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.

Why we drink: A break from language

Lately I’ve been listening to Radio Lab episodes concerning language. A beautiful episode called A World Without Words explores the experience of neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor who had a stroke then briefly and intermittently had the language processing part of her brain turned off. Curiously, she encountered a feeling of overwhelming bliss she called “la la land“, with the absence of all anxiety, where all she felt was sensation and the raw pleasure associated with it. So if Taylor could feel some sort of bliss during the absence of language, what does language do to us? Without having a stroke, can we ever take a break from it? I think we can take a break with food & drink and I’ll try and build a case for that.

In the past, I’ve looked at semiology which is the study of symbols in relation to sensations. The most popular text on the subject is still probably Roland Barthes, Mythologies, which I really did not enjoy and think is fraught with problems. Barthes take on semiology cannot account for acquired tastes and that is the business I’m in. Acquired tastes are also critically important to sustainability and probably our health in general.

Semiology explains that there are two worlds we live in, the world of sensation and the world of stand-in values or symbols (where language comes in), which are both glued together and hard to separate without effort invested into developing categories to put everything in. The two worlds pull on each other, rearrange our harmonic bounds (theory of cognitive dissonance), are a potential source of dangerous bias, and can even be seen as the rhetoric of art. I’ve always felt that cocktails with their acquired taste nature, as well as infinite sensory and symbolic inputs, are the best arena to teach, test and explore semiology.

Through her stroke, Taylor turned off the symbolic, language driven world and found repose. Language may open the door to anxiety and a constant chatter in the mind that is a source of stress. Anxiety is debilitating for so many people and for others, unless it flares up, they barely notice it despite its ever presence. Turn it off and anyone might have a eureka moment, repose! Taylor’s stroke is an nth degree example of how to turn off language while a daiquiri would be a lesser degree example.

Meditation may be another method of turning off the chatter, and though I was formerly skeptical, descriptions of meditative experience make it seem like a language reducer (whiskey is a meditation aid like a mantra is). I had previously thought meditation would allow the voices to speak up, and they could only be displaced by jarring sensations or what I called dissonance therapy. Meditating is not exactly full of sensation like running or cycling or listening to the Velvet Underground. By limited degrees, meditation may move one closer to the nth degree which is the silence. (Keep in mind, there are multiple other avenues to lower stress & anxiety, and some involve lots of language such as writing poetry or song lyrics.)

This all relates to food & drink because flavor, particularly aroma, is a world dominated by non-language. Before the world of non-language is hyped, it should be noted that Taylor was lucky to have had a good experience because raw sensations are likely polarizing. Language may allow us to soften the peaks of pleasure or discomfort and stay functional. We all know how unpleasant certain foods can be. Dislike and disgust can be so severe that people cannot bring themselves to eat certain things and some may even have physical reactions like gagging. The softening effect of language is likely a layer of how the initial dissonance of fernet or whiskey can be overcome (expanding harmonic bounds is not simple and there are other layers).

Food may have a unique place in quieting the mind because it is so often above and beyond language. Isn’t it curious that so few people try to write cocktail tasting notes? Recently I had looked at non-linguistic contrast detection and eventually the origins of grounded metaphors. It was discovered on another Radio Lab that we cannot see the color blue until we have a word for it, but when it comes to wine or flavor in general, tons of contrast detection happens non-linguistically and even though people like to turn wine into words, we do not rely on language defined categories.

Consuming wine through a lens of aesthetic detachment may maximize the therapeutic experience. Aesthetic detachment is the cutting away of all or as many flimsy symbols as possible from raw sensation; it is painter Hans Hoffman’s Search for the Real. It was best described to me in the book, Homo Aestheticus, as if your friend who cannot swim falls out of your boat and instead of saving them because they are your friend, you merely pause to admire the bubbles as the friend sinks. The example is pushed to the nth degree to illustrate how much can be detached, such as friendship & responsibility (remember, not sensations), so lesser experiences, like consuming wine, will have something to detach but will never be so severe.

Culinary typically gets relegated to the decorative in art which is a realm that has been grossly downplayed by art history within my limited vantage point. Arabesques, egg & dart motifs, grotesques, all defy language and viewing them may help us slip away towards la la land. The grotesque is a very unique concept often characterized by betweeness. Being between known values, such as the fish & the woman of a mermaid or the aromas of apricot & orange, which are blended in the culinary arts, creates highly attentional, hard to name inbetween values that we often seek out and surround ourselves with unconsciously, perhaps for the sake of escaping language. If grotesque sensory experiences lead us to a dose of la la land, whether we can articulate the phenomenon or not, we will look for more, hence cocktail hour becomes a ritual. Hence so many people return to yoga every day because it allows them to slip into non-language by exercising and filling the mind with bodily kinaesthetic intelligence.

In the past, I had looked at cocktails as dissonance therapy and related acquired tastes to being highly attentional, more so than the linguistic chatter. I had thought overpowering language was enough to silence the chatter, but being beyond the grasp of language and our easy to reach language based categories might be a large layer of the puzzle. A cocktail example to ponder is the great therapeutic beverage, vermouth, which lies so far beyond language it is legally described circularly as a “beverage that resembles the characteristics of and tastes like vermouth”.

A pattern is starting to emerge that if we embrace aestheticism, otherwise said as the promotion of importance of sensory values over symbolic values, we will be rewarded with repose. The path to repose starts with identifying non-language, valuing it, and exercising it. Give up the highly constrained judgments good & bad which are the metaphors of the symbolic world and embrace ordinary & extraordinary, which pertain to frequency of occurrence of sensations. Among the only negative judgments relevant to aestheticism are missed opportunities and regrets (very important to judging wine!). Keep in mind the polarizing nature of sensation and be aware of language’s ability to help us overcome sensory dissonance.

Now I am thirsty.

[Something I probably missed is the relation of non-language to psychedelic experiences and polarizing good and bad trips. From what little I know of psychedelic experiences, they are characterized by fairly large degrees of non-language. Without language to level it out, overwhelming sensation can be a challenge. Something else I missed is relating art therapy to non-language]

harnessing frames of mind: non-linguistic techniques for detecting contrast in olfaction

In the previous post, with the help of an awesome Radio Lab episode, I explored the idea that you cannot smell the color blue until you have a word for it. Language it turns out might be integral to contrast detection. What the Radio Lab program explored with color I tried to re-apply to aroma, particularly with wine.

After thinking about it for a while I was reminded of Howard Gardner’s book that launched a thousand ships: Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Long ago people thought there was no thought without language. Gardner debunked the idea and explored the various intelligences, many of which, like bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, are very much non-linguistic.

What I’m getting at here is that we do not necessarily need language to detect contrast, especially with olfaction, it just turbo charges the process. Many people who simply cannot turn wine into words can still detect a significant amount of contrast. These people are exercising some sort of non-linguistic intelligence. If we could say more about this type of non-linguistic intelligence that people use to smell, maybe we could target and exercise the muscle and help people become better tasters.

Long ago I wrote a post called Advanced Aroma Theory Basics where I explored various methods of categorizing aromas. Different categories, remember, are what we need to put things in to detect contrast. To tell blue from green, you need two categories, one for each color. I came up with various methods of categorizing aromas and each was cross-modal where I grounded olfaction in another sense. I did away with highly subjective symbolic categories like good and bad aromas or male and female aromas and instead had round and angular aromas or sweet and bitter aromas. A lot of my ideas for grounding the metaphors came from books like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By or Richard Cytowic’s The Man that Tasted Shapes which covers synaesthesia.

I tried to fully elaborate the categories I put aromas into so when I used gustation I employed all the divisions like the olfactory-sweet, olfactory-acid, olfactory-bitter, olfactory-saline and olfactory-umami. There is a lengthy history of calling aromas sweet (especially in poetry) because of the illusion of sensory convergence, but the idea has never been fully elaborated to the other gustatory divisions such as the umami. When I put aromas into shape based categories like round and angular it turned out to be very similar to the work of the ancient Greek, Democritus, or the shape tasting synaesthete that Cytowic encountered. Many words in our wine tasting language such as wet cobble stone might be abstract (and taken for granted) attempts to put aromas into shape related categories. The shape being the irregular surface of the cobble stone. Other methods of categorizing aromas were investigated in the blog post but I won’t go into them.

What I might have really been getting at with the round & angular aroma idea and all the other synaesthetic / cross-modal / psychedelic weirdness was merely applying language to what is thought about non-linguistically with our spatial intelligence (probably among other intelligences). All my eGullet posts, where I made myself cocktails and wrote about them in terms of the categories I was inventing, might have functioned as exercises that turbo charged my non-linguistic ability to detect contrast. So if we want to teach people to taste better, which can also be stated as detect more contrast, besides teaching people to categorize aromas with language defined categories (such as picking out the asparagus in their Sauvignon Blanc), maybe we should also teach people to harness non-linguistic thought–which will unfortunately take language to jump start.

I have become quite the shape taster and I’ve almost thought I was developing synaesthesia, but I’m likely not because it takes so much conscious summoning (being automatic is a defining quality of synaesthesia). I almost feel as though I do not even add language based names to the categories I put aromas in when I taste shapes. I just simply feel it and the shapes unfold somewhat before my mind’s eye.

Is there any room for teaching non-language based contrast detection in wine tasting 101?

A holy grail recommendation engine is turning out to be one that can be used for wine; one which can capture acquired tastes as well as represent and promote diversity in wine. Are any of these ideas necessary for bringing that recommendation engine to life?