Notes On Description ~ The Human 5-Senses and Perception 

TO DESCRIBE: The art and technology of description is often mistaken just for the flowery words of romance novels or the hair raising situations of thriller fiction. But practicing various kinds of descriptive writing has many benefits to professional, academic and personal or creative projects. The word description comes from the Latin "to write down" (de = down, from or out and scribe = to write). In other words, description is at the heart of getting things out of our heads and into writing. We write from the internal train-of-thought that, for most of us, is made up of images and information from our five senses. There is some debate about how many senses we really have--52, I read researchers somewhere claim. I can go with six, or so (though I'm not sure what to call #6 and above...), but even ESP seems to rely on the standard human five: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to express information, impressions and ideas.

Description then, can probably be seen as writing down the data (real or imagined) that we receive from our five senses. And that is the way writing uses the term. The two main kinds of description: technical / objective and associative / subjective are both essential for communicating everyday perceptions and experiences. We use both all the time, without thinking about which is which, and very strictly speaking, virtually all description is subjective, just because we are human and not machines. But for the sake of discussion, we can talk about "degrees" of objectivity and subjectivity or the technical/physical properties of something and the subjective associations a writer has with that thing.

 Description is simply about reporting physical characteristics and more fully recreating an experience. As Peter Elbow's book, A Community of Writers, talks about describing, writers need to re-experience something in order to describe it accurately. For a technical / objective description of a thing's physical properties, it's a good idea to have the object present, so it can be examined carefully and that fact-based data recorded. For an  associative /subjective description, much of the information may come from memory or making connections mentally between the object or experience and what the writer associates with it, in almost an imaginary way. Imaginary is a key idea here, because it is the imaging function of our minds that captures data from our senses and then stores it as various images. Visual images involve, color, size, shape, etc., and we also speak of auditory or sound images, olfactory, or smell images, tactile or touch (and motion) images and flavor or taste images. All these kinds of information report specific sensation, but it's virtually impossible for any one of them to occur without influence from another. This is, again, something that happens naturally, whether we realize it or not. Smell and taste are almost interdependent, and many combinations of sensory information are quite usual, associatively. But some people are actually wired, neural, to smell colors, hear a taste, etc. This phenomenon is called synaesthesia (syn = same as and (anesthesia = sensation/perception). To describe vividly and accurately, it is important to be open to these associative (or physical) minglings. Explore>>  |The Synesthesia Experience| CNN: The Strange World of Synesthesia | Synesthesia .

PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING: If three people witness a fender-bender, there may well be three differing versions of what color each car was, their positions, appearance of the drivers, and so on. And each person will, likely, be quite sure of their version. In painting, a basic guideline is: Paint what you see, not what you know. For accurately representing a ball it is crucial to know it is round and so draw a circle. But a circle is not a ball. A ball has depth as well as diameter and it may take shading or relative positioning to really create the full image of a ball. To paint a convincing, realistic ball, we must reproduce what we perceive and observe as accurately as possible. In writing, we may be most successful in communicating something by description, when we report exactly what we perceive. That may seem too obvious to state, but, consider this: If I write, The moon fell slowly into the trees,  I am reporting just what I see, even though most of us know the moon does not fall; it does not go into or behind trees; in fact, we know because we've been taught to believe scientific explanations. that the moon does not fall, at all. But, I may say, I saw it with my own eyes and seeing is believing! (Aha, says the magician, gotcha!) Which depiction is the most successful at recreating the experience the viewer reports, a paragraph of astronomical and physical data, or seeing, in our mind's eye, the moon falling into the trees? For the average reader, shared direct experience confirms the falling, not the sci-fi "stuff" about the earth rotating and the moon rotating and the trees being between the observer and the moon, and the moon really being x-multi-thousands of miles away and not just beyond those trees, and for sure not the size of quarter. But that IS how it looks, and that is a very real, valid version of the "truth." Consider, that for millennia before modern science, what people saw WAS the truth, and it may have worked for them as well as scientific truths work for us...some might say it worked better than science at satisfying answers to the mysteries of life.... Well, in description, do try to depict what we see, especially, when what we "know" may not be what we perceive or experience in a very direct way. Even, now,  if I suggest the earth is, actually round, not a sweeping (if bumpy) expanse of flat ocean, valley or plain, just try to prove it, convincingly, only by what we can see with our human eyes....or prove (without scientific data--which, for the most part, we do take on faith...) that we, as passengers on the earth are shooting through infinite blackness of space at about 17,000 mph, as we settle into our favorite chair for a rest.

But, lest we get too comfortable with "seeing is believing," give this a minute: If we think the image below is just dense foliage, look LESS closely; let your eyes go blurry. DON'T focus; just relax until the rest of the image emerges, so you can really see what's there!....

If we think this colorful rainbow "design" is just a nonsense pattern, blur your vision and see.... 
Here are some links about 3D images and information on how to see them:  3D- How to See
Some great links about perception: Physics and Perception of Reality | Sense and Perception Tutorials | Optical Illusions

The play between what we perceive, what we "know" and what we can imagine, makes up the stimulating mysteries that keep a reader reading and writers writing. Descriptive writing gives us an important chance to practice  paying attention to the details of our sensory perception. Then, as we explore how combining them with what we think we know, and our wishes or "what ifs," we can really allow writing to come alive for us and our readers. It is in the vitality of those vivid moments that we learn new things and find real pleasure in the discoveries. If we approach descriptive writing open and alert to what may be there instead of just what we know or assume is there, then we may be in for a great experience of seeing and memory.


Acknowledgement to the work of  Pat Belanoff, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, Toby Fulwiler, and Gabrielle Rico among others for the ideas they have added to the writing process. JT

Copyright: Jane Thielsen - 2010-all rights reserved