The Sense of Things

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Science has hardly begun to scratch the tip of the iceberg of knowledge about our brains. I just read a phenomenal book about these wonderous entities we carry around in our skulls and I am thrilled to integrate some key lessons into the way I see the world.

Telescope Eye

Each of our senses – touch, taste, smell, see, hear – has been historically connected to the part of the body with which it is thought to connect i.e hands/body, mouth, nose, eyes, ears respectively.  How long have we given these body parts credit for our senses? Too long I say! If I told you to, with your eyes open, imagine a pink elephant walking through a purple jungle en route to an orange watering hole, you could SEE it. Did you see that with your eyes? Nope. BECAUSE WE DON’T SEE WITH OUR EYES! We see with our brains! You can daydream or fantasize vividly while looking straight at something or someone, superimposing the pictures your brain conjurs on top of the objects literally in front of you. Comparatively, when we dream, we absolutely see things, and that is with our eyes closed, highlighting again that seeing isn’t all about our eyes. They are just a channel through which information comes into our body that our brain decodes into meaning.

So too, each of our other senses is a channel that carries messages (I see the messages as liquid) to the brain to help us make SENSE and meaning out of life and the information that we take in. The fascinating thing about this is that the channels are not all mutually exclusive. This book goes on to describe how a blind man climbed Everest successfully thanks to a device attached to his tongue that converted video input into electromagnetic pulses that he had been trained to interpret in terms of size of something before him, distance from it etc. Blew my mind. There are many other examples of how one “channel” is used to carry a different message to the brain, such as how blind people (no eyesight) can read (which one may expect to need sight for) braille (using touch i.e a different channel trained to understand a different message).

It is less about the channels and more about the messages. This opens up a whole new world: If one of our “channels” (senses) is “closed” (unavailable) – such as being deaf, blind, not being able to smell, not being able to taste or touch – there is a chance that we can train another channel to decode and interpret the messages that would usually go through the channel that is now closed. One of the most remarkable attributes of the brain is its plasticity, which is in fact my favourite attribute. We can learn new things, change our patterns and ways of thinking, devise new ways of living and completely change our lives through using our brains in different ways.

I am not being small-minded here: I understand fully that while it may seem appealing to play with the concept, there are many who do not have a choice or do not know they may have options. The reason I find this so exciting is because the possibilities are endless, and the possibilities are not just possibilities.

Another fascinating realisation was that our brains only provide us with CNN consciousness – we only get the headlines. Most of what happens in our brain is part of intricate, incomprehensibly complex biomechanical workings that we will never ever be conscious of. Before we feel an urge, activity in certain areas of our brain can be detected – there is a lot going on behind the scenes before the actor appears on the stage. And our consciousness is that actor, that headline. As we know from the news, the headline is reported about something that has just happened, even if it is breaking news. This is exactly the same with our consciousness – we become aware of things after they have happened or at the earliest as they happen. Sure, we don’t need to know about them before, but there is a lot going on instantaneously in the brain before we become aware.

Where this becomes incredibly powerful is in the way we look at each other and how we judge or respond to each others’ actions. We all have a unique neurobiological wiring that lends us to certain tendencies and ways of being and doing. I find this very humbling, because that means that when someone acts in a certain way or makes a particular decision that seems so foreign to us, their conscious involvement in that process was only a fraction of what is going on. I am not saying that this means a get out of jail free card for all behaviours, not at all. What I am saying is that we need to approach each other with patience and understanding, because there is way more going on under the surface and on the surface than we could ever know about.

I thus refer us all to the electromagnetic spectrum. We only see one ten-trillionth of what is “out there” around us. Our visual existence is just playing with light and shadows, and the meaning of both are interpreted by our brains. In magic shows, it is our brains that create the magic (the illusion) because in reality, things are the way they are. Our eyes are not tricked by the rabbit that appears from nowhere – the rabbit didn’t appear from nowhere, our brains just believe it did. All of this leads me to my point: There is so much more going on in the universe, in others and in ourselves that we will never ever know let alone understand. We thus need to approach the universe, others and ourselves with tolerance and respect, because sometimes what our senses tell us about another is in fact just a reflection of ourselves. Also – why not play with our senses? See what messages we can get to our brains through which channels? Those who have synesthesia experience messages through channels we wouldn’t usually (hearing the word Monday and interpreting that as orange, for example) but they have no idea that their way of seeing things is anything other than normal because to them, it is. Each of our realities is different from the person next to us and entirely subjective. This I feel is the basis for many if not most of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations between people all over the world: If we don’t even fully understand ourselves, of course it will be a challenge for someone else to.

Patience and tolerance folks, with a healthy dose of fascination about how magnificent our biology is and how endless the possibilities are. It makes the most sense.

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