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Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages (pnas.org)
50 points by Osiris30 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments





My working model for why colours admit description more readily than smells is that we judge and decompose them in largely the same way, but it’s simply easier to develop a repertoire of colours. They’re everywhere, most people have decent colour vision, and someone can point to them and tell you what they are in relative isolation.

Whereas smells (and tastes) are much more diverse, and rarely pure, isolated chemicals but more often complex profiles of many different compounds.

A common way that people develop a repertoire of smells is through cooking: now that I have some experience with many different ingredients and styles, I can now readily tell what went into a dish and how I might replicate it, describe new tastes in terms of old ones, and imagine new flavour combinations and how they would work together.

Chemistry offers another angle—if you know what I mean by “indolic” then you can probably conjure a mental image of exactly the heavy musk I’m referring to, but you probably have no clue if you haven’t experienced it and been told that that’s what you’re experiencing. You can add specific chemicals to your repertoire of smells.

A similar thing seems to hold for recreational drug experiences. If someone has had many different drugs before, especially drugs with similar pharmacodynamics that operate on the same receptors, it’s relatively easy to give them the gist of what something is going to feel like by reference to similar experiences. If they haven’t, there’s only so much you can do to prepare them for what is going to be a novel experience.


Perhaps I'm simplifying/abstracting a bit too much here but - colors are single dimensional (i.e. the wavelength of the light you're seeing) whereas smells are multidimensional/maybe not even really mappable to any continuum.

Colors are not wavelength. Color actually has three dimensions that can be coded as RGB, HSL, LAB, or using degenerate coding in four dimensions with CYMK.

Visual geometry has three dimensions, making vision a 6 dimensions thing (plus time, but that is added to every sense).

You point still stands though, since AFAIK smell has many more dimensions (not sure if they've been thoroughly counted).


Actually, color sensation is three dimensional because we have three types of cells that are sensitive to different frequencies.

One could maybe argue that the dimensionality of a smell sensation corresponds to the amount of types of receptors we have in our noses.


> colors are single dimensional

Light is a mixture of different wavelengths, so, in a sense, it's infinitely dimensional. People's perception of light is usually three dimensional.

> maybe not even really mappable to any continuum

I think it cannot be continuum, as sense of smell is caused by discrete molecules. As for "not mappable", it can be that it's mappable, but our brain is really bad at it.


But light is composed of photons, which carry a certain energy which is responsible for the color you see.

Pinks and purples are non-spectral, mixing red and blue. Browns are unsaturated, dark oranges. Greys contain all wavelengths.

The long-standing presumption in Western thought has been that vision and audition are more objective than the other senses, serving as the basis of knowledge and understanding, whereas touch, taste, and smell are crude and of little value.

Uhh... citation needed?

Off the top of my head, certainly Proust would disagree.


The paper makes citations for these claims. For example:

"Modern reworkings of the Aristotelian hierarchy give primacy to sight followed by hearing, touch, and then taste and smell (20, 21). Regardless of the precise characterization, the distal senses of vision and audition are privileged at the expense of the lowly proximal senses of touch, taste, and smell (22)."

The relevant citations are:

[20] Viberg Å (1984) The verbs of perception: A typological study. Explanations for Language Universals, eds Butterworth B, Comrie B, Dahl Ö (Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin), pp 123–162. http://www.pnas.org/lookup/google-scholar?link_type=googlesc...

[21] San Roque L, et al. (2015) Vision verbs dominate in conversation across cultures, but the ranking of non-visual verbs varies. Cogn Linguist 26:31–60. http://www.pnas.org/lookup/google-scholar?link_type=googlesc...

[22] Howes D (2005) Empire of the Senses (Berg, Oxford). http://www.pnas.org/lookup/google-scholar?link_type=googlesc....


We got him

Even the concept of Western thought is dubious itself, there's not much in common culturally between "western" countries. There's no common language, values or vision of society.

Maybe I don't know what the definition of "Western" countries is but if there's one thing that seems common to me across them it's Christianity. Every western country I've been to is full of churches.

There's clearly a lot of thought influenced by those churches. It wasn't until I moved to the other side of the world did I have the experience of cultures not nearly as influenced by Christian thought.

I don't have concrete examples of the top of my head but I've read academic papers trying to put forth ideas about universal human behavior that clearly have never lived outside a Christian influenced culture. Even if the author was atheist they didn't seem to notice how those influences shaped their conclusions.


Try looking at how missionary shape south America and Africa... I bet they are not "western" countries, also in Europe "church" power vary from country to country, for instance in France it have both little presence and power, in Spain or Italy have far more presence and power.

Christianity itself steal many aspect of ancient religions from Egyptian one to Celtic and Romans one. Just as an example in ex-Celtic area of Europe christmas symbol's are mostly ex-celtic like "decorated fir tree", santa claus (a male dressed with heavy winter clothes red because of the blood of animals he have killed being a hunter), a big wooden log to be burning in the night etc. In ex Viking part of EU santa claus is a female with more "Viking" dress, in the southern christmas nativity scene are far more common while still remain winter/snowy scene certainly not possible in ancient Lebanon etc.

Substantially all Christianity events Christmas, all saints, Easter etc are Celtic or Roman or Greek events. Think only about our time measure: ancient Roman count days starting with "ora prima" (first hour) in the morning, Celts use midnight as we use today (an ancient Roman phrase "the Celts are a strange population that count days starting from the nights").

Religions are political means to subjugate populations so their history mostly follow political/military history of the world.


Christianity spread far far more than just "Western" countries, just have a look at Africa or South America, you even have a lot of Christians in Asia. There's probably more christians outside the West than in it.

Certainly one way of categorizing western society is white supremacy and dominance of white culture.

That's not really a common point to have the same skin colour. And what "white culture" does even mean?

"European-originated culture" is perhaps a better term. And it makes sense, in that a lot of cultural idioms and thinking is shaped from similar Greco-Roman origins in these cultures.

It's always possible to say "X is too diverse to be called a single culture" because these things are fractal (there's more diversity to discover at every level), but on a global scale, it makes sense to use "white culture" or "European-originated culture" as a reasonably precise term.


It's interesting that visual perception seems to code better than sound perception, but our main way of communicating, even across cultures, is via sound. Is it because talking is faster than miming?

I imagine it has less to do with speed and more to do with not having to keep a speaker in focus in your line of sight to understand speech. And we hear just as well in the dark.

I'd go out on a limb and speculate that much of existence was peviously described amid a fog of superstition, with only a handful of objective facts for primitive humans to draw consensus on.

Vocalization among animals finds its roots in high energy emotions, typically fear and rage. Barking, roaring, hissing. As you walk up the socialization gradient, vocalization gets combined with body language (raised hackles, charging), facial expressions (staring down with a domineering gaze, bearing teeth). Then, with inversions like group hunting tactics, coordination of remaining silent while stalking prey.

Highly social animals have a seemingly partial grasp of fair play. Performing tricks for rewards, or a pet ruining an owner's bed as revenge for a slight. Most "pet" chimpanzee maulings are the consequence of a chimpanzee's perception of a violation of status, noticing a peer enjoy briefly held favouritism, or a favorite toy transgressed by a stranger.

When it comes to perception of experience, and descriptions thereof, and objectively related concepts arrive VARY late to the party, so a null finding is unsurprising to me.

First you need counting and accounting, in order to quantify, and then to objectify, you you also need codification and enumeration. So already, you have prerequisites of intellect, before anything objective happens. This means writing and consistent phonemes, to establish conrete rules. But speech is operational and practical long before it becomes romanticized with experience.

People would be counting and naming discrete essentials as part of primitive trade, long before ascribing color to the sky. Indeed, color probably wasn't important until decoration and desirable possessions became noteworthy. Interesting animal pelts, face paints, stone and shell beads and bird feathers.

Probably by the time leather and textiles are normative, you really begin to see vocabulary take off, but still, it's not about what we sense, but material objects to be grasped.

Some of the object aspects of sensory description that took centuries to isolate are pretty subtle. How many colors are there? Only six, or many millions? Which parts of the world boast the highest variety of flavorful foods? Quanitfying tone scales, harmonics and other auditory details like timber and rhythm require not only complex materials to emit controlled sound, but also time pieces to measure duration and period.

Finally, we have centuries of superstition plagueing the discovery of facts as science. Is the earth round? What happens when we die? How did the world and universe come to be? Did an intelligence conjure us into existence by intent? When will the world end? Are we the most important thing? Is nothingness actually something?

So objectivity is not an incidental thing, even if experience is.


>Indeed, color probably wasn't important until decoration and desirable possessions became noteworthy.

The prime mover for these things is probably sexual selection, and we can see that they are foundational all throughout nature, let alone animals, in plants and fungi which do not even have brains or move. I guess that they are more central than you are giving them credit for.


  in plants and fungi which do 
  not even have brains or move. 
You’ve adjusted context to change focus from qualities of established vocalization patterns to fundamental motility. Color as a phenomenon of outward appearance does not obey the same principles as observation, cognition, willful behavior and verbalization.

The externalities involved in plants adapting colors to suit pollinating insects, versus crustaceans adapting colors to avoid being scavenged by birds when they wash up on shore, have nothing to do with the noises animals make to sound alarms or warn of aggression.

The next layer beyond the more obvious emotive sounds, is subtle noises in proximity like cats purring or infrasound at a distance among elephants. These sorts of noises still don’t signal choices, which is why we wouldn’t find obvious objective patterns for color.

Most telling though, is the history of the word for Orange. This alone indicates that the factors for thinking about colors, no matter how attention grabbing they might innately be, is extremely subjective. Most colors find their root words in a famous noun as the parent object for the concept of the color. Blue as the sky. Brown as the dirt. Green as the grass. (not literally these words, but definitely words like azul or chartreuse)

We know that colors exist, but to converse about them with peers is something few animals seem to do.

The next cognitive leap after dividing up the observable world with discrete vocabulary, is mastering the underlying principles that underpin the jargon used to describe objects. Realizing that light travels from source to target. Understanding that wind is an expression of air pressure and that air is more substantial than vacuum. Differentiating between fire and heat.

When can words to describe these principles arrive within a linguistic subculture? Only after a rich vocabulary already exists, and rules for arbitrary word construction emerge.

It doesn’t matter that evolutionary pathways are selecting for observable traits that result in ready differentiation of species. Language requires awarenes and the will to communicate.

The subject matter that gets prioritized for communication is going to be based on immediate operational factors and urgency. Necessity being the mother of invention. So it’s not about the senses. It’s about reacting to surroundings, whatever they may be, to gain advantage and persist in the wild, at the moment.

You won’t see apes describing orange as a quality of the fruit, nor would the orange trees be considering this fact as the orange gains success in convincing the apes to distribute the seeds widely. The orange trees require two factors to convince the apes to use the fruit. It needs to be obvious and it also needs to taste good and serve biological needs.

Did the tree invent language constructs according to a linguistic model, to evolve the orange? Did the apes invent a complex dictionary to describe the subtleties the orange color or the citrus flavor as they introduced their young to the source of food? No, you just know an orange when you see it. The signal for it’s ripest best taste is a singular color, you’ll figure it out after you eat a few.




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