Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Do you hear what I hear, do you see what I see?

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
Albert Einstein

My recent experience in learning a new language (this time Korean) brought up a challenge that goes beyond learning a new writing system, memorizing new words, or having to deal with a seemingly endless list of different respect and politeness forms. (Really, it's the sort of stuff that makes the tu/vous distinction in French feel like a walk in the park.) I had difficulty in making out the difference between the two o-like sounds in Korean, written as ㅓ and ㅗ. Often when asking a Korean friend the question What's insert a word in Korean? and jotting down the answer in my little vocabulary notepad, I ended up making a mistake between the ㅓ and ㅗ. Even when the two sounds were contrasted by saying them out loud one after another, I was still often unsure. What was going on here? I was pretty sure that there was nothing wrong with my ears and I'm not a complete novice when it comes to learning foreign languages, so this difficulty kept bugging me.

The same sort of issue came up when my Korean friends wanted to learn some random Finnish words (my native language). They had difficulty in making out the difference between the Finnish u and y. When I stressed the difference by juxtaposing the two sounds by saying them out loud one after another (a difference that is as clear as the one between a day and night for a native Finnish speaker), their reaction was But they are the same! This left me dumbfounded. (Curiously, a German friend reported exactly the same reaction when teaching her Korean friends some German words with u and ü, which closely resemble the Finnish u and y).

After giving these issues some thought, it was evident that there was nothing wrong with the state of the physical world: the differences between these sounds were surely measurable through positivist measures (sound waves) and there was nothing wrong with our sense organs (the outer, middle, and inner ears; auditory nerves). What I think was causing my difficulties was that for me these two sounds existed within the same concept (also know as a mental category). The difference does not exist in any of the languages that I was familiar with before learning Korean and hence the mental categories for them did not exist in my consciousness. The same goes for my Korean friends: for them the Finnish u and y sounds are within the same concept, which means that the difference doesn't exist for them.

I've noticed that the idea that a mental category for something is needed for it to be sensed can be difficult to accept. Examples of this are, however, everywhere. Differences between sounds (as mental categories) do not exist in the physical world, but in the interpretations and meanings that we assign to sound waves of different frequencies. This thought led the neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles to the statement:

I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent.
Sir John Eccles

A sound is something that is interpreted; a sound wave (an oscillation of pressure, often through air) is a different thing. The latter can be measured, whereas the former is fuzzy, slippery, and a lot harder to measure.

To see how these ideas apply to other senses, the evil scientist inside me would like to set up the following experiment: a newly born baby is put to a laboratory environment where all surfaces and objects of the colour that me and you call blue (roughly the wavelengths 450–490 nm) are removed. When the child is 15 years old, blue is added to her surroundings. Is she able to see this colour?

Luckily, the evil scientist inside me doesn't have to carry out this experiment for a tentative answer (and I don't have to go to jail because of him). Turns out that it's not even the exposure to blue that enables a person to see it; it's the existence of the mental category blue or the lack of it that determines whether a person sees it or not. If blue surfaces didn't exist, we probably wouldn't need a concept or a word for them either.

To really appreciate the impact of mental categories for colour perception, have a look at this clip about the Himba tribe, who have different colour categories from at least any of the languages that I happen to know (from 0:32 to 5:30 in the video):

For the Himba, the colours that you and me call blue and green are within the same concept; they don't see the difference between them (or at least it is a lot harder for them). However, it would be arrogant to assume that this makes them any less intelligent or able than me and you; it wouldn't be too difficult to show that me and you can't see some of the colour differences that the Himba see, and that they would probably be just as shocked to learn this.

It is difficult to imagine a thing or a natural phenomenon that is not affected by the differences in the concepts that individuals have of them: sound, color, form, scent, touch, words.... Are the words that you have just been reading the same words that I wrote? Again, by the term word, I don't mean the pixels on the screen or the ink on the paper; these can be easily measured; by word I mean the concepts and meanings that the pixels or ink denote. A quote attributed to the erotic fiction novelist Mike Kimera (don't even ask) sums this up nicely:

What you read is not what I wrote.
I provide the text.
You provide the context.
Mike Kimera

The next time when talking to your friend, think about whether the blue that you see is the blue that she sees, the texture that you feel the texture that she feels, or the words that you speak the same words that she hears.