, their languages actually become more simplified!
Comparing languages across differing cultures suggests an inverse relation between the complexity of grammar and the complexity of culture; the simpler the culture in material terms, the more complex the grammar. Mark Turin notes that colonial-era anthropologists set out to show that indigenous peoples were at a lower stage of evolutionary development than the imperial Western peoples, but linguistic evidence showed the languages of supposedly primitive peoples to have surprisingly complex grammar.
He writes: “Linguists were returning from the field with accounts of extremely complex verbal agreement systems, huge numbers of numeral classifiers, scores of different pronouns and nouns, and incredible lexical variation for terms that were simple in English. Such languages appeared to be untranslatable…(p.17)…Thus the languages of simpler cultures tend to pack grammatical information into single words, whereas those of industrial society tend to use separate words in combination to create grammatical distinctions…(p.52)…In some languages, entire sentences are packed into a single word. Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson give the examples of Ęskakhǭna’tàyęthwahs from the Cayuga of North America, which means “I will plant potatoes for them again,” and abanyawoihwarrgahmarneganjginjeng from the Northern Australian language Bininj Gun-wok, and means “I cooked the wrong meat for them again.” (pp. 16-17)
“The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corballis
Last time we referred to the substantial differences in behavior that were discovered by Joseph Henrich, et alia, between Western “WEIRD” cultures and, well, just about everyone else.
As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic.
The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies.
When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.
The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.
We Aren’t the World (Pacific Standard)
It brings to mind another old adage: “What we call human nature is really human habit.” That may not be true for everything, but it looks it may be true for at least some things.
Jaynes makes a great deal about the fact that the Greek language lacked any reference to an inner decision-making process (mind), or to any kind of “soul” apart from the body. When it isn’t locating the source of actors’ motivations in the gods speaking directly to them, it is locating it in various parts of the body or internal organs. The terms used in place of any kind of reference to mind or spirit are often body parts—heart, chest, lungs, liver, spleen, guts, and so on. These body parts later come to refer to a mind or soul (e.g. nous or psyche), but only much later. Psyche, for example, initially referred to ‘breath’, and nous (noos) referred to vision. Only much later do these words become associated with concepts of spirit, soul, or self. Put another, somewhat more precise, way by Brian McVeigh, “[L]inguo-conceptual changes [reflect] psychohistorical developments; because supernatural entities functioned in place of our inner selves, vocabularies for psychological terms were strikingly limited in ancient languages.” Jaynes writes:
There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad. I am saying ‘in general’ because I shall mention some exceptions later. And in general, therefore, no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete. The word psyche, which later means soul or conscious mind, is in most instances life-substances, such as blood or breath: a dying warrior breathes out his psyche onto the ground or breathes it our in his last gasp.
The thumos, which later comes to mean something like emotional soul, is simply motion or agitation. When a man stop moving, the thumos leaves his limbs. But it is also somehow like an organ itself, for when Glaucus prays to Apollo to alleviate his pain and to give strength to help his friend Sarpedon, Apollo hears his prayer and “casts strength in his thumos“. The thumos can tell a man to eat, drink, or fight. Diomedes says in one place that Achilles will fight “when the thumos in his chest tells him to and a god rouses him.” But it is not really an organ and not always localized; a raging ocean has thumos.
A word of somewhat similar use is phren, which is always localized anatomically as the midriff, or sensations in the midriff, and is usually used in the plural. It is the phrenes of Hector that recognize that his brother is not near him; this means what we mean by “catching one’s breath in surprise”. It is only centuries later that it comes to mean mind or ‘heart’ in its figurative sense.
Perhaps most important is the word noos which, spelled as nous in later Greek, comes to mean conscious mind. It comes from the world noeein, to see. Its proper translation in the Iliad would be something like perception or recognition or field of vision. Zeus “holds Odysseus in his noos.” He keeps watch over him.
Another important word, which perhaps comes from the doubling of the word meros (part), is mermera, meaning in two parts. This was made into a verb by adding the ending -izo, the common suffix which can turn a noun into a verb, the resulting word being mermerizein, to be put into two parts about something. Modern translators, for the sake of supposed literary quality in their work, often use modern terms and subjective categories which are not true to the orignal. Mermerizein is thus wrongly translated as to ponder, to think, to be of divided mind, to be troubled about, to try to decide. But essentially it means to be in conflict about two actions, not two thoughts. It is always behavioristic. It is said several times of Zeus, as well as others. The conflict is often said to go on in the thumos, or sometimes in the phrenes, but never in the noos. The eye cannot doubt or be in conflict, as the soon-to-be-invented conscious mind will be able to.
These words are in general, and with certain exception, the closest that anyone, authors or characters or gods, usually get to having conscious minds or thoughts.
There is also no concept of will or word for it, the concept developing curiously late in Greek thought. Thus, Iliadic men have no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will. Indeed, the whole problem of volition, so troubling, I think, to modern psychological theory, may have had its difficulties because the words for such phenomena were invented so late.
A similar absence from Iliadic language is a word for body in our sense. The word soma, which in the fifth century B.C. comes to mean body, is always in the plural in Homer and means dead limbs or a corpse. It is the opposite of psyche. There are several words which are used for various parts of the body, and, in Homer, it is always these parts that are referred to, and never the body as a whole.
Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then imitates behavior? OoCitBotBM; pp. 69-71
Essentially, what Jaynes is doing is trying to use language to understand the consciousness of these ancient people, similar to what we saw anthropologists and linguists doing for the various remote and isolated cultures currently in existence. Their language may not dictate reality, but the words they use to describe their world offer a clue, perhaps the only clue, as to how they perceive themselves, their world, and their place in it; and how it might be different than our ego-driven point of view. After all, we can’t just hop in a time machine and head back to administer psychological tests.
P.S. As an aside to the idea of aural hallucinations, a fascinating study found that non-clinical voice hearers could distinguish “hidden speech” far more effectively than others. This is especially interesting since most studies featuring voice-hearers use the clinical (schizophrenic, epileptic, Parkinson’s, etc.) population, rather than ordinary people. The reasons for this ability are not known:
The study involved people who regularly hear voices, also known as auditory verbal hallucinations, but do not have a mental health problem. Participants listened to a set of disguised speech sounds known as sine-wave speech while they were having an MRI brain scan. Usually these sounds can only be understood once people are either told to listen out for speech, or have been trained to decode the disguised sounds.
Sine-wave speech is often described as sounding a bit like birdsong or alien-like noises. However, after training people can understand the simple sentences hidden underneath (such as “The boy ran down the path” or “The clown had a funny face”).
In the experiment, many of the voice-hearers recognised the hidden speech before being told it was there, and on average they tended to notice it earlier than other participants who had no history of hearing voices.The brains of the voice-hearers automatically responded to sounds that contained hidden speech compared to sounds that were meaningless, in the regions of the brain linked to attention and monitoring skills.
P.P.S. xkcd did a public survey on color perception and naming a while back: