When we think of our senses we think of the usual 5 : sight, sound, touch, taste & smell. But our body has countless other ways it uses sensors to gather data from the environment. We uses senses to determine chemical levels in our body, spatial senses, digestion senses, pain senses and many more. The human body has hundreds of ways to gather and process data. What we call our ‘gut’ feeling is a complex system of sensory data that is processed instantly, which is why we often don’t have a clear rational explanation for the feeling.
Some people are blessed with what’s called synesthesia, a term used to describe when the stimulus of one sense can trigger a stimulus in another. For example, a musician that can see the music in colours or that can taste the notes and melodies. Imagine the richness of an experience that is being tasted, heard and seen, all at the same time.
Ribert K. Logan, physicist and media ecologist, coined the term ‘Alphabet Effect’ and it refers to the theory that the introduction of the alphabet as our writing system determined how our cognitive skills developed. It also argues that it limited our perception of the world as it focused only on abstraction, coding, decoding and classification. In other words, the creation of the alphabet as our symbolic interface with the world created the boundaries of our experience and gave rise to law, logic, individualism, science, monoteism etc. As literacy was a difficult skill to acquire it also gave rise to a stratified societal system, where only priests and other high society individuals had access to it.
If a culture is dominated by the tools that serve only one of the senses, it will develop a skewed perspective of the world.
I recently worked on a project as part of the Shake Your Power team for Microsoft’s Hacking STEM. The idea was to design a compelling way to visualize the data gathered from one of the energy harvesting devices I had designed.
Using Excel and the Microsoft Cordoba add in, I created a data analysis system that bridged visual data with music instruments, engaging with the students in numerical, visual and musical terms. (if you are interested in getting a PDF activity summary of this project, click here to download)
What was interesting about this project was that we were expanding the way students were engaging with raw data. Instead of only giving them numerical data to work with, we also provided a rich visual and musical equivalence, broadening the understanding of the information coming in from the device. This led to the conclusion that the more senses we engage in the perception of reality, the richer and better understanding we will have of phenomena.
It seems to me that our modern societies, especially urban cities, have supressed our natural intuition and perception capacity. In the book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram writes about how after returning from his travels in Nepal and Indonesia where he worked with the indigenous magicians, he realised how different they perceive reality compared to us. Some of his insights refer to how we experience time, in terms of the past, present and future and how this hinders our sensorial perception.
We, in the ‘civilized world’ are living in a constant jumping from the past and the future, with the present being only an infinitesimally small point between these two other realities. We are so concerned with the processes of the past and future (collecting photographs, sharing our everyday second in our virtual scrapooks, planning for the future and insuring our belongings, thinking about what we have done and what we will do tomorrow) that we disconnect from the sensorial richness of the present.
For example, when was the last time you stopped to think about what it feels to sit on a chair, the pressure of your feet on the ground, your breathing and how it pushes your chest outwards, how your clothes feel on your skin, the temperature of your body, the sounds around you, the swaying of the trees, the passing of the cars. The more we connect with the present and with our inhabiting of it the more we can access the knowledge and insights that come with that awareness.
“You must unlearn what you have learned”
In her early 20’s, Puerto Rican astrophysicist Wanda Diaz Merced found she was losing her sight. As an astronomer she relied on curves and graphs that plotted the data received from space. This plotted data would give her information about gama rays and light which she could use to interpret space phenomena. But when she started to lose her sight, she knew she would not be able to continue her work.
With the help of her collaborators she created a way to use data from the plotted curves and translated it to sound. Through sonifying data from radio telescopes and satelites she could hear the data from the universe. She took ‘the scientific data and converted it to sound’.
As a result of this she was able to access more information from the data, as the sound translation revealed to her more than the graph data had done before.
The story of Wanda Diaz Merced is an incredible example of how engaging more senses in our work can positively impact how we perform and massively increase innovation and insight. Check out her TED Talk below.
In very practical terms this shows just how powerful it is to engage more of our sensorial capability in everything we do.
1. Be present.
The more you focus on being present during your day, the richer your experience of that moment will be. Meditation practice helps with this.
2. Do one task at a time.
In our world of glamorised productivity it’s hard to imagine not multitasking, but studies have been shown that the more we focus on one task at a time, the better we perform at it.
3. Ask: How can you engage more senses in your work as a strategy for innovation?
Just like Wanda innovated in her field through necessity, think about how you could bring in more senses to your work. How can you use your senses as tools for knowledge?
Diana Simpson Hernandez
Designers for Humanity