Valery and Nietzsche Were Right

by F.

“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” said Paul Valery. And Neitzsche said something similar, if I recall—something like “We can find words only for what is already dead in our hearts.” These apothegms never resonated with me. In fact, I always suspected they were Romantic nonsense. And then I read this passage in Daniel Gilbert’s recent book, Stumbling on Happiness, summarizing some research by J.W. Schooler and T.Y. Engstler-Schooler:

In one study, researchers showed volunteers a color swatch of the sort one might pick up in the paint aisle of the local hardware store and allowed them to study it for five seconds. Some volunteers then spent thirty seconds describing the color (describers), while the other volunteers did not describe it (non-describers). All volunteers were then shown a lineup of six color swatches, one of which was the color they had seen thirty seconds earlier and were asked to pick out the original swatch.

And which group do you think did better?

Only 33 percent of the describers were able to accurately identify the color.

Yet 73 percent of the nondescribers were able to match the collors. And why was that?

Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptoins of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves, and they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had said about what they experienced.

Why is it that the older I get, the more wise Nietzsche’s works seem?