Thursday, December 17, 2020

SMELLS LIKE BLUE – And Other Cross-Sensory Interplay

This morning, walking along East River Parkway, I found myself in a pleasant space of clarity I rarely occupy within my own thoughts. It was like a meditation on everything at once: my steps; the feeble mid-December sunshine; the coziness of being nearly encapsulated inside my jacket, hoodie and mask. It all connected.

Providing the digital sound track of my reverie was the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. The interplay of his etherial electric guitar, some piano, lots of tinkly symbols and clear, wordless tenor vocals got me thinking What is it about Metheny that’s stood the test of time so well with my ears since way back in the late 70s?

And I came up with a word to describe the sound: shimmering.

Isn’t it funny, I thought, using such a visual descriptor to depict a sound? Truth is, though, that we cross sensory boundaries with our vocabulary all the time and don’t even notice.

Haven’t you ever described a taste as sharp? How about Uncle Duane’s garish ties. Loud, right? Bright flavors. Screaming pain. Sticky situations.

     They open the door not just to Polyhymnia,
     the muse of grammar, but to those of love,
     music, dance and, yes, poetry.

As a writer, of course I’m eager to sharpen my powers of description. It’s entirely possible to recount an observation or an experience using language that’s precise but not very interesting. Just direct, literal sensory terms. The designer employed earth tones for Bob’s new man cave.

Acceptable, but pretty dry, right. (See, I’ve just done it again!)

But introduce a metaphor that lifts off of one sensory plane and into another and the description takes on new dimension. The language turns from descriptive to evocative. The designer dished a savory stew of burnt oranges, ochres and umbers for Bob’s man cave.

You see, it’s like the difference between a flat image and 3D.

Delicious texture. Smooth flavor. Thin voice. White noise. The possibilities open the door not just to Polyhymnia, the muse of grammar, but to those of love, music, dance and, yes, poetry.

This device enriches not just how I write about sensing, but how I actually do sensing. It’s like putting your faculties through a team-building challenge, pushing them to both sharpen their skills and work together.

Your taste buds help your eyes to “see” flavors. And your eyes might return the favor by “tasting” colors (as I’d hope the reader would do with my designer example above). How about “hearing” images? Or “touching” sounds? 

The long-standing notion that we humans actually use just ten percent of our brain power has been debunked by magnetic resonance imaging. But it just might be true for how we use our senses.

I’m afraid it’s a matter of use it or lose it. And if we fail to use our amazing senses—all of them—well, let’s just say I can smell the handwriting on the wall. ;-)


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