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The invisible senses

Conclusion: The invisible senses

In her book, “Culture and the Senses. Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community”[1], anthropologist Kathryn Linn Geurts remarks: “in the West, we often treat the domain of sensation and perception as definitely   precultural and eminently natural, one of the basic of human psychobiological systems. That is the approach in fields of neurology, biology, physiology, psychology, and even philosophy. (2003, p. 5) Yet, Geurts argues that sensing, defined as “bodily ways of gathering information,” is profoundly involved with society’s epistemology, the development of its cultural identity, and its forms of being-in-the-world. As a result, a culture’s sensory order is one of the most basic elements of making ourselves human. She defines sensory order (or sensorium) as a pattern of relative importance and differential elaboration of the various senses, though which children learn to perceive and to experience the world and in which pattern they develop their abilities.

For Geurts, the sensory order of a cultural group forms the basis of the sensibilities that are exhibited by people who have grown up within that tradition. Such sensibilities have been described by anthropologist Robert Desjarlais as “a lasting mood or disposition patterned within the working of the body” (1992:150). Those moods and dispositions in turn become fundamental to an expectation of what it is to be a person in a given time and place. Geurts concludes that: ” if we conceive embodiment as a process whereby history is turned into nature (Bourdieu 1977, 1984), their notion of the nature of the person and the nature of health should differ because of their unique repertoire and configuration of senses. In turn, larger abstract cultural ideas can affect the structure of the sensorium(2002, p. 6). In the West, we often to disregard this constructed nature of our sensorium and as a consequence of ourselves.

Embedded in this cultural sensory order is the assumption that all humans possess identical sensory capabilities and that any cultural differences we might find would be inconsequential. In a post-modern world where many of us are the children of mixed couples, where does that leave us in the multi-cultural hybrid conceptual frame we inhabit? Moreover, where does this leave people with heightened sensory abilities?

Possibly invisible or, because of behaviors not considered acceptable by our culture, assumed to have a disability. Perhaps because, language, which in our western culture is central to how we shape our understanding of reality, obscures our consideration of the senses and we tend to only be able to frame experiences within existing definitions of reality or what has been scientifically demonstrated as existing. This can lead us to become blind to other types of experiences, sensorial and other, ignoring, if not belittling and criticize, different approaches being.

In Chinese medicine, it is recognized that language can become an obstacle to well-being and health (ITM, 2014). The more we categorize ailments, the more we can blind ourselves to other possibilities, or potentially become unable to see other roots to problems because it they have not been pre-defined. This is not surprising from a culture that recognizes highly sensitive people as a specific group within society.

I would argue that the senses cannot and should not be classified. The complexity of their synergy is unique to the make up of each individual’s body and mind and its adaptation to its environment, which in turn create a unique combination of sensations and perceptions. As is prevalent in ancient medical traditions, it is the experience of the inner and outer world that matters in creating a sensory health strategy, not the scientific observation and analysis of that experience, as observing it, changes its nature, nor the creation of a cultural systemic process.

This explains to me why for highly sensitive people health and well-being are such subjective notions, that do not necessarily function within our explicit cultural constructs. If, as anthropologist Kathryn Linn Geurts demonstrated, our understanding of the senses and of the body are culturally constructed (2002: 17); we also know that our genes adapts to an individual’s external environment (Adams, 2008) and I suspect in the process must recalibrate our senses in unique ways which can not be codified easily within our western matrix of understanding of the senses. The permutations are too great to be accounted for. Could it be that our genes try to adapt not only to our environment but also to our cultural sensorium bias?

What if the reason highly sensitive people and/or sensory gifted individual cannot be acculturated like others is that our cultural construction of the senses ignore what is essential to them, the senses they use to define themselves and the world they live in? Given that these individuals can only understand the world via its “hidden” sensorial messages, cultural constructs and social contracts that ignores these fundamental, yet invisible, elements of spatial and environmental communication, are highly toxic to them. Could it be that the societal values embedded in the cultural, chemical, spatial, environmental and social construction of the world are damaging the sensorially gifted?

Could it be that our technological remapping of the environment have led to a process of reconfiguration of natural communication signals (chemical and otherwise) that have displaced the natural flow and flux that highly calibrated sensory and bodily systems need to thrive and make sense of existence. Could we have unintentionally poisoned this segment of the population, just like when a well intended, but unaware, human touches the fragile wings of a butterfly to capture its beauty, without malice, destroying in the process, the animal he or she seeked to honor.

If we are to become healthy we need to begin to re-understand our participatory sensory communication system. Such a process promises to be difficult given that, to many, sensory sensitivity or being “different” have become analogous to bad and/or madness. But if we do not change, we will continue to not see these imbalances and consider their symptoms as “disabilities” which now plague our children. Notions we will explore in the next chapter.

Back to Narrow and Broad Attention

[1] Geurts, Kathryn Linn (2003). Culture and the Senses. Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. University of California Press Books.


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