Writing about music might be like dancing about architecture, but ambiguously attributed quotes aside, how do the senses play a role in our writing? Raul Rodriguez-Esteban and Andrey Rzhetsky at Colombia University found that biomedical texts are desperately lacking when it comes to describing the senses, and that, while authors may be doing so to appear logical, doing this ’impedes text comprehension and numbs the reader’s senses and mind’. They urge the authors to instead write ‘perceptually richer prose’ with an eye to help clarify meaning.
So far, so not particularly surprising. But where it gets interesting is the other texts. Rodriguez-Esteban and Rzhetsky compared biomedical texts with that from Reuters news reports, Wikipedia, and the complete works of Poe, Shakespeare, and Whitman respectively. Whitman is far and above the most sensorially rich of the works (though perhaps even this is not surprising given its content), and then Reuters and Poe (also arguably because they deal with stories that are meant to grab the reader). Shakespeare is last in general as well as his use of sight language, but richest of the lot in others including touch.
It’s not made clear why these specific examples were chosen, however, it’s worth pointing out that this research was carried out in a larger context of data-mining from biomedical text. (For more on this, see Rodriguez-Esteban’s PhD thesis). It does point out that we could get interesting information from data mining text). It also raises the question for me about how touch is discussed in literature across time ….