Monday, June 04, 2007

Open senses

There's an old saying, often used by mind-readers, clairvoyants and other such humbuggers that we only use about 10% of our mental capacity. This is of course rubbish, but it's true that we all can learn, develop new skills and flex our minds up to an old age. While muscles atrophy with age, brains maintain their plasticity and can rewire themselves for instance after a stroke to a surprising extent. Perhaps it is this seemingly infinite capacity to absorb more of everything and become better that makes the 10% claim so plausible.

We do, however, seem to use only a fraction of our sensory capacities, or at least attend to very little of what is being sifted through by our senses. Perhaps mind-readers or fortune-tellers are just better at picking up hints and clues from our gestures, tone of voice etc.? Being unaware of much of what's going around us is not only a bad thing. In a way we are shielded from the outside world and the incessant bombardment of our senses by efficient filters.

We rarely pay attention to our sense of smell at all, unless trying to decide whether to throw away the casserole left-overs today or later. But we could do much more, it's just not that relevant for us. Expert wine tasters are an example of how good you could become given some training. As smells have a very direct route to our brains and are intimately linked to formation of memories for instance, it is slightly surprising that we are underdeveloped in terms of smell both in practice and in research.

Also, we see a lot but pay attention to precious little. It is funny how it feels that we have a wide angle of vision and nothing escapes us. Yet, the "beam" of our acute vision is very narrow. Focus on a word of this text, fixate to it and don't move your eyes. Now, using your peripheral vision, try to read a word on a line just above of below this one. Then try the line next to that. This is of course why people can spot if they are being "checked out", as it is impossible to maintain eye contact while caressing the rest of the body with the focus of one's attention. When there aren't any bodily curves or fashion items to guide our attention, it seems to jump to movement and points where something changes. Watching paint dry would actually be quite challenging, from attentional point of view.

Hearing is a bit different, again. You can close your eyes but it is much more difficult to close your ears. As we can't control where we point our ears and how much sound we let in (without using our hands, anyway) we must rely on much more subconscious ways to filter incoming information. Meaningful information still finds its way through, for instance in the famous cocktail party effect, where our own name pops up through the mat of chatter in the room. All sounds produced by traditional instruments consist of a multitude of frequencies (so-called harmonics) which you can "hear out", although normally you'd just group things together to one tone that has one pitch. Some people can map these pitches to the note names we conventionally use, thus being able to say what key any piece of tonal music is in, meriting the epithet of having perfect or absolute pitch.

Peter Hoeg's new book (which I had to leave behind thanks to the wonderful and illustrious R***air and their brilliant luggage policy) is about a man who can hear what key people are in. He has a very acute hearing in general, and can locate people he's calling on the phone based on what he hears on the background, was able to sense various things from the tone of their voice etc. I'll definitely write more about the book once I get it back to my hands and read beyond the first 100 pages. It looks excellent, though.

Some people are more open than others, and more sensitive or just simply more attentive than others. And we also change, depending on circumstances, stress etc. I tend to close up when stressed or tired. I stop hearing things, I stop seeing things, feeling things. It's probably just a defence reaction, the system making the judgment that there's now enough stuff inside already, can't deal with anything more. And it takes a while to open up again. I think this brief mini-break I just had was just about too short (or perhaps just about the right length, depending on how you want to see it. It didn't get me out of the "work zone" in that my mind is constantly working, when I go to bed I'm still thinking about work, and the t***** is pretty much the first thing on my mind in the morning. But last night I felt that I was opening up a bit, as I was standing outside in the middle of the night before going to bed. It was still light, and it was quiet. Or, as I soon realised it wasn't quiet at all, there was a seagull here, a cuckoo there, a mouse or something similar rustling behind the house. There was no wind but some leaves were still fluttering, and a cow somewhere far had a bell. All of a sudden there was a lot of noise, the night was loud, as I grew conscious of all the sounds around me. Amazing, I thought, just how much can you shut outside your senses?

Well, this sign of relaxation was enough to get me to sleep, and this morning work didn't catch me up until later at breakfast. But this is yet another reason why I don't really like this stage of my life and hate the fact that it has been going on all too long already. I'm missing out on all that birdsong and all those harmonics. And for Hoeg's protagonist, I'd probably be in c minor, solemn, serious and encapsulated.

(Pic: Scott Fraser: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil)

No comments: