Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 955:
THE REALM OF THE SENSES

by John H. John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 955.

Today, we look at the mind beyond the brain. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Diane Ackerman's book, The Natural History of the Senses, takes us on a trip into unsettling territory:

... the mind doesn't really dwell in the brain [she says] but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, ... making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision.

She asks us to imagine living in full contact with our senses -- leads us through the gamut of physical contact with external reality. It's less natural history than it is consciousness raising. She recites a vast inventory of case histories of sensate experience. And I realize how impoverished most of us let ourselves be, as we underuse those senses. She describes

... crisp foods like carrots [with] little taste but lots of noise and mouth action. Coca-Cola, [with its] intense sweetness, caffeine, and prickly feeling against the nose ... was first marketed as a mouthwash in 1888.

We let ourselves be numb to so much. Now this terrible invitation to engage sense fully. What excesses lurk in there?

Ackerman looks at Rodin's statue the Kiss and savors the total sensate engagement of two people lost in one another. She quotes Rilke: "Here was desire immeasureable, thirst so great that all the waters of the world dried in it like a single drop." That kind of intensity threatens our steady lives!

But remember Ackerman's other theme: "The mind doesn't really dwell in the brain." She tells how touching newborn children teaches them the difference between I and other. That says far less about the senses than it does about the intellect.

She makes the fusion of mind and sense explicit when she talks about synesthesia -- that odd process where one sense feeds another. When you hear an old tune you might taste jam or smell a perfume. Authors and artists learn to tap those sensate connections.

"Picasso walked in the forests of Fontainbleau where he got an overwhelming 'indigestion of greenness,'" she tells us. Auden drank tea. D.H. Lawrence climbed naked into a mulberry tree. Dame Edith Sitwell prepared to write by lying in an open coffin.

You may think you journey only tentatively into the realm of the senses. But when Ackerman tells this power of association, it's clear there is no place to live free of that realm.

Which of us doesn't use the senses to break loose from verbal thought and see through things? I walk the dog or sit alone in the lunchroom -- reach for the smells that only dogs know, savor food and murmuring voices at other tables. Who knows what psychic triggers those things pull? But pull them they do! I always do best when I listen to the mind that doesn't dwell entirely in the brain. And so too, I'll bet -- do you.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Ackerman, D., The Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990. (St. Exupery expressed a somewhat opposing view in a marvelous line from The Little Prince: "What is essential," he wrote, "is invisible to the eye.")

I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, UH Libraries, for recommending the Ackerman source to me.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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