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See What I'm SayingReview - See What I'm Saying
The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses
by Lawrence D. Rosenblum
W. W. Norton, 2010
Review by Chris Vaughan
Mar 15th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 11)

In this book's final chapter, the author states, "In a way, this entire book is a lie."(p267) It is a lie because the way he divides up the chapters into five sections, gives the impression that he subscribes to the traditional notion that we have five senses working independently from each other.

 As we progress through the book and he introduces the evidence from recent brain science, it becomes apparent that whatever the original channel by which we receive information from the outside world, it is the mixing desk of the brain that assembles the final product. Furthermore, imaging techniques have allowed scientists to discover what Rosenblum calls "exotic" perceptual skills, capabilities that register on a brain monitor and help to orient us in the world and guide our decision-making but operate below our immediate conscious awareness.

Professor Rosenblum has fourteen academic papers to his credit but this is no dry-as-dust treatise.  He shows that he knows stylistically how to keep the general reader interested and intrigued. And he is not above inserting a few funny one-liners.

Some of what he says will be familiar to anyone who reads the science sections of their newspapers or watches the occasional TV documentary. However, he links the findings together into a comprehensive and readable narrative, providing a stimulating overview of an emerging area of study.  

Without losing objectivity, he involves the reader from the start. He uses anecdotes without being anecdotal. He interviews scientist and personalizes their research but still respects the facts. And he writes about leading edge research and exciting possibilities, without straining the evidence.

He prefaces his work with this ambitious declaration: "The goals of the book are threefold: (1) to reveal that you have extraordinary perceptual skills of which you are largely unaware;(2) to show that by becoming aware of these skills and how they work, you can actually enhance how to use them; and (3) to convey that these skills illustrate some of the most important recent developments in perceptual science."  I'm not sure he succeeds in his second goal because so much of what scientists have discovered with their new-found techniques happens so deep below the surface we are not aware of it taking place and so are not in a position to take a conscious approach in the matter.

He catalogues  the traditional learnable skills such wine-tasting or lip-reading and also what he terms "exotic"  perceptual skills -- hearing things that don't make a noise, feeling things that don't touch your skin, smelling things with no discernible odor, seeing things that have no form.

He says the brain knows more about the outside world than you do. New brain research in perceptual psychology and brain science has shown that our senses pick up information that we thought was only available to other species. In fact, in the Epilogue he allows himself a little poetic licence by calling this our inner menagerie and amusingly linking these exotic skills to identifiable creatures.

The chapter entitled: "You Smell like a Dog " provides a good illustration of the points Rosenblum  makes through out  about the perceptual skills we all possess  either in embryo or organically . He compares us to one of the denizens of the menagerie and the comparison is by no means all in the dog's favour.  Dogs have roughly 20 times more olfactory receptor cells than we do and, for tracking purposes, long snouts positioned closer to the ground.  But we don't have their complex infection-preventing filtering system and so, even with these fewer receptors, more odor molecules get to them. 

But we also have our brains as a powerful compensatory device, which means, smell can be associated with emotion, memory, motor reaction and multimodal integration. But above all, we humans finesse our olfactory and our taste capabilities, because odors activate the language areas of the brain and this allows us to process  odor inputs more substantially than other species  -  witness the way we classify subtleties in perfume, wine and food.

What modern scientific techniques are uncovering is the whole world of sense that exists beyond our awareness. There are odors, for instance, that do not impinge on our consciousness but have a bearing on our choices, some of them life-changing.  "It's with odors you don't notice where your nose really shines", says Rosenblum.

There has been a lot written about the role of pheromones in sexual selection. For certain species of animals, and pigs in particular, it is well documented how pheromones can directly determine how a female pig will behave towards its male counterpart.  But is there any evidence that pheromones exist for humans and if so what does that say about free will and human choice?

Rosenblum reviews the evidence and distinguishes between animal and human pheromones. Animal pheromones have been identified in experimentation but human pheromones so far have only been assumed to exist through observed changes in behavior.  Rosenblum shows that there is mounting evidence human odors can signal areas not formerly associated with them - an individual's fearful state, immunocompatability, kin relations, body asymmetry, male dominance, and menstrual phase. There is also evidence for physiological and neurophysiological responses to many of the signals. Steroids associated with putative male and female pheromones have been shown to modulate mood and sexual thoughts, especially in women.

There are other hidden systems which Rosenblum talks about and which perceptual science is exploring such as our tendency to mirror or imitate each other, first located in macaque monkeys and which probably exists in humans too. Our extraordinary sensitivity to what others are doing seems to point to brain cells that have the dual role of recognizing and producing  an action -- reacting to a smile for instance  or learning to dance.  Certainly their discovery contradicts the traditional model of five separate senses because these neurons are obviously connected to the sense of sight but also are located close to the motor cortex and must also involve a sixth sense -- a kinesthetic sense?.

And another hidden system are the sensors that link sight, touch and movement. Manipulating a tennis racket involves not just sight but also a sense of positioning and judgments about velocity and distance with respect to the ball.

It is good to know about all these channels of information and others that Rosenblum talks about, that flow into our brains unbeknownst to us. It gives us a greater confidence in our own inbuilt abilities. And that we can grow our brains by paying attention to the finer points of our sensual experience. The book abounds in hints and tips from the professionals in the field to enhance our own perceptual performance, from using our hearing to compensate for visual deprivation to advice on how the tone deaf can sing in tune.

Freud pointed out that, as a species, humans are prosthetic gods -- good at amplifying our physical abilities through our man-made technologies.  Rosenblum shows that thanks to the versatility and plasticity of our brains, we have the remarkable ability to amplify our senses just through conscious effort.  He also demonstrates that we possess newly-discovered perceptual superpowers working for us outside our awareness.  They can't always be accessed on a conscious level, but it's fascinating and comforting to know they exist.

There is also grist here in abundance for the philosophical and psychological mills to grind, but that is for another time and another readership.

 

© 2011 Chris Vaughan

 

 

Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.


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