We don’t appreciate the value of our senses until something goes wrong with one of them. I have been wearing glasses since I was a teenager, and with time they became a part of my identity. However, many vision issues are not only a nuisance, but also determine a version of our own reality.
I was reading The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner and realized that I also did not fully appreciate my senses. The books goes over several curious medical cases affecting the various senses, but I will not spoil it. I linked NPR description of the book, for those more curious.
Most doctors know, that many medical conditions have variable presentations. To add to the confusion, many sensory issues have overlapping symptoms, making diagnosis difficult, even to the best doctors. Thus, a vision problem is not always due to an issue with the eyes, but it can also be an issue with the brain. An important point mentioned in the book, is that as the medical knowledge expands in every field, many doctors learn to recognize medical issues through the lens their specialty. Thus, many issues will go unrecognized until a patient goes to the right specialist. This uncomfortable reality surrounds the medical practice.
A question that always puzzled me is how do we compare sensory experiences among people? Is my vision similar to yours? It might be, but not if you are colorblind for example. Now imagine animals that can see the polarized light, such as bees, or those that can see heat emanating from bodies like snakes. How is their reality?
Another curiosity is the sense of taste. Why do we like various foods? Is likeness of certain foods acquired? Why does it change with age? When I was a child, avocados tasted like soap. Their taste was so repulsive, that I had no idea how anybody would eat that. Today I eat them regularly. One of the more famous examples is durian. A South-East Asian fruit, beloved by many, but to me the smell of it is so bad, as if somebody was trying to feed me old socks.
This brings me to smell. Often less appreciated, smell connects us to the most distant memories. Many visual scenes will not bring memories as strong as certain smells. Scents of familiar foods or places can bring up distant memories. How our brain processes different chemicals and attaches a certain meaning to them is not well understood. However, we all know of a few childhood smells, such as ice cream or flowers, that take us back in time.
One curiosity I have not realized until reading this book, is that having a song stuck in my head, is in fact a musical hallucination. Technically, a hallucination is a perception of something that isn’t real. A condition quite common in many brain disorders, but we often do not think about “that song is stuck to in my head” as mental illness. I point this out, to stress that the line between a reality and hallucination is quite blurred.
I wish we understood the organ that is enclosed in our skull much better. It is a powerhouse used by countless people to make a change, to discover, to create, and to enjoy life around us. However, our brain can be mischievous, can play tricks on us using our senses. Our brain is what makes humans, one of the weakest large mammals on the planet, one of the strongest.