on 21 October 2006
Ever heard a song or smelt a perfume that took you suddenly and unexpectedly back to another time and place? "What is most amazing is not how our senses span distance or cultures, but how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately with the past, connect us in ways that most of our cherished ideas never could."
I've just finished reading A Natural History of the Senses, a book published in 1990 by Diane Ackerman, a poet and essayist who has gone on to publish two more books following the theme of this one. When I began I thought it as beautifully written and as profound as astronomer Chet Raymo's The Soul of the Night. Ackerman's book, like Raymo's, kindled my sense of wonder on almost every page.
It is a book in which I sense two underlying assumptions. The first, following Thoreau's Walden, that we (all living matter) are very much a product of our environment, and a lot of our physiology has evolved to interpret that environment to our brain. Secondly, that we are now so mechanised, mere technoslaves, that we run the risk of losing that vital connection: once we ignore those signals from our senses about our environment we run the risk of being alienated from it, and alienation is the first step to mental unhealth. The experience of using our body in its normal, healthy state is in itself pleasurable. It is good to remember that life is not all stress and interpersonal pressure, not a shutting out of unpleasant 'facts' by our various addictions. Life is naturally a joyous state.
So let's learn about our senses, but not in any conventional sense of learning, for this is not merely a compendium of facts about the senses but an attempt to encourage us to use our senses, to get us in touch with our feelings (sorry about the pun, but you see how close a tie our brain makes between our emotions and our senses).
The book is divided into five sections, one for each sense, with an epilog which considers the synthesis of the senses and the existence of other senses such as are found in some animals. There are some good thoughts on how unique each species' view of the world is, how particular to our own species is our 'reality'. It is mind expanding to imagine the world as seen and experienced by a spider, for instance, or a cat. One is a little more readier to accept another human's differing viewpoint, for one thing.
My edition was a well produced one (Chapman) with handcut pages, marbled endpapers, well-matched colours in the binding and an expressive jacket picture. It felt, looked and smelt enticing. (I love the smell of books).
"...the latest findings in physiology suggest that the mind doesn't really dwell in the brain but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalog as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision." The brain we usually think of (the 'grey matter') is part of a system, the nervous system,which occupies our entire body, and which enables us to react successfully to our surroundings. Finding the balance between sensation and analysis of that sensation is hard for us because of our 'big' brain; it parallels what psychologists, following Jung, call the swing between extrovert and introvert tendencies, or what moralists see as the choice between intellect and hedonism. Have you ever seen a plant move a leaf or a blossom to face the sun? It is a graceful and beautiful action: for us finding such a balance between sense and survival is not easy, and other life forms have much to teach us.
We now study 'body language', unfortunately usually to find out how to make other people do what we want them to. But we respond to others' body language with our own, and much of what goes on goes on at a sensory level. Our much neglected sense of smell, for instance, tells us how others are feeling, gives guidance as to the dominance structure of a group and help us to find a sexual mate.
Ackerman's book is not a book on science, but a book that demonstrates what science is for.It is a book that I want to read again, soon. Much of the book's fascination comes from Ackerman's writing itself, the simple and direct style that reveals herself and her feelings as well as explains scientific findings and describes the natural world and human customs and history in poetic images and metaphors. Her lateral cast of mind can find the connections between humans and the world in which we live through mediators such as pheronomes, evolution, the behavior of Monarch butterflies, Cleopatra and Egyptian perfumes, the colour range of insects, the deer who come to her garden, the space shuttle and a thousand other fascinating examples.
Ackerman has done something I admire very much - synthesised culture, science, history and poetry to express a perception of human beings and their worlds. For those who've read this far, I've included my own musings to show just what kind of a book this is. If you read it, be prepared to have insights too. Also recommended is Isabel Allende's Aphrodite and those food films, Like Water for Chocolate and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.