University Writing Center Blog

Posted on February 19th, 2019 in Language by University Writing Center

Written by: Emily R.

Someone once told me that perception of color may vary between people, that my red may not be the same as your red. When I see a strawberry, I may perceive the color I learned to call red, while you may perceive the color I call blue but that you have learned to call red. The same sensory information is entering our pupils, hitting our retinas, and winding its way down our optic nerves, but our brains could be processing this information in vastly different ways.

The experience of color happens entirely inside our minds. It doesn’t exist in the outside world like the laws of physics, or the screen you’re reading this post on. Perceived color merely refers to how our brains deal with visible light, and as a result, we can’t measure or know what the world looks like to anyone else.

We can’t even describe our experiences to each other; despite humanity’s many complex languages, we have never been able to develop a combination of words that can make a flash of color appear in someone’s mind. Our languages are simply not capable of such a feat.

These raw, unexplainable feelings are called qualia, and we refer to our inability to describe them as the explanatory gap. Both concepts, from the loneliness of our individual feelings to the inadequacies of language, are parts of the human condition that do not seem to be going away anytime soon.

However, it’s also part of the human condition to recognize the gaps between everyone’s individual knowledge and experiences. We realize that the brains of others hold different information and ideas than our own, and we ask questions to better understand each other’s subjective experiences of the world.

This concept is called the theory of mind, and it is a trait that no other animal is known to possess. Birds can use tools, dogs can show empathy, and some apes can to communicate with people using sign language, but none of these animals have ever been observed asking a question. We may live alone in our own consciousness, but our theory of mind may be what makes us exquisitely human.

The incredible ability to ask questions, to inquire about other people’s experiences with the world, is what makes being human so amazing– but it’s also what makes being a writer so amazing. This is because when you write, the goal is to share your ideas and knowledge as clearly as you can. In other words, come as close as possible to bridging the explanatory gap.

If you’re writing a novel, you can immerse readers in atmospheric, detailed world-building, creating a setting from the ground up using only the power of words. You can compel readers to feel what your characters feel and paint a vivid picture of their dreams and obstacles.

If you’re writing a nonfiction text—whether it’s a lab report, a history textbook, or a memoir— you can transfer information from your brain to someone else’s. You can strive to use clear, descriptive language to help your readers learn about your passion or area of expertise.

If you’re writing a persuasive paper, you can craft convincing arguments to help your readers understand your viewpoint. With the right words, you can convey your feelings and the evidence behind them—even change someone’s mind.

As a writer, you’re trying to get as close as you can to perfect human connection and understanding. It’s thrilling, it’s messy, and it’s difficult, but you get better each time you try.

You might never think of the perfect combination of words to spark a spontaneous flash of yellow, red, or blue in someone else’s brain. With the right language, you can come pretty close, so keep searching for the right words. The Writing Center is here for you if you need us!