Sense and Sensibility

An article from the Saros Autumn 1996 Newsletter

I guess that everyone is familiar with common sense - sight, sound, touch, taste, smell - and the sixth sense - which is perhaps the most common, or at least the most taken for granted - the sense of balance. Did you know that it is your sense of balance that causes you to throw up? This sense registers imbalance as a poison, and poison as an imbalance, and your body throws up because it is told to reject the poison and regain its balance, its status quo.

By balance I don't just mean the ability to stand on one leg and not fall over.

Balance might also cause you to turn away from a loud or piercing noise because it hurts, or to back off from a sharp smell or taste. Balance might also cause you to 'shut your ears' against something which, if you listen, might change your status quo; and how often does that happen - turning a blind eye, turning a deaf ear?

When thinking about the sense of balance, I often get a picture of a conductor or director who is receiving all this information - I mean it's really blasting in - which it does if you think about it. Out there is whatever gives rise to all vision, sound, smell and taste and our bodies are surrounded by stuff that touches us all the time.

I was going to say that it is not only physical factors we are surrounded by - but is it possible actually to receive or transmit anything that is not generated physically?

Anyway, how do we make sense of it all - common sense, I mean? As I said, I get this picture of this conductor or director, and there he is matching up what is inside with what is outside, or demanding what is inside be what is outside (or vice versa); but the question is, how did what is inside get inside in the first place?

Were we born knowing red and wheel and truck, and sock? How did they get inside us?

OK - someone else put them there.

Is that a joke? No, I don't think it is. Think about it - all the people we have ever met have been telling us how it is. And we, trusting little souls, have taken it all on board without a thought. Oh, we might argue about certain interpretations, whether we agree with this or that, whether we like this or that, whether we think this or that is right or wrong, but we won't generally argue about the fundamental realities of our perceived world, because we take them totally for granted.

And generally speaking we are now probably bored with them because we take them all totally for granted. From the beginnings of our lives, when light, shape, sound, taste and smell relentlessly bombarded us, we have reached the other extreme, when virtually nothing gets through at all. Unless of course we are on holiday or have gone somewhere specific like a concert.

What is perception? What does it mean to perceive? Let's take sight. Look around the room: what do you see?

Now sound. Listen. Listen to the far sounds, listen to near sounds, listen to the sound you make breathing. Can you hear anyone else breathing?

What happened when you looked around the room? Or when you listened? What actually occurred? I'll bet you looked at something and a little voice told you what it was. And I'll bet it told you everything you saw, and everything you heard as well. Is that what you do all the time? Identify, talk to yourself, label? Can you remember a time when you saw something that you couldn't identify?

Speaking of identifying - how do you identify yourself to yourself? Are you bound by your identity, or can you present yourself differently? Can you choose how to act, or does a situation force you to act in a particular way?

Identity gets formed quite early on. Were you aware of acquiring it, have you changed it at all, do you have a different identity for different occasions? Are you aware of slipping into and out of identities as required - or is it difficult to behave differently with those who are close to you?

Do you need your friends and relations to act in familiar ways? How much of your security is bound up with how they behave towards you and towards each other? Do you dare to risk your credibility?

There is a story, a true story, about a group of native people. I think they were islanders; I'm not sure what country or island they were native to, but they lived along a shoreline and a large ship came into their waters. Now these people could not see the ship, they had never seen a ship, they had no frame of reference for 'ship', so they couldn't see it.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Of course with sophisticated people like us, that sort of thing couldn't happen because we have a frame of reference for everything, don't we?

Experiments have taken place in which people are given a pair of glasses that turn the world upside down: pretty soon they are seeing the world the right way up again, even though they are still wearing the glasses.

That is a pretty amazing ability we have, the way we configure the world to a particular arrangement, then get bored with the arrangement, but hold on tight to it anyway.

Of course, common sense is an incredibly powerful tool which we really couldn't do without. It enables us to manage our life, manage our world and the things we do in it. I really wouldn't like you to think that I'm knocking it. Good solid, practical common sense - it tells us how things can be approached to get a sensible result. People with common sense are the salt of the earth - sensible, reasonable people.

Now, reason is another amazing tool, isn't it? Is it a tool? Does it have a 'proper' application? Is it a tool that can be picked up and put down at the proper times? If reason is not being applied does the world become unreasonable?

Do you remember a time when your world was exciting? When things like chairs and tables were amazing? When a sound like a tap running was truly awesome? Do you ever have that response to anything now? What does it take to get it? Fast cars? Dangerous sports? A flirt with death? Or something less violent perhaps like theatre, or alcohol, or drugs? I wonder. Do you?

Sight involves light. Would you agree? Well, it certainly seems that way. But what light is around when you dream? Most people can remember something of their dreams. I would hazard a guess that most people dream in colour, but even those who dream in black and white are dreaming visually. How can you see if there is no light? What is supplying the light that you dream by?

What is light? What gives light? The Sun, the moon, the stars? Some deep-sea fish give light, or so I'm told: I haven't seen them myself. I wonder if they need to see, or is it only us that perceives their light in terms of sight. Somebody is probably going to tell me that it is electricity, which isn't going to help me very much unless they can tell me what electricity is. Vibration, they say; but what exactly is vibrating? Scientists say light vibrations are both a wave and a particle. If the wave form of light is perceived by my eyes, what perceives the particle form? If my eyes perceive both, how do I interpret the difference, or don't I?

Quite often, in dreaming, there is sound as well as sight; we speak and are spoken to and we hear noises as well. Where does the sound come from, when you are all alone in your bed? Or perhaps you are not alone in your bed, but is it your bed-mate speaking to you? What do you hear in your dreams? What do you say in your dreams? What is said to you?

The scientists say that sound is vibration too, but what is vibrating? Strings, cavities, fluids, tubes, surfaces? How is vibration sound and light (both the wave and the particle kinds)? Sound is very powerful: it can certainly move me. Come to that, it can kill me. Light can do that too. When it comes to being moved, is sound more powerful than sight? After all, I can avert my eyes, but I have more difficulty averting my ears. I can always avert my attention, though: that usually gets me out of a tight spot! I wonder if there is less reason for being moved by sound than for being moved by sight. Movement for no reason sounds a bit odd.

Smell is powerful too, but, unless blatant, is more remote to our everyday senses, so reactions to smell probably get ascribed to something else, like mood. So we just get into a bad mood, or a good mood, or a sad mood, etc., etc.

Taste is an interesting one - like smell it is supposed to have a molecular base. Molecules, I am told, have shape and their shape fits a shape in us - surface to surface - but will probably be described as vibration before long. Everyone has the sense of taste, unless they were born with a physical disability, but people talk about acquiring taste. An acquired taste. What does acquiring a taste for something involve? Why would you want to acquire a taste when you have it anyway? Is the sense of balance involved?

I mentioned dreaming a moment ago, asking where the light came from. Could it be that light and sound are stored in the body as energy and are used up in the easiest or most familiar form that that energy can take? I mean, if the energy last took the form of light, then would it most easily become light again, internal light, dreaming light, imagination - so that we don't get over-energised, so we don't exceed our safety limit? How do we extend our limits, I wonder?

Sight and sound - information coded in vibration. Vibration coded into information. A fairly common experience is that sound can create sight or be interpreted as sight, and vision can trigger a sound response. Is that a sound argument? Keep a lookout in the real world!

Things often taste like the smell of something else, or smell like the taste of them. The sense of balance works overtime then and interpretation can be difficult. The experience might be common, but how do you find out unless you can communicate? You could sound like a fool and your self-image might not like that at all.

What of the ever-present, all-pervasive, internal and external sense of touch. From the barely discernible touch of sunlight, to the harsh touch of rock or fist. Touch, so I'm told, is the effect of weight and pressure on surfaces. I am touched when someone remembers my birthday, and I feel pain when I lose something I love. I wonder which is weight and which is pressure, and upon what surface?

Have you ever wondered if you perceive all that is there, or if you perceive it in the only way possible?

What are the senses? They certainly receive information, receive impressions. That information, those impressions, are organised, interpreted and passed on to the relevant part of us. As we grow past childhood and habituate ourselves to our world most of this process goes unnoticed. Much of the material remains, not so much disorganised as raw, as we are only interested in matching the already existent. We are seldom interested in allowing anything new in, because it requires an effort and we are generally too busy maintaining things as they are. In fact (I'll let you into a little secret), we cop out, we generally pretend we are receiving information, when what we really do is lie: we haven't received anything at all, we make it up; after all, if it was like that the first time and a couple of times after that, it's always going to be the same, isn't it? So why bother?

Anyway, if by chance we do get an input of this raw material, it can trigger the sense of balance which will reject it if it gets upset. You might then feel nauseous, faint, irritated, whatever. Whatever the symptom is, check and see whether you are automatically shutting down because there is a danger to your cosy, familiar status quo.

The savage demands of common sense. We do demand to make sense of everything. Generally, if something does not conform to our world-view, we do get irritated or angry, we do get scared or fall asleep. In order that the system does not overload, one way or another we shut down and get rid of the offending material - we might shout, we might laugh, get hysterical, vomit, or we might simply fall asleep, and I do not necessarily mean in bed.

Ghost, devil, spaceship. Worm, dragon, angel.

What would it be like if you could stop the automatic labeller, and simply perceive the world around you? What would your world be like then? Is it possible to stop identifying? To stop the world? To have the choice? Do you think it is possible? Or not?

If you think it isn't possible, how come you don't still see the world as you did when you were a child? How and when did it change?

If you think it is possible, is it desirable?

If balance maintains our status quo, our current limits, what sense might we develop to extend those limits, I wonder?


This page, and all contents, are Copyright (C) 1996 by Saros. The material may be used freely providing the source is acknowledged.