2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Professor & Director, Institute of Philosophy School of Advanced Study University of London

Lemons are Fast

When asked to put lemons on a scale between fast and slow almost everyone says 'fast', and we have no idea why. Maybe human brains are just built to respond that way. Probably. But how does that help? It's an explanation of sorts but it seems to be a stopping point when we wanted to know more. This leads us to ask what we want from an explanation: one that's right, or one that satisfies us? Things that were once self-evident are now known to be false. A straight line is obviously the shortest distance between two points until we think that space is curved. What satisfies our way of thinking need not reflect reality. Why expect a simple theory of a complex world?

Wittgenstein had interesting things to say about what we want from explanations and he knew different things could serve. Sometimes we just need more information; sometimes, we need to examine a mechanism, like a valve, or a pulley, to understand how it works; while sometimes what we need is a way of seeing something familiar in a new light, to see it as it really is. He also knew there were times when explanations won't do. 'To the man who has lost in love', he asks, 'what will help him? An explanation?' The question clearly invites the answer, no.

So what of the near universal response to the seemingly meaningless question of whether lemons are fast or slow? To be told that our brains are simply built to respond that way doesn't satisfy us. But it's precisely when an explanation leaves us short that it spurs us to greater effort.

It's the start of the story, not the end. For the obvious next question to ask is why are human brains built this way? What purpose could it serve? And here the phenomenon of automatic associations may give us a deep clue about the way the mind works because it's symptomatic of what we call cross-modal correspondences: non-arbitrary associations between features in one sense modality with features in another.

There are cross-modal correspondences between taste and shape, between sound and vision, between hearing and smell, many of which are being investigated by neuroscientist Charles Spence and philosopher Ophelia Deroy. These unexpected connections are reliable and shared, unlike cases of synaesthesia, which are idiosyncratic—though individually consistent. And the reason we make these connections in the brain is to give us multiple fixes on objects in the environment that we can both hear and see. It also allows us to communicate elusive aspects of our experience.

We often say that tastes are hard to describe, but when we realise that we can change vocabulary and talk about a taste as round or sharp new possibilities open up. Musical notes are high or low; sour tastes are high, and bitter notes low. Smells can have low notes and high notes. You can feel low, or be incredibly high. This switching of vocabularies allows us to utilise well-understood sensory modalities to map various possibilities of experience.

Advertisers know this intuitively and exploit cross-modal correspondences between abstract shapes and particular products, or between sounds and sights. Angular shapes conjure up carbonated water not still, while an ice cream called 'Frisch' would be thought creamier than one called 'Frosch'. Notice, too, how many successful companies have names starting with the /k/ sound, and how few with /s/. These associations set up expectations in the mind that not only help us perceive but may shape our experiences.

And it is not just vocabularies that we use. In his nineteenth century tract on the Psychology of Architecture, Heinrich Wofflin tells us that it's because we have bodies, and are subject to gravity, bending and balance, that we can appreciate the shape of buildings, and columns, by feeling an empathy for their weight and strain. Physical forms possess a character only because we possess a body.

This idea has led to recent insights into aesthetic appreciation in the work of Chris McManus at UCL. Like all good explanations it spawns more explanations and further insights. It's another example of how we use the interaction of sensory information to shape our perceptions and help us to understand and respond to the world around us. Like all good explanations it spawns more explanations and further insights. So the fact that we all think that lemons are fast may be a big part of the reason why we are so smart.