Blink and The Power of Words

I recently read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and found the book to be quite enjoyable. The premise of how the mind can perceive things in an instant has parallels to the mental aspects of I-Liq Chuan training. We train the mind to remain attentive to the moment such that we can truly perceive and flow with the present conditions.  One section of the book I found particularly interesting was the description of professional tasters.  Developing a highly refined sense of taste has mental training aspects of which I was unaware.  I had an interesting insight after reading Gladwell’s description of how professional tasters develop their skill.

You’d think that professional tasters are gifted with super sensitive taste buds, and to a degree that may be true. However, the extent to which a professional taster’s tongue differs from everyone else’s is probably not that big. The average person can generally tell whether they like something or not, and tell whether they think one thing tastes better than another. In this respect, the professional taster’s tongue is no different than your average Joe or Jane. However, if you put a twist on the taste test, the pros quickly separate themselves from the field of amateurs. Ask the average person why they like one thing better than another, and their answers will be all over the map and inconsistent with their actual taste preferences. The pro tasters on the other hand can tell you in excruciating detail exactly why they liked one taste more than another. In another example, if you gave the average person two of the same item and one different item and wanted the items ranked, he would have trouble differentianting which product was which. A professional taster could easily distinguish each product.

What gives the pro the advantage? First, it would be the extensive taste training (education and practice).  However, it’s not just the training that sets them apart.  We all eat and drink everyday and thus receive a fair amount of daily experience tasting things.  The other important factor would be that professional tasters learn specific vocabulary to categorize and grade different tastes. I found this fact to be utterly fascinating. By learning taste jargon, the professional tasters have a conceptual framework on which to develop their skill.  Just learning to describe tastes gives you a system for understanding flavors and really developing your attention to your tongue.

Sifu made it a point to us to pay attention to the words he used to describe the I-Liq Chuan system. Absorb-project, open-close, condense-expand, etc. all have specific meanings. Substitutions of terms are discouraged. This is a mild annoyance at first if you are used to using other terms, but there are compelling reasons to being so exact with terminology. The first I understood was that everyone learns the same terms so that discussion between practitioners is meaningful and has minimal confusion. If everyone uses a standard jargon, it is much easier for everyone to converse and improve each other’s understanding.

The other important reason didn’t dawn on me until reading Blink. Language affects your conceptualization of ideas. The vocabulary defines a conceptual framework for the system. Sifu spent a lot of time being specific with his choice of terms; that makes a lot of sense since language both defines the conceptual framework for learning the system and provides a vehicle for information exchange. The system starts you with specific vocabulary to lay the conceptual foundation for honing your skill in the art.

Johnny Kuo

[Originally Posted at MindBodyKungfu 2/11/11]

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