top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureAlberto Rodriguez-Garcia

You and Your Senses

Updated: Jan 4




Introduction/Part 1: Walking in the Forest


You are walking in a forest. The calls of unknown birds echo gently across the canopy, the tall, dying grass crinkles and rustles in the wind, the distant creek gurgles downstream; there is an all-encompassing mass made of greens, blues, browns, reds, and yellows, the sun is low and filling the forest with golden light and deep, blue shadows, the gently swaying trees above look like a huge web of interlocking fingers; the air is brisk and heavy with moisture as your legs take you along, your jacket is slightly too warm and is dangerously close to being demoted to the inside of your backpack, your arms are effortlessly dangling by your side, ready whenever; clean, crisp air fills your lungs, the mixture of decaying trees, fresh pine cones and rich soil evokes a sense of the earth, you can taste the remnants of this morning’s ritualistic brushing of teeth; a thought occurs to you, “what am I going to eat for dinner later?”, you suddenly feel stupid and shameful for having that thought while out in a beautiful forest, and you resolve to be more present and attentive to the now. 


That is the rich, multi-dimensional world of the average human mind, an endless cacophonic stream of experience. The only end to this reality is death, allegedly. It is well known that this HD stream is a woefully incomplete representation of reality, and that the “real”, “final” version of experience that the mind is conscious of is a diluted, filtered, and simplified version of the raw information that your body and mind are capable of obtaining from the outside world. The world we inhabit is presented to us by our own minds but there is no reason to believe that it is true: correct, representative, inevitable, or exact. This is by design, and in some ways we should be grateful that the world we inhabit is not even more overwhelmingly complex. 


In many ways this process, which you and I and 7.9 billion other people (not to mention the many other life forms on planet earth) call living, is simple. You experience the world through your senses with little to no effort, creating a web of lived experiences through time. But an unimaginably complex system is behind this simplicity of experience. Uncountable numbers of cells are pulsing within you, moving, changing and dying in microscopic terms at the direction of a minute string of polymers called your DNA, huddled into a moveable suit of skin. All of this frenzied activity of your body is an ongoing meditation between the physical world and your consciousness, handled adroitly and professionally by your senses. Your senses reveal the world to you, but only the world that you are designed to see. 


Yet the sliver of all possible experience that you call your life feels inevitable, as if it is naturally bestowed upon you. It feels personal, possessive - this is your life, lived by you. You are hearing that music, you are seeing those colors, you are touching those objects, you are smelling those flowers, you are tasting that food, you are thinking those thoughts. Not only is your life exclusively yours, all of it is also happening under your watchful direction and control. You are, as William Ernest Henley said, the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.


How else could it be? 



Part 2: Hearing

You are walking in a forest. There is an all-encompassing mass made of greens, blues, browns, reds, and yellows, the sun is low and filling the forest with golden light and deep, blue shadows, the gently swaying trees above look like a huge web of interlocking fingers; the air is brisk and heavy with moisture as your legs take you along, your jacket is slightly too warm and is dangerously close to being demoted to the inside of your backpack, your arms are effortlessly dangling by your side, ready whenever; clean, crisp air fills your lungs, the mixture of decaying trees, fresh pine cones and rich soil evokes a sense of the earth, you can taste the remnants of this morning’s ritualistic brushing of teeth; a thought occurs to you, “what am I going to eat for dinner later?”, you suddenly feel stupid and shameful for having that thought while out in a beautiful forest, and you resolve to be more present and attentive to the now. 


Your walk in the forest is still quite familiar. The songbirds are no longer musically gifted, the grass, though muted, looks beautiful as it moves in the wind, and you can’t be sure that the nearby creek is still flowing, but otherwise everything feels normal.  You are still you. But which “you” are you now?  


Hearing is an endlessly fascinating subject, but for the purposes of this story we’ll keep it relatively simple. The ear is divided into 3 sections - the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear - and they each perform small miracles that lead to your experience of hearing, otherwise known as the act of capturing hyper-fast waves of air (called sound) and assigning meaning to them. These sound waves are transcribed in some still mysterious way into electrical signals that are perceived and processed by your brain. 


The outer ear is the most straightforward and familiar, it being the only visible thing about the act of hearing, and is made up of your fleshy, dangly, meat parts that stick out of your head as a beacon for those incoming sound waves. This is what most people will imagine when you say the word “ear.” Its job is simple: to wrangle and direct sound waves from the outside world to the middle ear. 


The sound waves journey through the auditory canal, that place where you shouldn’t brazenly stick a q-tip into, and hit a small, sensitive membrane called the eardrum. The eardrum is the beginning of a whimsical rube goldberg machine, taking those sound waves and amplifying them to create its own, more intense vibrations. This brings us to the ossicles, the 3 smallest bones in the human body that also happen to have some of the coolest names out of any bones in the Homo Sapien: malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), stapes (stirrup). These 3 bones are held together by ligaments that help to amplify and intensity the vibrations that are being felt by your eardrum that are being produced by sound waves that are born by air being moved by the vibrations in objects (fuck yea, right?). The ossicles dance together to amplify the vibrations in the air by almost 20x, moving up and down and sideways in your head.  


The inner ear is where things start to get a little mystical.  It has its own multipart system made up of tubes and membranes and special cells, but for now let’s focus on the critical piece: the cochlea. The cochlea is a snail-like section the size of a green pea that is filled with liquid. The ossicles do all of the hard labor of wave amplification so that the liquid in the inner ear can ripple and create waves to the same tune as the sound waves collected by the outer ear. Special cells in your cochlea have hair-like structures that ride these waves (cowabunga) and, through a process that I am not qualified to explain, turn their movement into electrical signals which travel across the auditory nerve to the brain. Finally, these signals are processed by your brain, revealing the beauty of a Bach, the comfort of waves, and the anxiety of sirens. 


Through science we have come to (mostly, vaguely) understand how hearing works, but being able to explain how something works does not necessarily wipe out the mystery and awe of its existence. Even more mysteriously, sound waves have meaning -  at least to us. You don’t hear a set of frequencies, you hear a song by your favorite musician. Our ability to interpret sound as meaning is inherent in us. Sounds are useful indicators of danger, pleasure, and everything in between and have helped humans survive, while at the same time killing a bunch of other animals, plants, and other forms of life, by giving us an important connection to the outside world. 


It’s fair to say, however, that the ability to hear is not a requirement for navigating the world and surviving its trials, as clearly evidenced by the many deaf communities around the world. Deaf people, against the flow of so-called “normalcy”  and its hearing-based structures, often lead successful, happy lives, and their soundless experience can be every bit as fulfilling and interesting as its soundfull cousin. What is also obvious is that any person who is born deaf has a distinctly different experience of the world than those who can hear. One valve of experience has been closed. 


You cannot pretend to understand what it’s like to be deaf unless you cannot hear, just as you cannot pretend to understand what it’s like to be someone who isn’t you. The incomprehensibility of the experience of others is a feature of our individual brains who are always trying to communicate and engage with other brains around them. Even if you traveled to a dimension where you could pay to experience life as another person, you would run into a few metaphysical problems. 


Let’s say that you know that you are occupying another person’s mind - if you know you are there, you are simply watching someone’s life unfold like a movie being played in grossly rich, high definition, state-of-the-art quality, unable to exert any kind of influence and judging the experience not as they would but as you would. They walk into a record store and pick out an album by, say, Taylor Swift. Your reaction to experiencing them do this, depending on your musical taste, will range from joy to horror but will ultimately be based on your taste, not theirs. You may be able to discern their logic (or lack thereof) for choosing that Taylor Swift album, but you don’t feel it as they do because you are translating it to your own way of thinking. 


But what if you could actually be them, if you somehow absorbed all of their memories, experiences and genetics? Well, then you would be them, even if briefly. But once that vivid nightmare ends you will come back to your own body and mind and have to contextualize what you experienced somehow through your original self. Your experience of being them has to fit into the narrative of your life or else fall away to the deepest, most unattainable void of non-experience that we call “the life of others.” So in the end you don’t really know what it’s like to be them, you know what it’s like to be them as you.  


It’s clear then that you cannot pretend to understand what you would be like if you were born deaf. Your entire life would have played out differently, an unfathomable number of neurons in your brain would be arranged in a uniquely new way, the edges of your experiences would have been colored even more intensely by the other open valves at your disposal, and you never would feel the irresistible urge to scream out “It's a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes’!” 



Part 3: Seeing

You are walking in a forest. The air is brisk and heavy with moisture as your legs take you along, your jacket is slightly too warm and is dangerously close to being demoted to the inside of your backpack, your arms are effortlessly dangling by your side, ready whenever; clean, crisp air fills your lungs, the mixture of decaying trees, fresh pine cones and rich soil evokes a sense of the earth, you can taste the remnants of this morning’s ritualistic brushing of teeth; a thought occurs to you, “what am I going to eat for dinner later?”, you suddenly feel stupid and shameful for having that thought while out in a beautiful forest, and you resolve to be more present and attentive to the now. 


Your walk in the forest suddenly feels quite different. Your sense of vision, as it is for most of us, is the one you most closely identify with and the most jarring to imagine without. A world without vision is a frightening, deep, engulfing darkness. On your walk, the hints of the forest are hidden in the smells, the hairs on your arm, and the crunching pine cones and soft earth below your feet. While navigating the forest without your hearing is somewhat less rich, it is almost dangerous to try and navigate it without your eyes. But of course you are still alive, as human as anyone else, and you. At this point it’s fair to ask how the loss of two vital senses would change you, not if. 


The eyes, as you might expect, are an evolutionary marvel. They are beautiful in design and in experience, conveying information bidirectionally between you and the out there as naturally as all natural things do. Locking eyes with another may be the most intimate thing we can do with each other - I see you seeing me seeing you. It is not only our eyes that are linked but also our minds, as they dance and leap with the joy of awareness and acknowledgement. 


The dance begins with light. Sweet, glorious light. The giant burning ball at the center of the solar system, made of (mostly) hydrogen and helium, releases waves of energy as the ~1.201×1057 atoms in its core shake aggressively together, fusing with each other. These waves (Or particles. Or both? Somehow we still don’t really know for sure what is really going on all around us?) travel unimaginable distances to reach our planet, wade through the thickness of our devoted atmosphere, and bounce off of everything they touch.


The delicate, transparent window to the outside is the cornea, which acts as a sort of filter that sharpens and focuses the light. The light officially enters the human realm when it passes through a small hole called the pupil, the bigger the brighter. The part we are all obsessed with, the colored donut of the human body we call the iris, controls how large or small the pupil is based on how much light is being recorded. Finally, the wave-particles of light pass through a convex lens, which fine-tunes the work of the cornea and sends the finished product across the calm sea of your eyeball to the retina. 


Millions of special neurons that you produced in your body (congrats) are responsible for converting light into electrical and chemical signals for our friend the brain. The neural all-star lineup consists of photoreceptors (a world-class absorber of light), bipolar cells (the strong, flexible bridge to the next cell), ganglion cells (the architects of the optic nerve), as well as two less distinguished but equally interesting horizontal and amacrine cells that allow the photoreceptors to engage in lateral communication. Electrical and chemical data shoot backwards via the optic nerve to the occipital lobe where light becomes life. 


And like so, you see my eyes seeing your eyes seeing mine, you see the pained strokes of genius in the mustard yellow sunflowers of Van Gogh, you see the darkness that lies in wait for you every night, you see the forest. The act of seeing alone, however, does not give meaning to the seen, just like the act of hearing does not give meaning to the heard. So what does give your experience meaning?


The best person to ask is Helen Keller. When she was 19 months old she suddenly lost her eyesight and hearing, leaving her isolated from the world, from others and from her own sense of self. At six years old she met her to-be lifelong teacher and companion, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, who immediately began to teach her repressed young pupil how to communicate. At first, Anne would manually sign into the palm of Helen’s hand, trying to teach her to spell and write words that she did not realize meant anything at all. One day, Anne led Helen to a water pump and put Helen's hand under the running spout. As the cool, slippery water fell upon her hand, Anne spelled - first patiently and slowly, then rapidly - into Helen’s other hand the word "w-a-t-e-r.” 


In her own words, Helen describes this experience “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!” Reflecting on the importance of these first moments of learning, she said,  “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect… it was not night - it was not day.”


This dawning of consciousness did not happen in one sudden moment of glorious epiphany. It took patience and determination on her behalf as well as her companion’s. In her own words, “it was language that unlocked a new sense of being, when I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed to me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value…thought made me conscious of love, joy and all the emotions.” In other words, it was language that unlocked her world and allowed her senses to act as a conduit to it. 


As cliche as it sounds, the life of Helen Keller was arguably more rich and interesting than the average person’s life because of, not in spite of, her two missing senses. After emerging from a semi-conscious blur of emptiness, she discovered something of endless fascination: her own mind. Through her sense of touch, smell, and taste came a never-ending flood of experience that started to develop into a cohesive, comprehensible pattern whose connecting thread was something she had learned to call “I.” Her world, though textured differently than yours, was full of information: the softness of a dog’s fur, the humid air of an impending rain, the violent shaking of wooden floors alerting her of an angry relative storming into the room, the cocktail of sweetness floating off of the fresh spring flowers blooming almost as one, the uniquely shaped and twitching face of a new friend, the sweetness of chocolate, the love of a hug. 


Despite her "success" as a human, she was dangerously close to a life of emptiness, just as you are. If she had been unfortunate enough to be born into a poor or uncaring family, she likely would have never learned the power of language, of being an “I.” Language unlocks this within all of us, but it usually happens more seamlessly and subtly. You learn language quickly and with it start to define your life - that complicated, beautiful, sad, dull, fleeting thing we are always experiencing -  with concepts. 


Concepts are not gatekeepers of experience, but they are part of the story of your life and give you anchors to yourself. When something smells like something else or is assigned a category, it suddenly becomes something “you” smell, because it is compared to and evaluated against your past experiences. Without concepts, what you smell would not be what “you” smell, because “you” is a concept in the same way “smell” is. There is, however, a difference between meaning and concepts. The concept of “I” helped Helen Keller discover the meaning of her existence, to make sense of everything that was happening to and around her. But meaning can also exist outside of concepts, even if the kind of meaning that exists there is indescribable in words or thoughts. Meaning can be simple or complex, but without concepts it is purely experiential; you cannot consciously or subconsciously assign a category to a smell, whether that category is “bad,” “sweet,” “important,” or “annoying.”


Language and its associated concepts are the mechanisms you use to bridge the gap between pure, unadulterated experience and the story of your life. You only know you are a “you” because you learned what a “you” is, and that you are also a “you.” On top of that, you learned that there are other “you”s all around you, though they are distinctly not you. What is the difference between the you and the not yous? For one, you can feel and experience everything that happens within and to you, while the rest of the yous sit in relative obscurity and mystery. Experience flows only through you, as far as you can tell. A life where you did not know you were a “you” would be foreign and strange, but also none of those things (because you wouldn’t know those concepts in the first place).   


It’s impossible for you to know what it is like to smell or taste without concepts, as you use concepts without being aware that you do. I’s equally confounding to imagine a life not centered around the most basic human concept: “I.” What is clear from Helen Keller’s story is that the “I” within you is not only not obvious but it is learned, a concept overlaid on top of the experience of life.  



Part 4: Touching

You are walking in a forest. Clean, crisp air fills your lungs, the mixture of decaying trees, fresh pine cones and rich soil evokes a sense of the earth, you can taste the remnants of this morning’s ritualistic brushing of teeth; a thought occurs to you, “what am I going to eat for dinner later?”, you suddenly feel stupid and shameful for having that thought while out in a beautiful forest, and you resolve to be more present and attentive to the now. 


With only two senses left (smelling/tasting), your walk in the woods that was so rich, beautiful and powerful becomes almost nightmarish. You can’t tell if you are walking or sitting, or even where you may be walking or sitting. How do you decide what to do next, and how will you know that you’ve done that? Are you even in the woods? It smells like the woods, which is a good sign at least. If only you could feel the earth at the base of your body, grounding you to something, anything. 


The sense of touch here also includes the sense of interoception, which involves all of the sensory feelings that occur from inside your body. Anyone who’s ever had a pulse understands how important it is to know you have to attend to certain time-sensitive bodily functions. The physical sensations we adore and avoid are incredibly important and interesting. The most exhilarating moments of physical reality are accessed through touch - feeling like a human almost requires it. 


Like an elaborately stratified lasagna, you are full of layers. Your largest organ and the baked, crispy outer layer of lasagna - the epidermis, the trusty skin suit holding it all together - is where you feel the most consistent connection to the “not you” out there. What looks like a polished, mostly featureless surface turns out to be more like a series of small canyons or badlands of dead skin cells. Folds upon folds of dying little bits of you cascade, crash and clump onto each other like an out of control cemetery. Underneath the sacrificial vanguard are the next wave of cells that are (just barely) still alive, patiently waiting their turn. The deepest layer of the epidermis is where your body produces new skin cells to send to the slaughter, where your melanin which dictates a large part of your experience on earth is produced, where this thin layer of you at the edge of your world protects your body from the elements (biological enemies (viruses, bacteria, etc), sharpish objects, and dangerous chemicals), and where the responsibility to keep important things you need inside you (like water, for instance) resides.  


Deeper into the lasagna is the dermis: a connective tissue layer sandwiched between the epidermis (thank you for your service) and subcutaneous layers that make up the rest of your body. The dermis is a fibrous structure that holds a dizzying array of other structures: hair, nerve endings, all sorts of glands, and fat. The role of the dermis is to support the epidermis above it, create hair that sticks out of your mass of dead skin like a cell tower, make you disgustingly sweaty at the most inappropriate times, and help you feel pain (the stove you touched while it was still hot), pleasure (the cool, damp towel you placed on your forehead on a swelteringly hot summer’s day), and all manner of other sensations. Different types of sensors embedded in your dermis regulate various sensations, such as pain, texture, pressure, cold/hot, etc. 


When you touch that hot stove and, without thinking twice, or even once, dart your hand away, that is thanks to the dermis. Without those invisible (to you) structures, information could not be carried from the fiery stove to the dermis to the sensory neurons to the digital nerve to the median nerve to the ulnar nerve to the spinal cord, not asking you but forcing you to move your hand as quickly as humanly possible. After your hand has moved, the information continues onto the brain where you register a feeling of pain. In a sense, you moved your hand; in another sense, you didn’t do anything at all. The same can be said for the many sensations in the body. 


Picture this: your knees are pressed uncomfortably against the cold tile flooring, your hands grip the rim of the toilet seat for dear life, your hair is mercifully pulled into a bun, a sudden awe-inspiring composite of sensations beginning at your lower abdomen snake upward in a violent jolt, your throat expands to an unreasonable degree, and out it comes: warm, suffocating, brown, expensive. This is what’s called a universal, interoceptive chain reaction. Something within you forces you to act, taking away your willpower, your control and your food. 


Your body is capable of producing a stunning array of similarly harrowing chain reactions, and equally capable of gracing you with their euphoric opposites (a warm cup of tea gurgling past the inside of your throat, the sense of weightlessness when you lay down in darkness after a long and difficult day, orgasms). What is interesting about the external and internal sensations of the body is how they seem to appear from nothing. A chain reaction occurs, either interoceptively or externally, and that leads to some action on your part. 


Did you choose to touch the hot stove and then also choose to move your hand away? Certainly you didn’t intend to touch it and feel pain, us humans being predominantly pain-avoidant. Yet you did feel pain and your hand did move, whether you liked it or not. Did you choose to eat some semi-poisoned food and then have that said food flow ungraciously out of you a few hours later? Well, you chose the restaurant (or a friend (who is now on your shit list) did for you) and that puts some of the blame on you. With the exception of the few of you so emetically-inclined psychopaths out there, you didn’t want this. Additionally, you had no say in how your stomach would react to the semi-poisoned lasagna, let alone how aggressively it exited your body.  


These questions of control can be expanded to more than just to bodily sensations. When your father’s sperm and your mother’s egg, in a bear hug of destiny, combined to create a fertilized zygote, a long, complex chain reaction began. Beginning with fertilization and ending with death, the chain reaction spans, on average for males, 72.3 years. The beginning is chaotic to say the least, as cells multiply and multiply and multiply to create your tissue, organs and body. Then patience, as your body prepares for the baptism of birth and its consequences. Once your body graduates to the outside of your mother, things get even more complicated. Your environment suddenly has so much information and your body and brain have to adjust to it as well as they can by reacting and learning. An endless cycle begins whereby you learn based on what you experience and what you are capable of experiencing (your senses), and your experiences are then filtered through what you know and can experience, and so on and so forth. You would like to believe that the cycle does not end at death, but overwhelming evidence suggests that it is so. Your particular chain reaction ends.  


Yet that is not how your life feels. Your life feels like a series of connected moments, punctuated by choices. The feeling of making a decision that impacts your life, hopefully positively, is maybe unique among humans. Deciding which school to attend, which job to take, which hobbies to pursue, which person to commit to, which city to live in, which clothes to buy, which friends to keep. These choices are all important to different degrees, but they all have to be made by you. 


Many studies have began to put this assumption of personal choice under scrutiny. Recent experiments took direct recordings from the cerebral cortex and found that the activity of just 256 neurons is sufficient to predict with 80% accuracy a person's decision to move 700 milliseconds before they become aware of it. Though this only proves that awareness and action are disconnected, it points to a more disturbing possibility: choices may not be made by you, but adopted by you. If this is true, the feeling of choosing one thing or another becomes an act of acceptance and faith in the chain reaction of life.  



Part 5: Smelling/Tasting

You are walking in a forest. A thought occurs to you, “what am I going to eat for dinner later?”, you suddenly feel stupid and shameful for having that thought while out in a beautiful forest, and you resolve to be more present and attentive to the now. 


Are you really walking in the forest? Who knows. The important thing is you can still think. After all, what would you be without your thoughts, right?  


The sense of smell is intimately related to the sense of taste. This isn’t true for all animals who can smell and taste, but we are part of the lucky (or unlucky) group that have a case of the nose-connected-to-mouth syndrome. It turns out that the nose is responsible for 80-90% of the information that we experience as “taste,” so the next time you are trying to see what delicate, gustatory notes are attached to the expensive wine your friend just handed you, make sure to take a deep, unrelenting inhale with your entire nose in the wine glass. Ah, yes, a hint of cherry, a splash of mahogany, and that lovely oaky afterbirth!


Besides helping you fit in with your local wine snobs, tasting and smelling serve vital evolutionary functions. This should be no surprise - your body has proven time and time again that it was built with something resembling purpose: survival and procreation. These two senses help us know what to come closer to and what to move away from, what to consume greedily and willingly and what to spit out to avoid stomach problems, or worse, death. Because of this, smelling and tasting can be emotional experiences, concerned with the most sacred and existential of life’s questions that require immediate action and reaction. 


Let’s start with taste. It is, compared to the sense of smell to follow, simple. Inside of the hole where you shove food, among other things, there is also a tongue. Like a wet shag carpet, your tongue contains an impressive array of small bumps of tissue called papillae. In the grooves between the papillae are the taste buds with their personal army of microvilli (taste hairs, very cool) sticking out into the space between the bumps. Particles of food (in America, mostly corn and its derivatives) come into contact with the microvilli and are interpreted by the 50-150 taste cells lodged into the taste bud. As with all of the senses, neurons are connected to these cells and the information is passed onto the brain. The brain then spits out a child-like culinary opinion, letting you know if the food you just ate is sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (savory), or some combination of the 5. This high level understanding of taste is complimented by our sense of smell, which accounts for the majority of the information that leads to the specific flavor profile of the something-flavored corn you just ate. 


The engine of your sense of smell resides in the olfactory (the word derives from the past participle of the Latin olfacere ("to smell"), which was formed from the verb olēre ("to give off a smell") and facere ("to do")) center of your brain and it is formed early in your development, i.e. the process by which larger and larger groups of cells form tissues and larger and larger groups of tissue form organs and so on until the arrangement slowly but surely becomes a human being. Newborns have a bloodhoundingly sensitive sense of smell compared to their adult counterparts, possibly because of the underdevelopment of other senses at this stage of becoming a not-baby. When a baby cries after you pick it up, consider how intensely it may be smelling that deodorant or lack thereof. 


Anyway, the design of the nose takes into consideration many complex, competing priorities, one of which is to gather molecular data from the air that surrounds you. Those little guys float all around you, all potential bits of data that your brain wants to decode. So, you inhale. 95% of your nasal cavity is really just a tube that warms, humidifies and filters what you suck up your nose. Little hairs covered in mucus along the inside of your nose, called cilia, filter the air (i.e. the molecules), while the molecules (i.e. the air) are warmed by a network of capillaries as they pass from the outside in. The olfactory epithelium (what a cool name) at the last 5% of your nose cavity has a layer of olfactory receptor cells which are, again, covered in mucus (thank you, mucus). 


When a molecule finishes its nasal journey, it dissolves and binds to the olfactory receptors, which, you guessed it, are connected to the brain via the boring but accurately named olfactory tract. There are millions of these unique little cells that are part of the 500 (or so) odor receptor families, enabling the cells in each family to selectively capture a specific set of odor molecules. A scent can be an intricately complicated get-together of many odor receptor families, enabling an incredibly rich sense of smell. The neat thing about the olfactory tract is that, unlike the data that is processed by the photoreceptors in your eyes which have to make a pit stop at a central processing center before making the final informational delivery, the electrical information that is translated by the olfactory receptors goes straight to various parts of the brain untranslated by any central bureaucratic operation. It can do this because it is ancient - a relic of a past shared with almost all life. 


Smell is the most ancient sense. Gathering information from surrounding molecules is something that your distant relatives, the single-celled organisms, have been doing for billions of years. Your greatgreatgreatgreat^21 ancestors needed a way to interact with the soup of chemicals they lived in, and so they eventually (somehow) mutated to the point of developing a smell-like ability that has been passed down in some form or another to all organisms. This is called signaling. When a molecule in the soup touches and binds with an appropriate receptor on the surface of a living cell, a chain of events carries and amplifies the signal to the cell interior. Your ancestor then squirms, pulses, creates, and moves in response to the signal. Things are so different now.  


In more ways than you could list, being a human being is clearly not like being a single-celled organism. Yet, there is a thread of familiarity and history that links you to your origins and that sheds light on your hidden nature. You and the lonely floating cell are similar in that you both create yourselves using DNA, process and react to information taken from your surroundings, and die, among other things. 


A bright, fluorescent-white backdrop, your hand gently twists the ribbed knob to the left, one eye closed and the other intently squinting and pointed straight down in the angle of depression, green-black confetti comes into focus, meandering up and down and left and right across your entire field of vision. It’s life you’re seeing, but it looks strange, alien. One of the little alien blobs beelines it starboard as if desperately convinced there’s something at the edge of the white backdrop, another blob seems resigned to stand still for as long as possible just to spite you, and another pair of blobs seem to be making passionate love or war. When you look upon the blobs from the perch of humanity there doesn’t seem to be much self-determination, let alone consciousness. They seem controlled, not controlling, and subject to the whims of their environment. 


An important question arises: how are your senses different to those of the single cell bacteria? One response could be that your senses are more powerful and more diverse, capable of corralling, processing and reacting to more information at higher speeds. Another is that your senses are more fine-tuned after billions of years of evolution with more specialized cells than you could possibly count, making up the array of your sensory experience. A third could be that your senses are under your control and direction, unlike the blobs who seem more machine-like than life-like.


But did you tell your ears to capture the sound waves emanating from the throats of birds outside? Did you tell your eyes to read this sentence? Did you tell your back and buttocks to relay the relative hardness of the chair you are sitting on? What, exactly, is your role in all of this? 



Part 5: Thinking

You are walking in a forest.


But are you?


You now exist as a husk of your former self, stripped of your senses, devoid of connection and therefore of selfhood. Though you are technically alive by the definition of the word, in a practical sense you are as dead as any inanimate object, as unconscious as these words. The tenuous but rich connection to the outside of you is completely severed, leaving you as a deserted island in an endless-in-all-directions emptiness. But emptiness is not the right word; in fact words fail to convey the lack of reality that not being alive must be like. It is beyond human constructs, imagination and understanding. 


We have much to be grateful for in our sense-filled existence, first and foremost the ability to sense anything at all. Your senses, however, do not liberate you from the metaphysical prison, but rather help construct it. This (hopefully, normally) isn’t some dark, dank, dangerous prison where your starving and beaten body whimpers for mercy. It’s more like those plush, liberal Scandinavian prisons: it hardly looks and feels like what you’ve been told a prison is. In your personal prison you are the designer, financier, construction company, marketing agency, judge, guard and prisoner. Despite the array of roles and choices you seem to have over the look and feel of the prison, a prison it remains. The edges of the possible and present are, in the end, the cages you build around yourself. Thankfully your lack of freedom is not obvious in the moment to moment experience of being alive, graciously helping you avoid intense, never-ending psychological distress. Without senses to build your prison, you are now free, but tragically, also (basically) dead.


Outside of the constant sensory stimulation you experience, there is a near-constant appearance of thoughts/feelings/ideas of a dizzying variety. Science has taken us far, but not far enough to have a clear theory of how thoughts originate in the brain. You are told that thoughts are self-generated, created by the thinker (in this case, you). Your thoughts are not only a reflection of your personality and beliefs, but also feel like the essence of your individuality and humanity. You judge yourself based on what you think because you believe it comes from the deep well of self-determination. You think those thoughts, and often you believe that you are them too. 


Once they are examined more closely, thoughts start to feel like another sense: your awareness of life is punctuated by them, they at times seem to appear to you without warning or conscious choice, your survival is aided and abetted by their (if you’re lucky, mostly) useful instructions, and they feel personal and unique to you. Without your thoughts, navigating such a complex society as the one that has developed to this point would pose many unique challenges. We need our thoughts as we need our hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching. Like a sense organ, you receive thoughts such as “I don’t trust him” or “I want that job” or “I think I’ll move to New York” or “she’s my soul mate” or “I love this song.” These thoughts feel like they are originating within you, because that is how a thought is most convincing. If you believed a thought occurred by and to you, you are more likely to incorporate it into your beliefs and behavioral patterns. If you believed a thought appeared from an inexplicably complex interaction of DNA, physical reality, past thoughts, and your culture, then you have less conviction in its capital “T” Truth. As you can imagine, being skeptical of your own thoughts and being unable or unwilling to parse their origin leads to more than self-doubt. 


Unlike the other senses, thoughts don’t have a clear, physical point of origin, making them one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience. The (semi, completely, or totally not, depending who you are) logical conclusion is that your thoughts come from “you,” the mystical center of your universe from where the existence of all things seem to expand out from (including your own thoughts, of course). 


This conclusion, however, can quickly fall apart.  When viewed through the lens of utility, thoughts take on different meanings. Like other sensory information (the smell of the milk in your fridge, how close that car is to hitting your bicycle, the sounds of sirens behind you on the freeway, the frigid Pacific Ocean water), thoughts have value in that they provide information about the world and your relationship to it. How you use that information, or the information of your other senses, is usually automatic. Whether you trust someone you just met is often an impulsive and spontaneous decision that appears to you after enough information from your other senses has been relayed to the brain, processed, and then dished back to you in the form of a conclusion, but it is not always correct. 


A lot of the work that leads to conscious thought is done by your subconscious mind. Because the conscious and subconscious mind is such a black box, there is a lot that we don’t know. What is clear is that your mind is very (and I mean VERY) complicated, but what appears in your experience (the thoughts, ideas, etc) is just the tip of the proverbial mental iceberg. This leads to issues of origin, function and influence: how and why do you think the way you do?  Modern psychology points to the conclusion (which, to be fair, could turn out to be wrong in x number of years) that your experience of thought and subsequent action is primarily driven by subconscious delusions and biases. As Daniel Kahneman said, “We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know.” 


Through your senses you capture information and learn how to survive. Without your senses, as you stumble (or wait, are you even doing that?) through the forest (hold on, you’re in a forest?), you no longer can think, you no longer are able to learn, as the outside world is closed off to you and not even Anne Mansfield Sullivan could help you now. Without learning, you cannot acquire language and think in concepts, cannot attach meaning to experiences, cannot think, cannot connect moments in time to your personal narrative. “You” does not exist; “It’s a wrap,” “The fat lady has sung,” “That’s all she wrote,” “Sayonara, Sammy.”


 Conclusion/Part 6: Being


You.


You, you, you. Eternal emptiness, or something like it. No reality, no forest, no love, no friends, no hugs, no chocolate, no sound of crackling fire on a cold night in the backcountry, no fear of what may happen next, no early morning light the color of the sun, no sadness or grief, no being anything, no. 


What Thomas Nagel calls the “subjective character of experience”, is the hyper-specific consciousness that each living being (which includes you, bucko) possesses. He goes on to say that something can be said to be conscious “only if there is something that it is like to be that organism- something it is like for the organism.” Nagel goes on to describe the relative difficulty in imagining the lived experience of something that isn’t you, going from somewhat easy in the case of other humans given the shared physiological tendencies and genetics to considerably challenging in the case of bats. A bat is still quite similar to you, DNA-wise, but has experiences and connections to the world that are only partially imaginable. Echolocation and the ability to fly being two prime examples of a foreign way of being. 


You can intellectually understand that a bat has a different experience of being alive than you do. To actually know and feel what that is like is, according to Nagel, impossible given the constraints of your mind and sensory organs. There is an experiential gap that limits understanding to the realm of the personally reachable. Yet despite the unknowable reality of other conscious states, you can know that there is still a conscious state to try and understand. You extend this basic empathy of existence as far as you can justify, which isn’t that far at all, really. For if “what it is like for an organism” is the basic assumption of consciousness, consciousness may be more common than normally assumed.  


Similar to bats, other human beings presumably have conscious states. It is easier to imagine what it might be like to be another human being (vs a bat) but ultimately it is also a flawed and incomplete understanding. You know how hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching feels, and you know what it’s like to live as a human being, but you only know how it feels for you. Each “subjective character of experience” is unique, a product of time, place, form, and the confluence of all three. So, what is it like to be you? Unfortunately or fortunately, only you can answer that question. 


This is where the fun begins. As a singular, isolated field of consciousness, you alone are that which can comprehend itself and you alone have access to the inner and outer complexities of your personal human experience. Though that experience can be tenuous and superficial at times, it is also all that you can experience. Yet the extent of the knowable within your own experience is also restricted by the quality of your attention, the fidelity and limit of your senses, and the many competing priorities “out there.” Knowing yourself (and therefore, knowing more about how others might work, think, and feel) has its limits but is still one of the most worthwhile pursuits imaginable. You can be a perpetual well of interest, fascination and discovery by thinking of your experience as a window to both your own inner being as well as a glimpse into the inner beings of others. The alternative is to let a rich, multidimensional life flash by, only vaguely aware of the beauty, mystery, pain, and awe of it all, before the inevitable emptiness prevails. 






Further Readings


251 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page