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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

In Other Words: Can You See What You Don’t Know?


Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

By Chuck Keller 

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It was a warm day and I had the classroom windows open to get some fresh air. It was Spring and the world was waking up. As I walked around checking on student progress, one boy motioned to me. “What’s the sound out there?” he asked pointing to the window. 

What sound? I heard birds singing and the wind rustling through the leaves. I said, “You mean the birds?” 


Turns out, he claimed that he had never heard birds before. How was that even possible? He had to be pulling my leg, but he was sincere. I have often thought of him and that moment. Was it possible? I suppose. 

Did you ever learn a new word and then you see it everywhere? This is a pretty commonly shared moment of awareness. Why didn’t we see it earlier? Why did we become aware of it at that moment? Of course there is a name for that. It’s called the Bader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

I have read that the color blue was the last color for us to see. The Greek poet Homer did not have a word to describe the blue water of the Mediterranean. He described the sea as “wine-dark.” That lead linguists and researchers to believe that the Greeks did not see blue. 

Why did ancient writers and story tellers never describe a blue? Did they not see it or did they just not have a word for it? Was it cultural or genetic? Linguist Lazarus Geiger confirmed the Greeks’ inability and also discovered that many ancient languages had no word to describe blue.  

As recently as 2006, researchers discovered that the Himba tribe in Namibia have no word or words for blue and cannot make a real distinction between green and blue. Isn’t that weird? Yes.  But it’s also pretty normal. We see but we don’t see. We hear but we don’t hear. 

I would wager that we will have to yet invent or borrow words from other languages and cultures to describe the yet undiscovered. It is exciting to think that we still get to name the things we don’t know yet still exist even though we can’t see or hear them because we don’t have the language for it. Language shapes our thinking.

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

We do not see the invisible story structure that guides our media viewing but we all recognize that there is a beginning, middle, and end to stories and that we always follow that pattern that we can chart. We are sometimes surprised by an ending that we claim we didn’t see coming but if we go back through the story we can see exactly how the storyteller lead us to that point. The pattern is ingrained in us and as we learn to identify the finer points, we gain a deeper appreciation for the story.  But we are still guided by the invisible structure of storytelling and culture. And we accept all of this as normal. 

We recognize that music follows an invisible pattern. We are surprised when something breaks that pattern. It’s either a pleasant surprise or we consider it awful according to our cultural preferences. John Cage’s 1952 piece 4’33” challenged the listener to find the musicality of a “quiet” piece - coughing, papers rustling, chairs scooting, murmuring. It is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of no instrumentation, just silence, natural music. Can you find the music in silence? 

Here’s the point - there are lots of structures, patterns, colors, and sounds in the world that we don’t see or we are not aware of but nonetheless exist yet have some sort of influence on us. What else do we not see? Or hear? Or feel? What else are we not aware of yet is a part of our daily lives? 

Our brains are wired to find patterns. We find meaning in those patterns. And those patterns change as we grow. But those patterns help us interpret the world, help us mature, help us survive, and even thrive. 

We don’t see or recognize everything. Our senses are not that good. We don’t know everything. Our brains are not that good. So let’s stop pretending that we do. Let us, though, be open and amazed by the world around us. We deceive ourselves because it is convenient or expedient or somehow beneficial to us and we deceive others because it is convenient or expedient or somehow beneficial to us. When the culture changed we eventually saw blue. 

We may not see a problem or a structure or any other type of embarrassing or harmful behavior or thinking because we have been culturally and linguistically blinded. Once you name something you can see it more clearly and the more clearly you see something the better you can understand it.  

But, you know, once you see that new color or learn that new word, you can’t unsee it. And that’s a good thing.  

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