Yes, let’s take a closer look. For every supposedly simple sensation we have – the scent of rain on the breeze, the feel of snowflakes landing on our bare skin, the scent of spring bringing the garden to life – millions upon millions of tiny information packets are created and sent across millions of neuronal connections. We pick up the sensations, and we react in ways that are unique and customary to us. From the time we’re young, we’re exposed to certain stimuli over and over, and we develop our own unique responses to them. We learn from repeat experiences that the scent of rain means we need to take cover – and we do just that (if we notice the approaching rain soon enough). We learn that the feel of a few snowflakes landing on our skin may mean there’s more snow coming, and we hurry up unloading the moving truck. The smell of a wakening garden tells us not only that spring is on the way, bringing an end to wearisome winter, but also that there is something fresh and new on the way – and our spirits lift.
Our sensory systems also shape how we socialize. We learn how to interpret cues from our parents, teachers, and other authority figures. We learn how we should behave (or not), and we alter our behavior to keep from being disciplined or “cut off”. We learn that certain relatives become enraged about specific subjects, so we train ourselves to avoid those topics at family gatherings. We learn that certain people at work are easier to deal with than others, so we gravitate to them. Our individual reactions are part of what makes us who we are, personally and socially, and our physical sensory data transmission and interpretation process lies very much at the heart of that.
Likewise, our senses help us define our place in wider society. If we don’t react to incoming signals in consistent, socially acceptable ways, it gets noticed. And it gets sanctioned by people who can’t see the inner processes at work, but can certainly see the effects. If you smell coming rain in an overpowering wave of heady scent, and you rip off your clothes and run into the street, screaming at the top of your lungs, people will most likely talk… or dial 9-1-1. You may pick up on the scent of the rain in much more intense ways than the average person, but your over-the-top reaction to a common experience makes you an anomaly – possibly a dangerous one. If you startle and sniff and lick falling snow flurries off your hypersensitive skin while your neighbor’s chatting with you, they might become even more distant than they were just a moment before. When you’re around others who share your unorthodox responses to rain and snowflakes, it’s no big deal. In that context, it’s the norm. But when you’re in the midst of others who can’t relate – at all – it can result in a discussion with a police officer, a DSM-V diagnosis that comes with mood-altering meds… or worse.