Our Sensorial Ancestors

Ancient myths and stories show us that the notion of “being” has been associated with sensory experiences since the beginning of Mankind. Ancient North American and Asian belief systems are deeply connected to the senses.  These cultures emerged out of shamanistic cultures founded on an animist beliefs. In the article  “Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician”, David Abram explains the belief system underlying animism, as a sensory way of thinking and being:

“ When the natural world is perceived not from the spectator-like position of a detached or disembodied intellect, but rather from an embodied position situated entirely within that world, one encounters no aspect of that world that is definitively inert or inanimate. “Animism” remains a useful term for this highly embodied, and embedded, mode of perception. In this sense, “animism” may be said to name a primordial mode of perception that admits of no clear distinction between that which is animate and that which is inanimate.“(Abram, 2005)[v]

Animism represents an embodied perspective, where the world is encountered as a complex system of relational fields in which we humans are participants. If this idea is far fetch from Eurocentric belief systems, examples of it can be found in many indigenous cultures:

Oral, indigenous peoples from around the world — whether hunters or rudimentary horticulturalists — commonly assert that the land itself is alive and aware, that the local animals, the plants, and the earthly elements around them have their own sensitivity and sentience. They claim that the earthly world we experience also experiences us. And hence that we must be respectful toward that world, lest we offend the very ground that supports us, the winds and waters that nourish us.“(Abram, 2005)[vi]

Such unity with nature was essential to the first humans, for whom the knowledge and skills associated with a fluid existence amidst the environment were crucial to their survival. Our ancestors, nomadic hunter-gatherers moved around, following their food sources with the seasons. Given that hunting and gathering was their subsistence mode of existence, they needed to be able to feel and read their environments for clues of where food was and to discern danger. A sensorial language helped understand the environment.  Being in the present while able to sense the past was a crucial skill in tracking animals, a lingering scent, for instance, potentially revealing who was there a few hours ago. As important was also the ability to gage distance and spatial relations.

This animist unity is also important to ancient Asian tradition, which reflects an extraordinary sensitivity toward Nature and considers health to be the harmonious interaction of bodily functions and the outside world. The Atharvaveda for instance, a sacred text of Hinduism written approximately between the 12th to 10th centuries BC, defines “being” as including the mind and the five senses.

Many cultures celebrate sensory sensitivities as a form of language and as a gift to be developed.  If sensory language is still important to aboriginal and nomadic cultures, “being” in space also has a long tradition in Western thoughts.

Being in Space

Pre platonic Ancient Greece, influenced by Asian belief systems, also considered the senses in its health system. Hippocrates in 400 BCE devised a health system based on the influence of natural elements on the body.

Later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle regarded perception to be distinguishing between the qualities of outward things and a movement of the soul through the medium of the body. Aristotle considered the interplay between mind-body as key to our sense of reality. Today these believes are at the basis contemporary western embodied cognitive science, which:

has modeled cognition as the product of dynamic interplay between neural and non-neural processes, with no general fracture between cognition, the agent’s bodily experience, and real-life contexts.”(Wilson and Foglia, 2011)[vii].

Often on the margins, many western philosophers have examined the relationship of sensory experience to consciousness and argued that we cannot perceive without the influence of our senses. In later period such as the seventeen century, philosopher and dramatist Margaret Cavendish believed that the eye, ear, nose, tongue and all the body had knowledge just like the mind, which put her at odds with the main stream philosophy of the time. She was ignored by masculine thinkers and often dismissed as mad (Howes, 2006, p. 16)[viii].

More recently, the “phenomelogical” movement established itself in reaction to the Cartesian method of analysis that sees the world as objects:

“Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his classic work, Phenomenology of Perception, suggests that the primordial event of perception is always experienced as a reciprocal encounter between the perceiver and the perceived, an open dialectic wherein my sensing body continually responds and adjusts itself to the things it senses, and wherein the perceived phenomenon responds in turn, disclosing its nuances to me only as I allow myself to be affected by its unique style, its particular dynamism or active agency.”(Abram, 2004)

Key to this sensorial reality is that we formulate our sense of self not only in the body but also in space. In his book Poetics of Space (1958)[ix], French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described our “being” as defined by our experience of the world. For the whole of its existence, the individual is surrounded by matter, of which space is one important element. Our experience of that matter shapes our very being.

While for Bachelard this is a pre-language experience, could sensory experience be the universal grammar Chomsky discusses (2007)[x]? Not a grammar existing within the mental structures of thoughts or informed by culture but a universal sensing mechanism.

Sensory intelligence is a form of communication, thereby a form of language, which is universal not only to humans but to animals and plants who all possess a common sensory organ, in the human case, called the skin.

Skin is our largest organ and we clearly underestimate its role as a sensor. An organ that not only senses via touch, it also senses the unseen chemical, heat and other kinds of invisible energy trails that scientists are barely beginning to measure. The skin sends out chemical messages as much as it receives them and adapts in accordance to what it receives.

The smell created by the skin is invisible but one of the most important factor in many survival decision making process. For instance, a baby’s first developed sense is that of smell. He/she smells the milk source, through the pheromones released by the mother’s skin.  For Deleuze and Guattari, the skin is in a constant process of change, a flux, which illustrates our constant, ever changing self (2004)[xi]. Like the skin, the self must be allowed to always be “becoming”. The emergent self is contained and regulated by linguistic and social rules, but its primary reality is one of material sensuality and flows of becoming. Let it be a person or society, becoming fluid is a desired tendency (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p.177)[xii].

Like Bachelard, Deleuze and Gattari believed that the inside and outside makes everything take form, even infinity. Time joins space as an essential element of sensory being. When the self is whole, it is fully present and awake, responsive to and participant in the here and now. Being present allows feeling the world and our “self” in it.

Those who know how to listen to space, and its energy, can use it as a form of communication. French philosopher M. Serres believes that the body hears in three different ways: the propriocentric hearing, the hearing of oneself, hearing of our internal processes. The second form of hearing is the social contract, in other words the tacite cultural norms we learn since infanthood. The third kind of hearing reaches beyond words, the “exposed hearing”:

“ In myriads, things cry out. Often deaf to alien emissions, hearing is astonished by that which cries out without a name in no language. The third cycle, initiated by the rarest of hearing, and which requires that one be deaf both to oneself and to the group, requires an interruption of the closed cycles of consciousness and the social contract, may already be called knowledge. (Serres, 2009, 141)[xiii]

Spatial Perception

This embodied spatial form of knowledge, while invisible to the intellect has been key to many of our ancient traditions is also key to highly sensitive children.  Their behaviors change when their spatial listening informs them of shifts that we cannot hear.

When we consider spatial sensory reading as a language and something that can be recognized by the body, our notion of senses change.  As R. Acscott explains, while: “Aristotle identified just five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Neuroscience provides a further six: pain, balance, proprioception, kinaesthesia, sense of time, and sense of temperature.”(Ascott, 2010)[xiv].  These additional senses are essential to spatial communication and allow us to sense and process inputs emanating from space.

Space is richer than we think. Quantum physicists have now demonstrated that space is not empty. In 2011, Dr. Wilson and his team at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, claimed to have conjured up light from nowhere simply by squeezing down empty space (New Scientist, Nov 18, 2011, p 18)[xv]. That would be the latest manifestation of a quantum quirk known as the Casimir effect: the notion that a perfect vacuum, the very definition of nothingness in the physical world, contains a latent power that can be harnessed to move objects and make things.

Scientists know that each being (animals/humans/plants) has energy fields, which influence perception and its adaptation to the environment.  On July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced that Higgs boson particle had been briefly created and observed.  This was a tremendous breakthrough in science.  In a Quirks and Quarks interview[xvi], the physicist Dr. Sean Carroll explains that this discovery takes us to the edge of a new world because it confirms the principles of field theory. Field theory is one of the dominant dialectics of our era.

According to Carroll, the Higgs boson is a vibration in a field. All particles are vibrations within fields. The simplest forms are the electric and magnetic fields. These fields extend through space, they pull and send out vibrations through space that we perceive as particles.  The Higgs boson particle is unique because it is a vibration within a quantum field.

The difference between quantum states and classical states of matter is that classically, materials exhibit different phases, which ultimately depends on the change in temperature and/or density or some other macroscopic property of the material whereas quantum phases can change in response to a change in a different type of order parameter (such as magnetic field or pressure).  When space is empty the Higgs boson is still there. We are moving through Higgs fields that affect the features of our particles. Since particles are vibrations then our body exchanges vibrations with everything within the environment. Physicists are hoping so: “ If our favorite models of dark matter are correct, then the way that ordinary mater that makes up you and me interacts with dark matter is by exchanging Higgs bosons”(Carroll, 2012)[xvii].

Some people, such as shamans, feel these energy flows as forms of communication from their environments, just like sharks do with electro-reception. We, like all animals, produce electrical and magnetic fields signature. These sources of energy travel through the air. These energy flux move away from the source (us), travel in space and bounces off elements in space. It stands to reason that a human standing in the energy wave’s path, is touched and affected by it, just like candles are by electrical or magnetic energy.

These vibrations and waves are only part of the meaning equation. Scientist Marco Lacoboni, M.D., Ph.D., suggests that mirror neurons play a role in allowing interdependence[xviii]. This interdependence shapes the social interactions between people where the concrete encounter between self and other becomes shared existential meaning that connects them deeply.  Lacoboni also has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.[xix]

This field theory is echoed in psychological theory, which examines patterns of interaction between the individual and the total field, or environment. The concept, developed by Kurt Lewin, holds that behavior must be derived from a totality of coexisting facts. These coexisting facts make up a “dynamic field”, which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it.

Some of us are more physiologically built to read these vibrations. Psychologists have demonstrated that some people sense more than others. Heightened sensory Processing capacities provide the ability to sense subtle changes in the environment and/or visual spectrum that most people do not perceive (Aron, 2010).

Moreover, from biologists to physicists, scientists are demonstrating the animated nature of plants and animals. In the article ‘Root apices as plant command centre: the unique ‘brain-like’ status of the root apex transition zone’[xx], František Baluška, Stefano Mancuso, Dieter Volkmann & Peter Barlow wrote:

synaptic communication is not limited to animals and humans but seems to be widespread throughout plant tissues. Root apices seated at the anterior pole of the plant body show many features which allow us to propose that they, especially their transition zones, act in some way as brainlike command centres. The opposite posterior pole harbours sexual organs and is specialized for plant reproduction. Last but not least, we propose that vascular tissues represent highways for plant nervous activity allowing rapid exchange of information between the growing points of above-ground organs and the brain-like zones in the root apices.” (Baluška et all, 2004, p.1)

Plants co-construct a vast communication system that they share intelligently. Bacteria have also been observed and now are understood to have social order. They are entities that vote and act in accordance to the group’s best interest.  In the study of animals, it has been demonstrated that most think, show high level of intelligence and observe us as much as we observe them.

On 7 July 2012, prominent cognitive neuroscientists proclaimed “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”. According to the scientists involved, animals possess the cognitive ability to assess situations based on prior experience, and then act accordingly. They also state that both humans and animals are emotionally aroused through the same brain regions, and that artificial arousal of such brain regions provokes similar emotional states and behavior in both. The declaration concludes by saying: “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness[xxi].

The last few centuries mark an era during which nature has been primarily spoken of in abstract terms. A time when plants, animals and humans were said to be entirely “programmed in their genes,” and when the surrounding sensuous landscape is referred to merely as a stock of “resources” for human use. We have become blind, deaf and desensitized to ourselves, our needs and our world.  But this does not mean a natural spatial sensorial language does not exist.

Today this type of understanding of the world is still unthinkable to a majority of people. Yet, it has being demonstrated that we live in a conscious world and that space is crucial in identity formation.  This begs the question, how did we get so far from our original belief systems or from believing what is being scientifically demonstrated? And more importantly, why?  Part of the answer can be found in our relation to representation.

<<introduction  Next–> Representation

[i] Arthur Aron, Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Elaine N. Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D. E. Gabrieli (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 219–226. Published online 2010 April 13.

[ii] Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip (2012). “The body and symbolic interaction” In (ed Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip 2012.) Body/Embodiment, Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Ashgate.

[iii] Sheperd, Philip (2010). New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. North Atlantic Books

[iv] Howes, David (2006). Charting the Sensorial Revolution in Senses and Society, Volume 1 Issue 1, pp113-128

[v] Abrams, David (2005). “Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician” in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Taylor and Kaplan, ed., published by Continuum.

[vi] Abrams, David (2005). “Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician” in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Taylor and Kaplan, ed., published by Continuum.

[vii] Wilson and Foglia, 2011. Embodied Cognition. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/

[viii] Howes, David (2006). “Charting the Sensorial Revolution” in Senses and Society, Volume 1 Issue 1, pp113-128

[ix] Bachelard, Gaston (1958). The poetics of Space. Beacon Press.

[x] Chomsky, Noam. Essays on form and interpretation. New York: North-Holland, 1977.

[xi] Deleuze and Guattari (2004). Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Continuum.

[xii] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1994). What is Philosophy? Continuum. Columbia University Press.

[xiii] Serres, Michel (2009). Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Bloomsbury Academic.

[xiv] Ascott, Roy (2010). SYNCRETIC ART AND THE TECHNOETIC MIND. http://www.artefeed.com.br/inicio.php?Fuseaction=Comentaristas&ContentID=30&ComID=15

[xv] New Scientist. Light pulled out of empty space. 18 November 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228392.700-light-pulled-out-of-empty-space.html

[xvi] Quirks and Quarks (2012). The Higgs Boson: TheParticleattheEndoftheUniverse. December 22, 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/12/22/december-22-2012/#1

[xvii] Carroll, Sean (2012).The Particle at the End of the Universe:
How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World. Dutton

[xviii] Lacoboni M, Mazziotta JC (2007). “Mirror neuron system: basic findings and clinical applications”. Ann Neurol 62 (3): 213–8. doi:10.1002/ana.21198

[xix] Blakeslee, Sandra, Cells That Read Minds, New York Times, Science,January 10, 2006

[xx] Barlow, Peter, Baluška, František, Mancuso, Stefano and Volkmann, Dieter (2004). Root apices as plant command centres: the unique‘brain-like’ status of the root apex transition zone. Biologia, Bratislava, 59/Suppl. 13: 1—, 2004 http://ds9.botanik.uni-bonn.de/zellbio/AG-Baluska-Volkmann/plantneuro/pdf/NeuroPlantTZ-Biologia.pd

[xxi] Low, Philip (2012). The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Cambridge, July 7th, 2012. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf




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