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]

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