Posted by: susanideus | February 27, 2010

Sensibly Speaking

The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect. (Carson McCullers)

Having recently read an incredible book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova, I’ve thought a great deal about what it means to me to have all of my senses intact. Does that seem like an odd reaction to a novel? Not really. Let me explain.

The main character, Alice Howland, has a doctorate in Psychology, teaches at Harvard where she “pioneered and continues to lead an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to the study of the mechanisms of language…the conceptual and neural organization of language…the mental processes that underlie the acquisition, organization, and use of language.” (p. 6-7) That’s a mouthful and that’s why I quoted it–for you to see the breadth and depth of her intimate knowledge of language, of words. A brilliant, independent, confident, well-spoken woman in her 50’s, Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. As her descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s dementia progresses, she loses her ability to use language and to find words to express herself, a most cruel irony for such an articulate and erudite woman. (Read my review of Still Alice for more detail.)

WORDS. Words, that basic element of language we use each day to communicate with one another–the basic units with which I am composing this blog post. The basic components of my thoughts, my memories, my ideas, the building blocks of what I do and who I am.

I can’t draw you a picture of who I am. No talent–I could send a photo. 🙂  I can describe myself, my physical being, my beliefs, my profile, in words. Unless you are beside me, the scent of my body is a mystery to you–it might help if I tell you in words the name of my soap, my shampoo, my perfume. You can’t see my ideas, but I can tell them to you or write them down for you in words–you can’t feel my thoughts or ideas either, but I can express to you what they are, using words. You most likely, though I don’t always rule it out, cannot hear my thoughts or ideas unless or until I speak them out loud to you in words.

In the most simple terms, I cannot imagine life without words. Nor do I want to contemplate losing even one of my senses.

I know that speech is an ability, a learned process, rather than one of the five senses. Still, as I’ve said, our senses are impacted by our speech, whether spoken or written. Our words explain what our senses perceive. Certainly, there are things that can be expressed without spoken words. Think of pantomime or the game of Charades. Think of those who communicate in sign language. Some will say that emotion can be conveyed without word–the hug at the right time, the wide smile at the sight of a loved one, the gut-wrenching pain when witnessing suffering, the lingering kiss of reunited lovers. I agree.

Smell is one of the most powerful senses–a caller of memories and long-forgotten places and events. What takes you back in time? The sweet buttery aroma of holiday cookies, the scent of roasting meat, the piquant whiff of sweet and sour cabbage, the welcome-home wafting fragrance of baking bread’s yeastiness and goodness? Or is it darker than that? The rank odor of sweat of an oppressor, the stale smell of liquor that means trouble, the pungent smell of another burnt meal signifying that Mom’s depression has returned?

And what of taste? Impart to me without words the sensation of pure Swiss chocolate melting in your mouth. Explain the exquisite fire on your tongue of New Mexico green chile and Asadero cheese oozing out of a blue corn tortilla. Describe the essence of an authentic Reuben with pastrami and Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on extra dark rye as you take your first bite. Contorted happy faces and drooling noises aside (OK, those may work to some extent, but really…drooling?), how would you really describe these delicacies?

We can be soothed by touch–a soft plush “blankie” for a baby, the lightest of strokes on a troubled child’s back, the holding of an older person’s hand. We can be frightened by touch–a shove by a bully, a slap from a partner, the molestation by a sick adult. We can feel these and sometimes facial expressions say what words cannot. But, some things must be told.

Seeing a rainbow brings me great joy. Seeing a helpless neglected child causes me anger. The first sighting of a treasured place produces a feeling of “Ah, at last” contentment. Seeing induces reaction and feeling. Are those images or words? Yes.

We can hear music, feel its beat, but in most cases for it to be played, to be shared, the composer had to have a means of writing it down, not just the notes but the directions as well. How else to know if something is pianissimo or scherzando? A plane’s engines can be heard, often before it it seen, and we know what it is. We can even point to it, showing it to someone else without saying anything. Is plane a word or an image in our minds? Yes to both.

It is in the description of these sensory images that I am challenged in not using words. To convey my deepest thoughts to another, even to myself, requires words. And, sometimes, in the process of giving word to these thoughts and feelings and images and sensations and memories, especially written word, I find revealed a deeper truth that could have come to me no other way.

Sensibly speaking, I need words. Sensibly speaking, I pray to retain my five remarkable senses. How about you?

Here are some thoughts on words and senses to contemplate:

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning. (Maya Angelou)

Words are things, and a small drop of ink falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think. (Lord Byron)

Words are the voice of the heart. (Confucius)

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences. (Aldous Huxley)

By words the mind is winged. (Aristophanes)

The senses collect the surface facts of matter…It was sensation; when memory came, it was experience; when mind acted, it was knowledge; when mind acted on it as knowledge, it was thought. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. (Diane Ackerman)



  1. Incredible post Susan, I can’t wait to read your review. I read this book last summer and it provided me with powerful perspective of what my father-in-law is going through.

  2. Thanks for you review and for this post. I’ve put Still Alice on my reading list.

    Here’s another quotation, from William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. I’ve always loved it. Annie Sullivan speaks to the young Helen Keller: “I wanted to teach you–oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the–light we bring to it and leave behind in–words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know–and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”

  3. Judy, I think one of the reasons I found the book so compelling is the viewpoint from which it’s told. It does give the perspective of the Alzheimer’s patient. From all the reading I did, the author’s depiction is accurate–she now works in this field. My best friend’s mother has been in a nursing home for years and I’ve always wondered if the Ann I knew as I grew up is still there somewhere. I believe the soul and spirit triumph.

  4. Kathy, what a wonderful quote! Thanks for sharing it. I’ve thought many times about the fact that Annie Sullivan must have been a miracle worker to be able to teach Helen to communicate. Language when we can hear it, and see people talking, is often difficult to process, but without either of those senses…I just can’t imagine that.

    Do read the book. It is so well-executed and so engaging. Left a big impression on me.

  5. Great post, Sid. I remember sitting in my lawn swing last summer reading the book. It was riveting.

  6. Is it because the author has tried to de-mystify the unknown? Or because she put a human face on dementia? Whatever, I just had to finish the book. I needed, really needed, to see what happened to Alice. It reminds me to hold both the sufferers of this insidious disease and their families in prayer. They have so much to deal with.

  7. Your words are so beautiful. Here’s hoping you never lose your words. I believe I am going to have to add this book to my summer reading list; your review seals the deal.

  8. Rhonda, your words are music to my ears. Thanks.

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