Our five senses may not be five at all… It turns out we have far more capabilities than we thought…
(800 words; a seven-minute read)
We all have our favourite concepts of physical capability – breathing, flexibility, strength and such like. But what if the power of our senses extended far beyond what we know? This is not about the historic idea of a sixth-sense, though that can be entirely valid. I’m referring to the kind of synthesis that enables things to work together as a ‘whole system’, in the way that the science of Emergence has shown us that ‘mere matter’ can become self-organising and apparently exhibit ‘intelligence’; the very same way that the first protein-based RNA molecules formed into life-repeating chains and gave rise to our DNA, the very substance of life’s persistence…
In a age of fast-paced scientific discovery, we are learning that what we think of as our separate senses are capable of ‘raising their game’ so that they become the basis of new levels of feeling and action in the world.
Philosophers have long postulated this; and psychology has shown us that, though it is often hard to see what others are thinking and feeling, we can train our senses to enable us to ‘see’ into the bubbles that are their worlds – with much deeper empathy.
The model of the five senses I wrote about in last weeks’ Thursday blog is derived from no less a figure than Aristotle. Though easily understood, it has been shown that the five-sense model of consciousness undervalues and underestimates how and how far the human being can ‘sense’.
I learned about the advances in this field from an article in the British Psychological Society’s online magazine. This is free to subscribers and offers frequent insights into how the science of mind and behaviour is progressing. A recent edition showcases an article from author and researcher Emma Young. She writes, ‘We have many more than five senses – here’s how to make the most of them’, she discusses such mechanisms as Proprioception – the sensing of the location of our body parts in space.
We take this for granted, but try closing your eyes and extending a hand or leg. You can no longer see the limb, but your mind has a good idea of where it is. The accuracy of this sense, known as ‘proprioception’, is vital to our physical wellbeing, and saves us from what would be frequent injury without it.
To get an idea of how automatic this skill is, try closing your eyes and walking around a familiar room – much as a blind person learns to do – and you will find a very different ‘self-process’ is engaged.
Emma Young references how Covid has eaten into the degree to which we make use this extra sense. She suggests we use artificial exercises, such as making up stepping-stones from mats placed in the garden or home. This will replicate the under-used activity of proprioception and help restore this hidden but vital part of being alive. The benefits go further, and according to recent American research, such exercises actually stimulate working memory in the brain.
The problem with our eyes is that they are open all the time. We depend on them too much – a sentiment no-doubt echoed by Shamans of all ages, who have always taught that we can have total knowledge of things only by embracing them as both the ‘now’ and as vividly alive in a holistic way – allowing the higher consciousness mechanisms to engage and ‘self-organise’ at a level above the individual senses.
If it is safe to do so, try moving around your house with your eyes closed – or even blindfold! Who does not remember the intensity of consciousness generated by the child’s game of ‘blind man’s buff’?
One of the levels of synthesis available to us is the result of the body’s vestibular system, used by our minds to establish both balance and the sense of being located and homed inside a physical body. We take this for granted, and it is undoubtedly one of the ‘senses’ that make us feel settled and calm. But many people faced with unusual conditions – such as undergoing surgery – report ‘out of body’ experiences that may relate, directly, to the suppression of the vestibular self-locating mechanisms that are fundamental to our normal consciousness.
Emma Young references the particular efficacy of exercises that move the head, such as Pilates, or Tai Chi, in addition to any action that challenges our balance, such as walking along a rope placed on the floor.
It has been demonstrated that psychological well-being is greatly assisted by the correct use of our eyes, in the sense of what kind of light we ‘take in’ at differing times of day. Bright and ‘sunny’ light is really good for us in the morning; while the more restful evening should be bathed in muted, soft lights, and we shouldn’t stimulate our senses by using computer screen before we go to bed.
Research shows that an acute sense of smell – such a that possessed by wolves – is still with us, despite evolutionary fears that we have lost such capability. We just need to begin using it, again. For all we know, much our society’s depression may come from ‘tech smells’ that have a semi-poisonous effect on our lives. “If you see a rose,” says Emma Young, “stop and smell it…”
Apparently a ‘fishy smell’ improves our critical thinking; and people who are more sensitive to smell have better sex lives…
Emma Young goes on to talk about our ability to ‘inner-sense’, including our own heart-beat, without the use of external devices. I remember an exercise from my youth where we had to use the second hand of our watches to time a six-second period and count the heart beats by placing a finger on the back of the wrist. Multiply the result by ten, and you have your heart rate.
With a little effort (and I’ve tried this) you can feel your heartbeat quite easily simply by ‘listening within’. If you add the second-hand technique, you can measure it… or you could just bask in its magnificent presence and thank it, knowing that some day, it will have finished its loving and dutiful job… to carry our outer ‘self’ through the continuity of life.
British Psychological Society’s weekly online digest:
Emma Young’s article
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.