The Five Senses and Metaphors for Understanding

Each of our senses seems to be connected to a primary metaphor for a type of understanding. Vision is good for making fine distinctions; it’s primarily about judging and classifying. “Can’t you see?” When God sees that things are “good” or “very good” in Genesis, he is judging them. Hearing is good for detecting problems / dissonances. “That doesn’t sound right to me.” “He and I are out of tune with each other.” Touch is good for prediction – we explore the contours of an object with our hand and predict its form and purpose – “I can feel my way through it.” Smell is good for memory; diesel brings my wife back to Germany, fish-markets bring me to Japan. Taste is good for value judgment, aesthetics, and other axiological concepts. Of course, we mix these and there are secondary metaphors for each sense. One can “see where this is going” which is about predicting a path. One can develop a “nose for things” which is about judgment.

I first considered this when thinking through digital compression. It is much easier to see lossy compression in an image or in video than to hear it in audio. The eye sees digital artifacts in a compressed image more readily than the ear hears artifacts in lower-quality audio. One of the key examples of prediction used by Numenta in its work on the human neocortex is a human’s ability to touch the handle of a coffee mug and predict the position of the rim.