You might ask – why blog on our senses? Isn’t this straightforward biology? Can understanding our senses better really help us in a digital world? The answer is most definitely yes.
We will explore in this series of four posts. We will:
- Understand what a sense is and why senses are important, including to a person’s mental and physical well-being (today’s post)
- Look at what we now know about the five main senses and what other senses there are and why they might matter
- The importance of sensory engagement for people in the urban environment, particularly for children and their development
- How understanding your senses can help you deal with technology in a digital world
In this first post we do get a little deep exploring the latest theories and concepts in neuroscience. This sounds a bit dull, but breaking into the essence of what a sense is will be important for this series of posts.
Now the most painless way to do this is to share a TED talk from a neuroscientist who is skilled at making this brain stuff easy to understand.
David Eagleman’s TED Talk Can we create new senses? Please take the time to watch the full video if you can (it’s 18 mins plus questiontime), or jump to this section of it for a good taster, for 2 to 3 minutes, of the content. He is an energetic speaker, and the presentation has lots of practical examples of what he is saying about the senses.
What is a sense?
What is a sense? A sense gives us information about the world around us. It detects inputs which allow us to form perceptions about our world.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman said it best when he likened our senses to peripheral plug-and-play devices. Our eyes and fingertips are merely sensors feeding data via electro-chemical signals to our brain which is encased and isolated inside our skull.
Once we see our senses as data collected by sensors, we understand how and why we can play around with them. There is lots of flexibility in how the body collects the information and what the data contains. The brain can take meaning from all sorts of sensory channels. For example, the sighted use their eyes to read text on a page, whereas the blind use touch to read braille. Both are seamless and effortless for the person reading once they have the skill established. So the programming of the senses is more important than the body part involved or the sense itself. You can extract meaning from a book regardless of whether you perceive the words through touch or by sight.
Why are the senses important to our well being?
As humans we have evolved to have these five senses based on the biological ‘devices’ we know as eyes, ears, nose, mouth/tongue and hands/skin. Therefore evolutionary we are designed to perceive and interact with the world through all these mechanisms.
As we now live in a screen-dominated world where sight and sound dominant over our other senses, we are re-programming ourselves to obtain sensory inputs with a different pattern.
In the next article we will look at the “other” senses including the sense of proprioception, understanding our body position. In the modern world we are dulling this sense of where we are in space because we confine ourselves to being stationary at workstations for long periods. As humans we were designed to work on the move, and our bodies are comfortable being on the move regularly and perceiving these movements. How does under-utilising our senses affect our bodies? Scientists are still figuring this out.
On a more individual level, you have been programmed to use your senses in a particular way, and living in a world where that sensory experience becomes less vivid can be subconsciously difficult to tolerate. When you chat on line you miss seeing the faces of those you love, smelling their perfume or touching their hand. Your psyche understands that it is not the same and that is why you can interact with a person on line, even having a deep and meaningful conversation, but still feeling somehow unconnected. Each person has been uniquely conditioned to expect particular sensory input. Be aware of what these sensory experiences are for you and how you can maintain them for a rich sensory life that works for you.
What you do with these sensory inputs also affects you deeply. Your behaviour, thoughts and feelings are shaped by your unique experiences in life. Your memories and emotional well-being is enhanced by the sensory information you associate with this information. From the smell of freshly baked biscuits when you arrived at grandma’s house as a child, to a life-long aversion to a particular food due to adverse experiences early in life; we are all a product of our experiences including the associated sensory information.
In summary your body is a complex but integrated system and your senses are an integral part of you, both mentally and physically. Your life thus far has programmed you to make use of your senses in a way that feeds your physical and mental well being. Decreasing the sensory richness of your life will have impacts on you. Some may see the modern world as inherently bad for us while some may see great opportunities in it. Either way, it is change and your mind and body will need to adapt. Human senses have evolved over long periods so fast paced change can be challenging.
Next time we will look at the five “main” senses in detail, explore some new thinking about them plus take a look at the “other” senses we have.
Also check out our Pinterest Board on Human Senses for some graphics on these concepts.