Imaginary Colors and … Are Writers Neanderthals?

Go to the Write-Brained hub page.
Go to “Part 2: The Origin of Language and the Need for Stories

Write-Brained: Part 2.5

There were numerous cuts from my Write-Brained post about the origin of language and purpose of storytelling. Some of the cut segments were interesting enough that I wanted to devote a separate entry to them.

Write Brained: The Neuroscience of Writing

Colors and the Relational Nature of Langauge

While I touch on colors as an example of abstraction, they can also serve as a way to understand the relational quality of language—and how that relational quality both limits and empowers us.

The History of Color

All colors are ranges of similar visual stimuli with recognizable qualities. Reds are “warm,” deeper and richer than what we call “orange”—but brighter than warm browns. “Red” remains an expansive concept, but by drawing abstract lines in liminal space we can communicate general ideas.

But even these notions (“warm vs cool,” “bright vs dark,” “rich vs dull,” etc.) rely on language that makes outside references. It’s fairly easy to look back into linguistic history and say that “brighter” originates with the same object having greater color intensity when there is more light shined on it. “Warmer” indicates the way colors change when illuminated by fire as opposed to light that isn’t associated with a change of temperature. “Richer” indicates a saturation of color that corresponds with the dyes used by wealthier people.

vat dyes

Image courtesy of M-I-C

All of this is ingrained to the point that we associate the colors directly with the qualities we use to describe them. However, this is a transposition of language—a literal effect of different visual contexts described through shorthand language which then became the only language available for those descriptions.

Imaginary Colors

But what about colors we don’t have the language to describe? Can we describe any “new” color? We may be able to hone in on some portion of the color spectrum that doesn’t have an official title, but these colors already qualify under the broader definitions of more general colors. What about a color that hasn’t ever existed in our experience before?

Such a color experience could feasibly exist. We just need to expand our visual capabilities. But until a time when we have new reference points for those new colors and the sensations associated with the stimuli, we can’t express—or even imagine—what such a color would be.

All language is relational, and the relationships we can access do not extend to all possible experiences present in the universe. When we try to describe something that goes beyond the common reference points, language breaks down. Some experiences are strange or profound in ways that seem to defy description, so we talk about those experiences in metaphor, trying to relate the experiences by showing how they are the same as and different from more accessible reference points.

The vsauce video embedded below has an extended and fascinating discussion of questions on colors:


Maybe I’m a Neanderthal

If you’re of European ancestry, about 5% of your DNA comes from Homo neanderthalis, our closest relative in the homonin family tree. Homo neanderthalis are fascinating. There’s evidence that they had ritual burials, some form of proto-language, the ability to use advanced tools—in other words, a culture as rich and advanced as their contemporary Homo sapiens.

Even more interesting, Homo neanderthalis had a larger absolute brain size than their Homo sapien counterparts. So how did we “beat them”? Well, Homo neanderthalis were developing larger neo-mammalian brains (which, as we discussed, is responsible for complex emotions, many elements of language, etc.; this explains their advanced “culture”). Homo sapiens spent that time developing a larger frontal lobe.

Neanderthal red-head

Image courtesy of National Geographic.
No, they were not intentionally making this picture look like me.

The frontal lobe is what helps us think in abstraction and about the future. This explains why, despite having more brain capacity for some elements of linguistic processing, Homo neanderthalis was not the species to develop advanced language; without complex thoughts about the future, their language couldn’t evolve into advanced abstraction, complex social roles, etc.

Meanwhile, the Homo sapien species was competing with Homo neanderthalis for food and territory. While we did just get murdery on some of their asses, most of our genocide was accidental. We just out-competed them for resources. We could think about the future in a way that let us plan and organize, so we snatched up all the valuables while they were busy neanderthaling.

For those feeling some angst over the death of Homo neanderthalis, remember that we did sleep with them (as I note in musical form in my hominin song). You may well have some neanderthal DNA. If you’re a red-head like me, you definitely have some neanderthal DNA, since red hair and freckles were traits found in Homo neanderthalis—not early Homo sapiens.

This gives me some pause. Beyond red hair, what did I inherit? A larger neo-mammalian brain with a smaller frontal lobe would lead to more complex (and perhaps more intense) emotions, more powerful linguistic processing, and a weaker ability to plan for the future.

That sounds oddly fitting for many of the writers I know. It’s certainly an apt description of yours truly. So can writers blame the strange genetic interbreeding of our species for these strengths and weaknesses? It’s tough to say, but who knows? Maybe each writer is just a bit of a neanderthal.

Go to the Write-Brained hub page.
Go to “Part 3: Modern Misfirings”