Each ability has its own individual sensors that do a specific job. And some organs, like the eyes, ears, and skin, actually have sensors for more than one sense. When we look at our bodies and experiences in that light – with not only 5, but more than 15 active senses – we start to grasp the incredible richness and intricacies of the bodies we tend to take for granted.
But whatever those sensory receptors may do, their job is essentially the same – to bring “data inputs” from the world around us into our system so we can react to them. Sensory receptors pick up sensory information… and associated nerves (neurons) transmit signals throughout our system, which then figures out how react to them. The phenomena we detect can be in close proximity to us, or they can be at a distance. But our distal senses of hearing, sight, and smell which, detect things from a distance, do essentially the same job as our proximal senses of taste and touch. They bring everything up close and personal, producing an experience that’s right here, regardless of how far they may be from us.
While you’re driving through a busy parking lot, the sights and sounds of pedestrians are just as immediate as the feel of your hands on the steering wheel and your foot on the brake. And they’d better be, or you’d hit someone before you realized they were there. Likewise, when you’re unloading your moving van, the sight and sound of strangers approaching coordinates with the feel of the cardboard box in your hands, the ramp under your feet, and snow flurries landing on your arm to produce a single experience. There’s no differentiation between stuff that’s here and people over there. It’s all integrated into a cohesive experience that you you can work with and react to in the moment. And that’s not even counting the other senses which increase your heart rate and respiration as you start to feel chilly and realize you’re running out of time to unload the truck.
A steady stream of sensations lets us interact with our world successfully (or not). You feel a snow flurry melting on your skin, and you instinctively pick up the pace of unpacking. You avoid driving into something or someone. You misjudge the dryness of the ground. You get caught in a rainstorm. The entire process, from our body realizing there is sensory data to detect, to transmitting that data through our systems with electrical and chemical signals, to putting it all to use, is subtle, complex, and in some cases transformative.
But to do all this, your ability to sense must be sufficiently intact. Your ability to respond must be engaged. Your nervous system’s various components need to be working in concert to get data from outside to inside… and back to the outside. Your attention needs to be trained in ways that don’t interfere with interpreting and processing whatever data gets through. And you need to respond appropriately, whether consciously or unconsciously. Your sensory system can make or break you, and the smooth operation of the entire flow can mean the difference between surviving – or not.
Hearing the newspaper land on the front porch signals that your day has officially begun. Seeing the piles of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink can make your heart sink. The scent of a warm spring day can get you in gear to head to the park for a picnic. The taste of cake can remind you of the birthday party the night before. And the seemingly simple act of noticing someone is stepping in front of your car – and then successfully acting on that information (e.g., not hitting them) – can mean the difference between living to tell the tale of the near miss, or ending up in front of a judge… or behind bars.
It’s amazing, how complex the seemingly simple process of perception really is, and most of us never really realize it. As far as many of us are concerned, the process just works in a continuous process that only needs noticing when something goes wrong. If things are physically far from us, our senses bring them up close and personal. We see the sky overhead, the clouds scuttling by, the sheep grazing on the far hillside… We hear children calling to each other as they play, the sound of a soccer ball being kicked, the parents’ shouts of encouragement… We smell the sandwiches in the picnic basket, we feel the fizz of soda bubbles in our nose, we taste the cake when we take a bite… All of these experiences are right there – an immediate part of our direct experience. The impulses which convert sensory data to perception are active within the closed systems of our bodies and brains. And in fact, outside of our physical bodies, those sensed experiences have no reality for us. You could argue, they don’t even exist. Sensed experience is intimate. It’s personal. It’s proximal. There’s no denying that.