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Hear the Pictures and Not the Words

July 5th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Essays | #
     "What do you see when you hear this music?" I once asked someone.
     To my surprise, he said, "Nothing."
     "Really?" I asked.  "Not even a story or anything?"
     "Nope.  I just like how it sounds.  Why? What do you see?"
     It still surprises me whenever I come across others who can be appreciating the same work before us but seeing nothing at all.  It never really occurred to me until after college that others might only hear the sound or see the word, the notes, or the colors.
     I still remember a conversation several years back where several coworkers were debating whether thought was organized based on what language one spoke.  "Of course not," I wanted to say, "Otherwise what would you be thinking as a child before you knew any language?" But the debate simply moved towards whether children had any real thoughts at all before they learned to talk and whether it was even possible to think without language.  To me, it was absurd.  I could still remember back to when I was 3 or 4, well before I knew the words for much of what I wanted to say or do.  I wasn't a freaking vegetable until someone showed me the light.  I could remember the color of our house; it was blue, though I didn't know the words for colors at the time.  I could remember the dark, cold emptiness of our living room with the carpet brown and the windows shining a bright white from the sun, though I did not know the words to articulate this.  I could remember wanting to fly but at the same time knowing that I could not, that I would go to sleep seeing that play out for me only as a fantasy, though I did not know the words yet for dreams and imagination.  Learning a language simply gave names to ideas or things I already had in mind.  A friend once described it best by asking, "What goes through your mind when you see a beautiful landscape?" You don't think the word "Wow" or "Amazing" in your head.  You feel it, see it.  Those words only describe what is already innate.
     Even now, I often struggle to find the words to what I want to say or convey.  It's been that way since I was a kid and remains that way today.  In my mind, I always imagine the scene, the experience, that I want to communicate.  It never starts out as text, and if I keep it to myself, it likely never reaches that point.  Vocabulary has always been my weakest skillset, not because I don't know the meanings but because I often remember only the meanings or the imagery conveyed by the word.  The same goes for names of theorems or concepts.  I can always go back and describe it, but knowing the exact word is secondary.
     This bleeds into pretty much everything I do, whether I am writing algorithms or composing music, talking to others or even doing math (my math teachers will always remember me as the kid who would get to the right answer but never the right way).  To me, the thought process is all a series of pictures, a story.  It is the why behind whatever it is I am doing or making.  When talking or listening to others, for example, what is said always comes to me as an expression of motivation, a statement of intent, or the telling of a story or scene.  When communicating my own points, I try to imagine what the other would want to hear in order to see my perspective and I say those words.  The same goes for when I hear the words of others; I imagine why they said what they did and what they might be trying to get me to see.  It is not so much about the exact word spoken as much as what the reason was for speaking, for why they chose the words they did.  This is not to say I don't remember the words spoken either.  If anything, I am probably one of the few people I know who can recite a conversation word-for-word long after it has passed.  It is just always secondary to reliving the "scene" whenever I recall the memory.  Likewise, when composing music, I simply cannot lay down chords or notes without imagining the story I am composing to or the imagery that goes along with the music.  Another composer once suggested that trying to compose to a story or image restricts the freedom of my composition, that I should just pick my chords and play to my heart's content, but that only makes sense if we assume that I am first composing the music and then trying to fit it to some arbitrary story.  What is missed here is that the story *is* my music.  I see the images in my head just as simultaneously as I hear the music playing along with it; there is no separation of process.  It's like trying to shoot a movie separately from the sound or writing a story first without its characters.  When you struggle to draw a picture, for example, it's not because you don't know what to draw, that you should practice laying lines down in some commonly used pattern in the hopes that something comes to you.  The difficulty is not how or what to think but in executing the idea, painting it as vividly as it first manifests in mind without losing it mid-process.
     I'm pretty sure most everyone starts this way.  Perhaps some of us forget over time how they used to think, as easily as they forget the memories they once had as a child, but I still remember clearly my peers being just as conscious back then as they are today.  No one was a vegetable, and no one behaved like animals thinking only step ahead (I doubt even animals are that limited).  More importantly, at least amongst my peers, I remember it being much easier to communicate the meanings and imagery instead of the words.  Even as recently as high school, especially among friends who did not have English as a first language, we'd often know exactly what the other was thinking without even saying it, simply through gestures or things as silly as random grunts and mumbling.  Often times, we didn't have to finish our sentences because we knew where the discussion was going.  The colors alone were enough to let us see the pictures.
     Sadly now after college, it's much rarer now for me to come across others I can share this ease of communication with, even amongst the same peers I once knew.  If anything, their thoughts have become boxed in over time by the language and social structure around them.  The clearest illustration is when a friend once walked with me into a hedge fund, a fund with many fresh Ivy League graduates our age, and exclaimed, "Why does everyone use such big words to describe such simple things?"
     Why so many get tied up with words as opposed to meaning, I do not know.  Maybe it's the rote learning in the education system.  Maybe it's the bad habit of always accepting being told how to think, of being rewarded if we conform and being punished or shamed if we do not.  But I sincerely do not think we naturally think in words because I remember too well how easy it was for the same people to see what I was seeing when we were younger.
     Now, if I try to explain ideas or new concepts, I often run into those who try to tie it back to a one-word or single phrase description, something that already exists.  It's like I'm trying to paint a picture, but they constantly ask if it's the Mona Lisa or some other well known piece of art that has a name, otherwise they don't know what to think of it.  Why can't you just look at what I'm painting and tell me what you think, what you feel? Why does the name even matter?
     It doesn't make sense if we only think in terms of the words or structures imposed upon us.  Sometimes you wake to an understanding you never had before but not because you know the words to describe it.  In fact, as your day progresses and language returns to your life, you gradually forget what it was you understood.  It's not about the words.  Language is only a bridge between our minds and the world.  It is not a foundation for our thoughts.  It is dangerous if we let it become otherwise.  Yet, one simply has to search on Google to see the many serious discussions questioning whether it is even possible to have thought without language.
     Hear the pictures and not the words.  See the story and not the colors.

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Extra Note: 2015/07/06
     A former teacher pointed me towards an older essay "Politics and the English Language [#]" by George Orwell.  It's amazing how an essay from more than 50 years ago highlights the very issues we still have today.  I very much agree with how words are being thrown around so carelessly now that they lose their specific meaning and the imagery they were meant to convey.
     The excerpt below from Orwell is amazingly spot on.  The saddest part is that the second sentence sounds pretty normal in today's standards.  I don't think too many people today would even realize it was meant to be a parody.

     "Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: 'I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.'
     Here it is in modern English: 'Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.'
     The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page." - George Orwell ("Politics and the English Language")
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