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Scents and Sensibility

Suddenly, the inadequacy of language to convey experience became clearer. When learning is distilled down to the mere parroting of facts and concepts, the multisensory experience is lost.”

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

There’s a hint of irony to the book What the Robin Knows, and the author Jon Young is fully aware of it. The book is about deep bird language, and the lessons that we can learn from nature. Here is a book that attempts to articulate and explain a skill whose very essence must be experienced to be learned. This is a book only truly appreciated once it’s put down, and the lessons are put into action outside—literally outdoors and figurately out of one’s heads and into one’s body. Seems like a bit of a paradox. Luckily, Young helps the reader step back and discover that learning isn’t something that magically appears in our brains. Knowledge arrives there through our senses.

Young directs our attention to specific senses using animal metaphors (he is a naturalist after all). “Owl vision” focusses on peripheral vision, “deer ears” focusses on direction and distance of sound, and “racoon touch” focusses on skin sensations such as heat, moisture, wind, pressure. You get the idea.

For all my talk of mindfulness over the years, I was still impressed by how focussed attention can radically impact my experience. I was amazed by how much I heard in the forest merely by trying to hear something “over there.” I started recognizing birds in my peripheral vision. I began to understand the indescribable feeling of a storm about to blow in. Though words were inadequate to describe the experience itself, they seemed sufficient to inspire the effort.

I was reminded of a study in which researchers created a computer-based program to improve vision. They tested it on baseball players, and found an average 31% improvement in eyesight. Seven of the players achieved 20/7.5 vision—well beyond 20/20. It just goes to show that our senses, like other parts of our bodies, can be improved with training and practice.

Before you get all excited like I did, I haven’t managed to find a public version of the program used in that study. There are a number of companies that tote perceptual vision training programs, some available to the public or some only to sports teams. I’m hesitant to name any here since I’d want to look further into their qualifications, and it’s clear there is money to be made in these ventures. Perhaps self-improvement in the forest will have to do for now.

I’d like to go back to the animal metaphors for half a minute.

For the sake of completeness, I felt compelled to come up with animals for taste and smell. For those of you that felt two senses were getting the shaft, lets digress a little. I was happy to discover that one of my local denizens was a good candidate. This World Atlas article claims “Bears, in general, have more smell receptors than any other land animal.” Smell: bear nose. Check!

Taste was less satisfying. The winner for the number of taste receptors seemed to be catfish. I don’t have anything against fish, but the metaphor is somewhat lacking. Instead, I prefer the idea of snake taste. The visual of a snake tasting the air with its tongue focussed my attention on that sense, made me wonder if I could taste air differences given enough practice, and as an added benefit, flicking my togue out in a snake-like manner could go a long way towards scaring off other humans that might disrupt my solitary immersion in nature. Win-win-win. Taste: snake tongue. Raunchy sounding, but good.

Image Brown Bear on Wix

There! All the senses were accounted for, or so I thought.

Like many things I learned in elementary school, the notion of the five senses was grossly over simplified. Turns out, we humans have many more senses, though there isn’t consensus on how many, as explained in this SciShow video. In total, depending on how a sense is defined, we could have anywhere from 9 to thousands. For obvious reasons, I’ll just name a few. Proprioception tells us where our body parts are relative to each other, allowing us to do things like walk without looking at our feet. Equilibrioception is our sense of balance. Thermoception is our ability to sense hot and cold. Chronoception senses the passage of time.

Nothing mind blowing there.

And then, my mind was blown. A recent study provided evidence that humans may also experience magnetoreception, or the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic fields. Yes, the same sense that birds use to navigate during migration—essentially a biological compass.

Now that’s cool.

Suddenly, the inadequacy of language to convey experience became clearer. When learning is distilled down to the mere parroting of facts and concepts, the multisensory experience is lost. We don’t experience any one sense in a bubble, but perceive our environment with all of them collectively. Language and categorization are simplified versions of how people experience the world. Like in some of those elementary school lessons, simplifying left something out.

Consider the two senses most relied upon for proof. Sight and hearing are deified as the most reliable methods of observation, a cornerstone of the scientific method. And yet, our bodies disagree. Consider the tidbit that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. It’s entered the realm of common knowledge, but I’m willing to bet most people don’t give smell much thought.

Smell is a pretty big deal. It’s been with us for a really long time—all the way back to single celled organisms. The Discovery article Here's Why Smells Trigger Such Vivid Memories explains “…your brain's smell center [connects] right to its memory center, [and] it also stores long-term memories in-house.” It has its own freaking memory center! Could smell be a more reliable source of memory than sight? Unfortunately, since scientists have yet to figure out a transferable way to describe the experience of smell from one person to another, it is often omitted from the realm of facts.

Common idioms suggest doubt in this system. Don’t believe everything you hear. Seeing is believing. Sniff out the truth.

Perhaps all this comes down to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is something that can be learned, while wisdom is something that comes with experience. Cliché, sure. But perhaps the power of experience has to do with senses we don’t fully understand, perceptions that transcend language, and an inability to replicate events holistically. Less romantically, wisdom arises through pattern recognition. Our brains input data from thousands of sensory receptors, ever-improving an algorithm that can predict the most likely causes of our current bodily state. It’s visceral. And it can’t be conveyed in a book.

Or on a blog, for that matter.

I can recognize a futile effort when I see (or smell) one. Probably best to wrap this up. Time to get out of my head, get into my body, and pay better attention to my surroundings. In time, I might just learn something new.

(For the record, I hope it’s how to use magnetoreception to detect true north).

What is your favourite sense? What sensory experiences do you find the most difficult to put into words? Do you ever find yourself ignoring bodily wisdom to follow the scientific method?

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