- When the sun of consciousness first shone upon me, behold a miracle! The stock of my young life that had perished, now steeped in the waters of knowledge, grew again, budded again, was sweet again with the blossoms of childhood. Down in the depths of my being I cried, “It is good to be alive!” I held out two trembling hands to life, and in vain would silence impose dumbness upon me henceforth. [Helen Keller on her awakening.]
- As the true method of knowledge is experiment the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. [William Blake, “All the Religions Are One“.]
Helen Keller, who was deprived of sight and hearing, called herself a “phantom living in a no-world,” saying she lived in a “conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught or that I lived or acted. I had neither will nor intellect. . . I had no power of thought.” She lived like a ship in a dense fog, groping its way without compass or sounding-line, until she learned to communicate with others who could “share” their experiences of a colorful and melodious world with her.
Our physical senses — touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell — and our sense of being in the world are our doorways to meaning. The smell of coffee on a rainy morning, the sound of rain on a roof, the warmth of a fire, the softness of a caress, the beauty of a sunset, the sweet taste of honey — all these experiences add richness and dimension to our lives. Yet even for one deprived of some of these experiences, the life experience itself — the sense of Being — is meaningful. Though she was blind and deaf, young Helen never lost her experience of being in the world. She may not have recognized where or who or what she was but she never stopped experiencing life, even though it was a life that often frustrated and enraged her. But then, we are all lost in a world we do not understand; most of us choose not to see it that way.
Of course, the senses developed in evolutionary history long before humans appeared but because this work is aimed toward human understanding, and proposes a framework for living ethically and spiritually, I will tell the story from our perspective.
The sentient life is a life of vital connections between ourselves and all that is external to us. We experience that life from within. That is what we call sentience. It is the principle that gives life its character, shape and meaning.
Every sentient life occurs in the world’s context. Even a person locked alone in a closet continues to sense. Though deprived of sight and sound, Helen Keller was able to smell, taste and touch. That experience becomes richer, more colorful and more satisfying as we emerge from our closet and build connections to the world. Among the most fundamental are the connections we build through our physical senses.
Today we “celebrate sensation” and the experience of Being, regardless of its quality. Our true narratives explore arts that best express each of the senses; scholarly readings explain the science behind them; visual arts use the medium of sight to explore each of them; and one composer’s music in particular, John Cage, best elucidates the sense of sound through music.
Each fully-dimensioned sentient experience has a character, quality, shape and contour, which we experience from within. Our commitment is to make those sentient experiences as joyful and meaningful as possible, for ourselves and others.
The ethical model proposed here does not include physical sensation in the core ethical system. However, ethics would not be possible without the physical senses. In that sense, they are predicate for ethics, and also for spirituality. The senses have important implications in the field of ethics: Each of the senses “opens up a portion of reality surrounding us”. [Piet Vroon, Smell: The Secret Seducer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), p. 74.] Sensory integration is important in preterm infants, autistic people and stroke victims, and in occupational therapy and pediatric occupational therapy. A brief survery of the senses follows next.
“Sensory-recruitment models suggest that imagery of sensory material heavily relies on the involvement of sensory cortices.” Findings by Mizuguchi, et. al., “suggest that corticospinal excitability during imagery with an object is modulated by actually touching an object through the combination of tactile and proprioceptive inputs” Schmidt, et. al., have applied fMRI imaging to the study of tactile imagery, concluding that “changes in brain connectivity support perceptual grounding of mental images in primary sensory cortices”.
“Brain-computer interface (BCI) has attracted great interests for its effectiveness in assisting disabled people.” “Topographic Somatosensory Imagery for Real-Time fMRI Brain-Computer Interfacing” is being used to benefit stroke patients and patients with phantom-limb pain. Physicians are paying particular attention to tactile spatial acuity in people with frozen shoulder. Tactile imagery shows promise in treating deficiencies in posture, blindness, pain and anxiety in joint replacement patients, and in activities like playing tennis.
Touch screen tablets can be used to treat persons suffering from dementia. Somatosensory intervention can be useful to people with cerebral palsy. Human touch is positively associated with compassion. Often it is healing and otherwise therapeutic. Some researches maintain that it can be useful in sexual therapy, with appropriate guidelines. A Touch Experiences and Attitudes Questionnaire has been developed to assess the effects of human touch.
Good eyesight is conducive to mental health, a sense of meaning and athletic performance. Visual contact with nature appears to improve mental health. Ophthalmologists address pathologies including myopia, glaucoma, ocular trauma, corneal disease, dry eye disease, uveitis, retinal artery occlusion, convergence and accommodative insufficiencies, blepharitis, lichen planus, scleromalacia perforans, keratoconus and many others. The physiological foundations of vision have long been under study. Abnormalities in the brain and overwintering in Antarctica can produce vision deficits. Cataract surgery, vitreo-retinal surgery, glaucoma surgery, electrical stimulation and many others modalities can improve vision.
Hearing is a candidate for the most important of the senses, along with eyesight and touch. We can both see and hear danger coming, but we can hear and not see in the dark. Finely tuned hearing can detect a predator’s approach, a fire’s crackle, a rustling wind and distant thunder. It can also detect a loved one’s return, a child’s cry, a pet’s signal and an approaching marching band.
Hearing facilitates and adds depth to human communication: as with the body language and other non-verbal cues we see, we perceive not only what people say but how they say it. These physical and vocal cues are processed in many regions of the observer’s brain. Vocal cues facilitate understanding of the speaker’s confidence, likelihood of success in couples therapy and decisions and outcomes in interpersonal interactions. “Listeners can extract meaning from non-linguistic infant vocalisations cross-culturally”. However, perception of emotion from vocalizations is culturally variable.
Hearing also makes possible the appreciation of music, which facilitates self-discovery, stimulates brain activity, and activates a wide range of emotions. Non-human animal studies strongly suggest an evolutionary foundation for music. Music may enhance self-esteem. Music listening generates a wide range of emotional responses, and induces cardiac and electrodermal responses. Its effects on spirituality and on cognitive skills and academic performance are not yet clear. Music performance can activate the prefrontal cortex and facilitate social transformation. Music therapy helps build important neural connections, and therefore may be particularly beneficial in pre-term infants. It is beneficial in neurological rehabilitation, and treatment of acquired brain injuries, chronic pain, communication deficits in children, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism, schizophrenia, depression (see also here) and end-of-life palliative care. It can promote self-regulation., and also spontaneity, creativity and playfulness. Its possible benefits are being investigated in neonatal intensive care units. Music can generate feelings of happiness but even “sad music” can induce positive affective states, helping listeners to deal with depression and other psychological phenomena. Sad music brings the listener within the self, and activates spontaneous thoughts about the emotional aspects of life, while listening to happy music tends to place the emphasis on the music itself, with less mind-wandering. In the United States, music therapy dates back at least to the nineteenth century. This brief survey elucidates that music’s effects on the human psyche may be as complex as humanity itself.
Smell and taste are the chemical senses. The olfactory organ can distinguish several hundred thousand of the approximately 400,000 identified odors. The sense of smell develops in utero and progresses quickly in early childhood. It can alert us to the presence of a noxious gas (smell’s alarm function), rotting food or a decomposing animal. Less urgently, we can use it to detect poor personal hygiene, a full litter box or an item of clothing in need of cleaning. Smell can be a pleasure, as with a flower’s fragrance, a culinary invention’s aroma and the alluring scent of perfume. Along with eyesight, though perhaps to a lesser degree, the sense of smell conveyed a survival advantage in evolution.
Smell is essential to a good sense of taste. Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed that “smell is the sense of memory and desire.” “Episodic memory is often imbued with multisensory richness, such that the recall of an event can be endowed with the sights, sounds, and smells of its prior occurrence.” Memories evoked through smell evoke emotion more strongly than to memories evoked by verbal information. “Pleasant Olfactory Cues Can Reduce Cigarette Craving”. The sense of smell recalls memory through activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, and exhibits effects in Alzheimer’s patients, and human habitat and behavior. It is also important to the sex life (a mate has to pass the smell test) (see also here), motivation, learning, health, and feelings of well-being. Categories of smell include ethereal, aromatic, balsamic, musk, alliaceous, empyreumatic (burnt), hircine (goaty), repulsive and disgusting. Forms of odor memory change over a lifetime.
The sense of taste is for fun but it is also related to nutrition and health. Its development begins in utero, and progresses in early childhood. Our human sense of taste was useful in our evolutionary history but our relative ease in procuring food has turned this sense into a mixed blessing. Early eating behaviors influence later food preferences. “Taste preference is an important determinant of dietary intake and is influenced by taste exposure in early life.” Researchers have not yet identified successful strategies for reducing the preference for salt. However, early childhood feeding strategies have been devised that successfully reduce the preference for sweets; repeated exposure to fruits and vegetables in infancy increases acceptance of those foods. Complementary feeding patters can successfully increase the preference for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and in particular citrus fruits. Babies who are fed infant formula are more disposed toward obesity than babies who are breastfed. Taste preferences can be shaped during those stages of development. The weaning period is “The One Time You Have Control Over What They Eat”. The culinary arts depend on the sense of taste, and also on the senses of smell (the aroma of food), sight (the visual appearance of food) and even hearing (sizzle).
- Roger Kaimen, Music: An Appreciation (McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008).
- Kristine Forney and Joseph Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).
- Craig Wright, Listening to Music (Schirmer, 2010).
- David George Haskell, Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction (Viking, 2022): “Haskell has given us a glorious guide to the miracle of life’s sound.”
Sight: Watch closely and remain alert at all times.
- Umberto Eco and Alastair McEwen, History of Beauty (Rizzoli, 2004).
- Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009).
I have just touched my dog. He was rolling on the grass, with pleasure in every muscle and limb. I wanted to catch a picture of him in my fingers, and I touched him as lightly as I would cobwebs; but lo, his fat body revolved, stiffened and solidified into an upright position, and his tongue gave my hand a lick! He pressed close to me, as if he were fain to crowd himself into my hand. He loved it with his tail, with his paw, with his tongue. If he could speak, I believe he would say with me that paradise is attained by touch; for in touch is all love and intelligence. [Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1907), chapter I, “The Seeing Hand.”]
- Emmanuel Cooper, Ten Thousand Years of Pottery (British Museum Press, 2000).
- Elsbeth Woody, Pottery On the Wheel (Allworth Press, 2008).
- Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread (Ten Speed Press, 2001).
- Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007).
- Robert Noah Calvert, The History of Massage: An Illustrated History From Around the World (Healing Arts Press, 2002).
- Gordon Inkeles, The Art of Sensual Massage (Arcata Arts, 2000).
- Carl Dubitsky, Bodywork Shiatsu: Bringing the Art of Finger Pressure to the Massage Table (Healing Arts Press, 1997).
The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the hot sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet hay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In their stalls beneath are the farm animals. Here is Jerry, unresponsive, unbeautiful Jerry, crunching his oats like a true pessimist, resolved to find his feed not good--at least not so good as it ought to be. Again I touch Brownie, eager, grateful little Brownie, ready to leave the juiciest fodder for a pat, straining his beautiful, slender neck for a caress. Near by stands Lady Belle, with sweet, moist mouth, lazily extracting the sealed-up cordial from timothy and clover, and dreaming of deep June pastures and murmurous streams. The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws nearer, my nostrils dilate the better to receive the flood of earth-odours which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odours fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space. I know by smell the kind of house we enter. I have recognized an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odours, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes, and draperies. [Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1904), chapter V, “The Finer Vibrations.”]
- Richard Howard Stamelman, Perfume: Joy, Scandal, Sin - A Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present (Rizzoli, 2006).
- Mandy Aftel, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume (North Point Press, 2001).
- Tilar J. Mazzeo, The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (Harper, 2010).
- Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Wine Companion (Oxford University Press, USA, 2006).
- Jancis Robinson, How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine (Simon & Schuster, 2008).
- Michael Schuster, Essential Winetasting: The Complete Practical Winetasting Course (Mitchell Beazley, 2000).
- Alice Waters, Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter Publishers (2017). “Casually and conversationally, the book relates her education as a sensualist.”
- Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life (Grove Press, 2017): ““. . . shot through with Harrison’s pointed aperçus and keen delight in the pleasures of the senses.”
Book narratives on the senses:
- Edith Schloss, The Loft Generation: From the DeKoonings to Twombley: Portraits and Sketches, 1942-2011 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “There is sight, of course, with color insets of Schloss’s bright and optimistic daubings alongside work by her more dour-seeming contemporaries. There is sound, in her recounting of the unholy clamor of the Chelsea neighborhood where she and Burckhardt shacked up: the rattling of iron window shutters, mating cats, the fire and burglar alarms and 'the intermittent swish of cars down Sixth Avenue, like long sighs.'”
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Paul D. MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions (Springer, 1990).
- Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt, 1999).
- Piet Vroon, Smell: The Secret Seducer (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1994).
- Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (Cornell University Press, 1999).
- Carolyn Korsmeyer, The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink (Berg Publishers, 2005).
- Constance Classen, The Book of Touch (Berg Publishers, 2005).
- David Howes, Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Berg Publishers, 2005).
- David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (University of Michigan Press, 2003).
- Jack Katz, Larry Medwetsky, Robert Francis Burkard and Linda Hood, Handbook of Clinical Audiology (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2009).
- Katherine Bouton, Shouting Won’t Help: Why I – and 50 Million Other Americans – Can’t Hear You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013): “Katherine Bouton reveals how deeply deafness and denial are linked in ‘Shouting Won’t Help,’ her memoir of coping with adult-onset hearing loss.”
- American Journal of Audiology
- International Journal of Audiology
- Journal of the American Academy of Audiology
- British Journal of Audiology
- The Hearing Journal Archives
- American Journal of Ophthalmology
- Journal of Ophthalmology
- American Academy of Ophthalmology JournalLectures and WritingsGreen Wheat Field with Cypresses
- Digital Journal of Ophthalmology
- The Journal of Dermatology
- Journal of the American Academy of Neurology
- International Journal of Dermatology
- Dermatology Online Journal
- Chemical Senses (journal)
Documentary and Educational Films
- Then God said, "Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky. . . . ." God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." [The Bible, Genesis 1:20-22.]
- ". . . then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden . . . [The Bible, Genesis 2:7-9.]
- Edmund White, Jack Holmes and His Friend (Bloomsbury, 2012): “White is most interested in his two main characters as physical beings: they way they smell, the way they relate to their lovers, their sexual desires . . .”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Like his contemporary Morton Feldman, the twentieth-century composer John Cage was a minimalist, set apart from all the others by his singular methods and style. One musician says of Cage: “He reinvented music by communicating that music is everything — ALL sound and silence, too. And he communicated trust. He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day.” “After him, no one could look at a painting, a book, or a person without wondering how they might sound if you listened closely.” This is sound and no-sound as music.
- Imaginary Landscapes (1939-1952)
- Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948)
- Music of Changes (1951)
- 4’33” (1952): The ambient noise of the recital hall creates the music. Is it music?
- Variations I (1958)
- Variations II (1961)
- Atlas eclipticalis (1961)
- Variations III (1963)
- Variations IV (1965)
- Variations V (1966)
- But What About the Noise? (1985)
- Seven (1988)
- Two 2 (1989)
- Seven 2 (1990)
- Two 5 (1991)
- Sixty-eight (1992)
- “The Barton Workshop Plays John Cage” album
- Piano works
- performing "Water Walk" on the popular TV show "I've Got a Secret"
- John Cage speaking about sound and music
- “A Year with John Cage” (documentary film, 2012)
- “Journeys in Sound” (documentary film, 2012)
Books by and about John Cage and his music:
- John Cage, (Wesleyan University Press, 1961).
- John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1967).
Other works using music as sensation:
- Boulez, Figures-doubles-prismes for orchestra (1958; 1968): the work emphasizes orchestral acoustics. Paul Griffiths wrote: "Boulez is able to create orchestral sonorities of marvellously fluid variety and astonishing newness", and that "the rich diversity of the score is also a product of its formal process, by which simple initial ideas are developed in variation and interaction."
- Hindemith: Ludus Tonalis, Kontrapunktische, tonale und Klaviertechnische Übungen (Game of Sounds, counterpoint, tonal and technical studies for the piano) (1942)
- Georg Friedrich Haas, In Vain, for 24 instruments (2000): the composer intended for this work to be heard in darkness, whether in a concert or recital hall, or in a living room via recording.
- Birtwistle: The Woman & The Hare; Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker: the music moves “swiftly and imperceptibly between austerity and warmth”.
- Young, The Second Dream of The High-Tension Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962) - 90 XII C. 9:35-10:52 PM NYC – the sound of a high-tension transformer as music
- Xenakis, Tetras, for string quartet (1983): the four instruments are combined into one sound mass.
- Xenakis, Remixes (electronic works)
- Xenakis, La Legende D'Eer, for 8-channel electronic tape (1978)
- Garzia, Xamm (Scent)
Composers have also used music to evoke the sensations we experience in life.
- Mahler, 5 Rückert Lieder (1902): the lyrical content of the work is similar to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with its celebration of the senses.
- Boulez, Le visagenuptial for soprano, mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra (1946; revised 1951; revised 1989): (on the delights of youth).
- Peter Brötzmann, “Balls” album: as rough and gritty as the title implies
- Raga Gorakh Kalyan, of sensuous temperament , a Hindustani classical raag for late evening (performances by Rashid Khan, Shivkumar Sharma and Veenaji Sahasrabudhe)
On these albums, the artists use everyday sounds to create music, or in some cases use their musical instruments to evoke everyday sounds:
- AMM, “Newfoundland”
- Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum, “Silence/Time Zones”
- Jeff Morris, “Hearing Voices: Human Sounds, Digital Ears”
- Jeff Morris, “Close Reeding” an alto saxophone and an electronic mixer create unusual sounds.
- Jeff Morris, “With Strings: Live Sampling in Counterpoint”
- Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889)
- Claude Monet, Garden in Bordighera, Morning (1884)
- Philipe Mercier, The Sense of Touch (1744-47)
- Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth (c. 1570)
- Edgar Degas, The Baker's Wife (1885)
- Diego Velázquez, Triumph of Bacchus (c. 1629)
- Jacob Jordaens, The Bean King (c. 1638)
- Jacopo Tintoretto, The Wedding Feast at Cana (c. 1545)
- Jan Brueghel the Elder, Allegory of Taste (1618)
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, / I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, / The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, / It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, / I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath, / Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine, / My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs, / The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind, / A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms, / The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag, / The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides, / The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, / You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,) / You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
- Pablo Neruda, “Carnal Apple, Woman Filled, Burning Moon”
- Pablo Neruda, “Entrance of the Rivers”
- Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Naked Beauty”
Film and Stage
- Taste of Cherry, a tale of a healthy man planning for no apparent reason to commit suicide, then offering “a simple, eloquent parable of the senses opening to the refreshment of life’s simple pleasures”
- The Scent of Green Papaya: striking in its elegantly simple visual sensuality, this film follows a young girl who begins as a servant for a wealthy family, and gradually enchants a young man with her own elegant inner beauty.
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Sting, Fields of Gold