For a while I’ve been curious as to how metaphors, similes, sense-oriented details — anything that gives the mind something “concrete” to grasp — work on the reader’s mind. It’s probably just something to do with the fact that we are embodied creatures, and since our physical life gives us, obviously, our most vivid experiences, our minds only want more of the same when reading.
But abstract concepts can be pretty thrilling too, I think. Even when I read about an abstract concept in abstract terms, if it is well described, the idea can affect me just as much as any concrete experience or just as much as an abstract concept expressed in the best Shakespearean-quality sentences.
So what exactly is going on here? I guess the bottom line is I’m interested in the relationship between the abstract and the concrete in the human consciousness. Good luck with that, right?
Well, not that this example (below) helps much but it is pretty interesting. It’s from a blurb I found in Psychology Today (“Name Games: The Dirt on Selling Beauty,” December 2006, p. 22). It gives an example of how using an strong antonym to describe something can actually draw attention to the positive quality of the thing, e.g., “mildew” as the name of an eye shadow color. It goes on to say that “Studies suggest that consumers may be sold on ‘ugly beauty’ because the more time they spend reconciling the inconsistency — a pretty product with a nasty name — the more likely they are to remember and purchase the goods.”
Now, is it just a matter of shock-value? of drawing attention to something? Probably… somewhat, at least. But it probably also just the same old phenomenon: vivid specifics grab the mind’s attention. It’s just that in this case it’s a surprisingly-vivid description, so the word or phrase gets the benefit of both the vividness and the surprise to do its magic.
In one way this whole question of mine is answered simply and obviously: we like vividness because it’s vivid! I know, I know. But I’m still curious. WHY DO abstract concepts / experiences / emotions (how much you love the Rocky Mountains, how a swim in the pool felt after you broke up with your girlfriend, the nature of the divine, or whatever…) get into the reader’s brain easier when we use vivid concrete language? Why doesn’t our brain respond as well to really really really well written abstract prose??
Or, am I just spinning around in my own too-abstract thinking!?