Making Sense of our 5 Senses

“Don’t ignore the five senses in search of a sixth.” — Bruce Lee

Every day countless articles and books are published around personal development. “10 steps to be more creative.” “3 ways to live in the moment.” I’m fascinated by self improvement and the incredible ability of the brain and our mindset to improve and elevate our lives. But like me, you may be overwhelmed by all these resources. Where should I start? What’s most important?

Our typical instinct is to look for more or something new. What new skills do I need to develop? What new app or service will help me reach my goals? But in a world that is continually changing, focusing on the foundation and basic tenets of who we are as humans can be more effective and sustainable. We don’t need any more productivity hacks or time management apps. Instead, let’s look at our 5 basic senses and how we can better adapt them for the crazy world we’re in today. If we can be more intentional at ‘being human’ everything else will fall in line.

Our 5 Basic Senses

Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste: our 5 senses that enable us to perceive and interact with the world around us. You probably haven’t thought about them much after elementary school. In fact, when researching this piece, Google results were largely either basic explanations tailored to children or deep dives and other interpretations into our senses (including balance, temperature, pain, etc.) This exercise shows 2 insights: 1) we look past our 5 senses, thinking it’s a basic concept that we learn as kids and can move on, and 2) we continue to focus on seeking more vs. really understanding the basics.

For this article, let’s keep it straightforward and focus on the main 5. Before we start, I also recognize that not everyone is fortunate to have all or any of these 5 senses, but the takeaways are intended to be universal for anyone to consider.

1. Sight

“My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.” — Marcel Proust

We make sense of the world through internalizing what we see around us, which shapes our thoughts, experience, and interactions with others. Think about how we primarily “see” right now:

  • Passively — we see what is brought towards us (e.g. Instagram feed, targeted ads, billboards, etc.)
  • With Bias — we judge what we see. We don’t see what’s in front of us as it is, but as we subconsciously interpret it
  • Quickly — we internalize our first impression then move on

Whether doom scrolling or walking around a busy street, we’re bombarded with endless stimuli (subconsciously and consciously) influencing what we think. In doing so, we’re left with a stream of information that’s dangerously tailored to your current perspective and preferences (e.g. social media feed algorithms). Instead, consider a different frame:

  • Actively — seek information with intention
  • Impartially — see without judgment
  • Curiously — view through multiple angles and perspectives

This type of sight is more arduous and bears greater responsibility. We certainly don’t need (or have to) take this approach all the time. In fact, it’d be overwhelming to do so. But ultimately, when we’re truly seeking to see the full picture, look beyond our line of sight to understand the context and environment.

2. Hearing

“Hearing tells you the music is playing. Listening tells you what the song is saying.” — Rick Rigsby

Consider the cocktail party test, where we can be unaware of the conversation at hand, but hear our name said from the other side of the room. Focusing specifically on listening, we can distinguish between 5 levels, with the 2 ends being:

  • Level 1 — Listen for Gist: We listen just for the basic tenets of what someone is saying, in order to formulate our own perspective. Instead of attentively hearing their words, we spend most of the time focused on our internal monologue. We don’t listen to learn; we listen to respond
  • Level 5 — Listen for Point of View: We listen to their words and seek to understand their mental models that create their perspective on the world and given topic. Rather than filtering their words through our own values and interpretation, we openly listen to them without influence or bias.

Level 5 is not necessarily always appropriate or realistic in everyday life. Like sight, sometimes we just need basic information to go on our way. But consider your levels of listening and how they may change with given environments or people. Are you listening to understand or to respond?

3. Touch

“Touch is the first language we speak.” — Stephen Gaskin

Touch is perceived through our skin, our largest organ, and provides necessary information about our given environment, including temperature, pressure, pain, and tingling. Our skin serves as a protective barrier between our internal body systems and the outside world, and crucially helps us avoid danger and pain.

We instinctively avoid concrete danger that physically hurts us, although not always very well (I burn my tongue 90% of the time I order a cup of coffee). But consider the more abstract feelings of pain, the people, personal ambitions, and internal fears that we avoid. We “numb our pain” through outlets like drinking, smoking, or closing ourselves off from others.

Reflect on what you touch and let yourself be touched by. We’re wired to protect our internal bodily systems, but we may also go too far to protect our own feelings and emotions, closing ourselves off from new meaningful opportunities — from intimate relationships to new jobs or experiences.

4. Smell

“The sense of smell, like a faithful counsellor, foretells its character .” — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Smell is derived from cells in the nose that detect different chemicals in the air that we breathe in. We also detect the flavors in food as air moves from our mouth up into the back of the nasal cavity. This sense helps us find food, avoid toxic substances, and appreciate flavor (~80% of the flavors we taste come from what we smell).

Unlike our other senses, the olfactory nerves do not proceed directly to the brain’s thalamus, the gateway to consciousness. Instead, information feeds from the nose to cortical areas to arouse emotions and memories without our awareness. It’s much more powerful than we realize. A 2014 study showed we can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odors (up from the previous 10,000 estimate). We can also smell emotion. Study participants who sniffed sweat samples of people who watched either pleasant or scary videos were able to detect happy facial expressions. Smelling the body odor of stressed-out people increases our own vigilance, and sniffing the sweat of first-time parachute jumpers activates our brain’s left amygdala, where basic emotions like fear are processed.

“Smells Fishy”

We don’t need to limit our use of smell to just perfumes or food. Be in tune and listen to your instinct, the feelings and emotions you initially feel in a new situation. We try to rationalize and explain everything, but before all of that conscious processing, we are already internalizing the situation. Be in tune with your instinct and emotions. If you close your eyes and something “smells fishy,” trust that you probably encountered a fish.

5. Taste

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

Taste is intricately tied with smell, where our taste buds detect flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) and in parallel our sense of smell perceives the food’s aromas. But beyond food itself, think about the expectations we set and how it affects our experience. A rundown market that you stumble upon can lead to one of the best meals you’ve ever had. Alternatively, a high-end 5 star restaurant can leave you disappointed. The food certainly plays a role, but so does expectation.

Now consider the types of food you have. Are they the same? There’s certainly no harm in consistent meal routines or favorite meals. But consider what might happen if you explored more options. More broadly, how might your life change if you sought and diversified the experiences on your life’s plate?

Comfort foods are aptly named since they provide a sense of security and assurance. But comfort and growth typically can’t sit at the same table. Bad apples are required to appreciate good ones.

So as you go about your life, immerse yourself in new experiences, without expectation, and you may find something that you’ve never tasted, but will be grateful that you did.

Summary

We make sense of the world through our senses. They guide us through an endless stream of stimuli in an increasingly complex society. By shifting how we think about them individually and together, we can shape a more intentional and fulfilling lifestyle.

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