“I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You saw them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
While the above quote is intriguing, I can’t agree that we actually engage in telepathy when we read. Sure, I might have started thinking of a table, red cloth, cage, rabbit and number eight but I can’t be sure it was for more than a millisecond. In fact, I don’t actually recall seeing a cage. I think part of this might be due to the speed with which I read. Increasingly, with more education and comfort in reading large amounts of text under huge time constraints, I’ve gotten used to reading very quickly and rather superficially. That pattern’s been further ingrained as a result of reading predominantly online digital texts, a format that encourages skimming, and multitasking (Carr as cited in Cull, 2011; Rolands et al., as cited in Cull, 2011, Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe).
Moreover, I doubt what we experience when we read is telepathy, because reading is such an individualized experience. Whatever images I saw, in whatever configuration I saw them, is very unlikely-perhaps even impossibly so, to be the same as what Mr. King visualized, or what you saw, and even less likely than what someone in Nepal might visualize. This is because language is a semiotic code. The signs and symbols we use to represent an idea like a rabbit are arbitrary. The French use the symbol “lapin” or “lapine”. Koreans use “토끼”. And the meaning of these arbitrary symbols is highly dependent on culture and individual experience. So, while some North Americans may envision Bugs Bunny when they read “rabbit”, in all likelihood, someone from the Amazon will not when they read either “rabbit” or whatever symbol they use to represent the idea of a rabbit.
Things get even more complicated when we start thinking of synonyms and related terms: “hare”, “bunny”, “cony”, etc. How can we ever know what an author means to say? Can we ever ensure common understandings? The written word seems limited in what it can accomplish. Words may suggest and may make innuendos, but they won’t let me tap into the minds and exact thoughts of the speaker/writer.
Perhaps miscommunication will vanish with post-literacy. I’m not sure yet what the post-literate tool will look like, but maybe it’ll be a more physical/physiological means of communication. Psychologists, for example, have shown that certain facial expressions are common across cultures, and even across species (Matsumoto and Hwang, Reading facial expressions of emotion, 2011). A physical mode could presumably eliminate the role of culture and environment, and provides hope for universal communication. Whether the resulting loss of misunderstanding, individual differences in interpretation is a good thing will have to be debated at another time.