Synaesthesia, Non-linguistic Thought, and Minerality?

Two great articles just came across my desk that at first don’t seem related, but I suspect very much are. The first comes from the team of Charles Spence (whose work I deeply admire) and is titled Where are all the synaesthetic chefs? The next chronicles the work of Dr. Wendy Parr and is titled Minerality mysteries remain.

These two articles overlap because they are both in the domain of complex issues of perception, but that isn’t the end. My theory is that perceptions of minerality are also in the domain of what many thinkers like Spence are referring to as synaesthesia, but not quite. I diverge, I think that they are wrong in attributing many sensory issues like describing aromas as sweet or acidic to forms of synaesthesia. I think rather that cross modal grounded metaphors (and once removed metaphors like minerality) are pretty standard non-linguistic thought, but I’ll elaborate and tie it all in to the minerality metaphor concept.

In Where are all the synaesthetic chefs?, the authors were trying to link synaesthesia to creativity, specifically in culinary, but not exactly finding it. It didn’t make their bibliography, but I remember reading Van Campen’s The Hidden Sense: Synaesthesia in the Arts and Sciences which looked specifically at the relationship between synaesthesia and creativity. Van Campen’s conclusion was that there is no significant link between synaesthesia and heightened creativity. What I’ve noticed is that there is a significant relationship between memory and synaesthesia. Those that can remember π to thousands of digits are mostly synaesthetes which see colored numbers. Bob Milne, the rag time piano player profiled on Radio Lab, put to use multiple forms of synaesthesia and the building of a mind palace to track four symphonies played in his head at the same time. Milne’s feat is well beyond what scientists have long thought possible with the brain. Milne turns out to be no Mozart and does not even pursue modernity in music. Synaesthesia may just help memory and contrast detection, but that is definitely not all there is to creativity.

Synaesthesia becomes a seductive nth degree situation and it draws attention away from what I think is more important which is examining non-linguistic thought. Chefs, and artists of near every discipline, are not likely to have synaesthesia but highly likely to practice extensive forms of non-linguistic thought which they have slowly elaborated and built up like a muscle.

Non-linguistic thought is best explained by Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Elevated levels of non-linguistic thought are characterized by heightened contrast detection in sensory modalities and increased abilities to wield one’s attentional spotlight. Enhanced abilities typically develop through practice and immersion. When these abilities go beyond what is common to a culture, we often find an artist or artisan.

Co-experience is at the center of non-linguistic thought. First, it might be helpful to hold in mind the warm and cool color metaphors (color in terms of thermoception). We typically only learn this at an intuitive level, but never dive into its theoretical underpinnings of categories, modalities, and co-experience. The binding of sensory modalities is what makes non-linguistic thought resemble synaesthesia. Where they differ is that senses bound by synaesthesia are often arbitrary though the groupings are fully elaborated. Non-linguistic thought on the other hand is bound through co-experience and therefore less likely to be fully elaborated without intense pursuit of it.

In regards to culinary and non-linguistic thought, aromas are likely to be sweet, acidic, and bitter but less likely to be fully elaborated so that they also could be salty or umami (thought some people have definitely gone there!). Synaesthesia on the other hand would be fully elaborated, and other aromas that under non-linguistic thought would have never been experienced alongside gustation would also be arbitrarily assigned gustatory categories.

Understanding and elaborating non-linguistic thought is at the center of my Vino Endoxa project to create a new data mineable descriptive system for wine (that can tackle the scaler adjective problem!). Some aromas can be described in terms of gustation and we can have the olfactory-sweet, olfactory bitter, olfactory-umami, etc. Great thinkers in sensory science have hypothesized that olfactory-gustatory linkage is a form of synaesthesia common to everybody, but I think it is more likely to be a form of non-linguistic thought well elaborated by everybody. So many aromas escape categorization in terms of gustation and it happens quite frequently in wine. Being outside of our typical relied upon categories makes these aromas more attentional, surprising, and an acquired taste, but typically pleasurable.

We find tar, cedar, dust, acridness, and minerality among other common metaphors attached to wine that escape simple gustatory classification. These are metaphors of all sorts of types and the original sources of the object comparisons among them are received alongside all sorts of modalities during co-experience because we are complex multi sensory beings. Covering it all systematically would comprise a large text, but an interesting facet of co-experience to explore is the tasting of shapes which I feel very strongly relates to minerality as a metaphor.

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, “Sweet” things are “round and large in their atoms,” while “the astringently sour is that which is large in its atoms but rough, angular and not spherical.” Saltiness is caused by “isosceles atoms” while bitterness is “spherical, smooth, scalene and small.” For a long time, I thought what was missing here was the umami and that it had unique irregular shapes whose best metaphors, because they are challenged by the scaler adjective problem (simply round and angular won’t do) is comparison to the complex, often eroded, wabi-sabi, surfaces of stones.

Long ago I had been exploring growing rock candy in bottles of green Chartreuse. Using Chartreuse’ own sugars was just a symbolic thing and also a failed attempt to have the candy absorb flavors from the liqueur. The rock candy, grown on sticks, was a garnish for a Chartreuse heavy cocktail and the drinker was supposed to find the texture and irregular angular surface of the rock candy an apt metaphor for the aroma of green Chartreuse. I never got to present it to a large group, but within my small group, however baited and biased, found sympathies between the comparison.

In the beginning of my theories on tasting shapes, because umami is the fatty acid taste, irregular, eroded, shapes rendered in the mind’s eye, were simply due to volatile fatty acids and their even more volatile esters. This can explain a large percentage of the workings of distillates like the heavier rums, but definitely not everything. Fatty acids and esters simply provide shapes, but so does everything. Wine is pretty much composed of everything and minerality is likely a collage that cannot be pinned down to an easy chemical pattern.

Something else composed of everything is the aromatized wine, vermouth. The best dry examples can conjur a sensation very much within the broad category of minerality which simply means they are complex and beyond language. Vermouths are composed of ingredients that should be able to be categorized within gustation and the culinary relevant chemical senses, but their collage like nature results in confusion. They best exemplify the scaler adjective problem therefore grounded metaphors (one sense in terms of another) just won’t do and we intuitively invent next layer once removed metaphors hence we start to get crushed stones, dusty earth, and wet cobble stones. A lot of people hate these metaphors, but they are completely within the mechanisms of non-linguistic thought.

We even often move to categories of affect like “refreshing” where higher levels of symbolic value are added. Affect can often be really confusing. When we see lemon as a tasting note, it is not always as the sensatio best compared to lemon but rather often the affect of lemon which is refreshing. We fling these context confused tasting notes so effortlessly, but when we receive them there is frustration.

Wine differs from vermouth because the source of its facets and complexity are more head scratching. Vermouth comes from sources that are relatively easy to relate to while wine comes from soil and countless subtle abstract oenological decisions.

In Minerality mysteries remain, Parr makes one very interesting hypothesis. “Only one of our specific hyphotheses was supported by the current data, namely a positive association between perceived minerality and lack of perceived flavour,” says Dr Parr. “In the absence of other flavours, it appears that wine is more likely to be referred to as mineral.” So the denser the wine, according to the study, the less likely to be described as mineral. Making a wine dense is often the choice of the wine maker and whatever accumulates later in the season as grapes ripen may overshadow and dominate minerality for attention.

Perhaps to narrow the search, we should not be looking at what contributes to minerality chemically, but rather at what overshadows it. Randall Grahm, the very progressive wine maker (and a hero of mine), is noted for observing that wines containing minerality (figuratively) live longer and resist oxidation better and hence he strongly associates minerality with life force in wine. What constitutes minerality may not help a wine live so much as what constitutes density may be a liability and decay creating further overshadowing character of increasingly ordinary and negative symbolic value.

Among thinkers like Randall Grahm, density is ordinary and not site specific, while leanness, which reveals minerality (and is often an acquired taste), produces singular site specific expressions that are extraordinary and this is a way of restating the terroir concept. It also sounds very much like ideas I just proposed for gin production.

In a look at contrast enhancement through terpene removal, I used agar clarified limes to show how removing ordinary terpenes can enhance contrast, extract features, and promote the extraordinary. It is not well articulated in the literature, but perfumers extensively use terpene removal and doing it with extreme precision is the secret of the big gin brands. Distillers make cuts in gin to remove highly attentional ordinary terpenes, common across many botanicals, and in turn to also promote singular defining aspects of a specific botanical. The ordinary often cast sensory shadows and simple experiments like exploring lime juice shows how significant they are and how little we know about it all.

Consensus may work to validate the idea that minerality in wine is a metaphorical product of tasting shapes related to non-linguistic thought (and not synaesthesia), but it will never diminish the mystery or life force in wine. We may be able to model it crudely on a perceptual level, which will help with my Vino Endoxa project, but we will never be able to find significant patterns on a chemical level. If we ever do fully explain it, I suspect all that will happen is that we find that there are no short cuts to generating it, only hard work and that will only reinforce its value within wine culture.

Creativity in the arts is the same way. Non-linguistic thought is hard won and some can push it far enough to resemble synaesthesia, confusing some researchers. The deep processes, exercises, and hard work that generate sensory linkages through learning to wield attention and empathize with co-experience also produce “creativity”. There rarely are any short cuts like some are looking for with synaesthesia. The metaphors we generate as crude translations of non-linguistic thought are merely byproducts of pursuing creativity.

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