The Senses Have a History—and Here’s Why It Matters

The senses seem immutable, but nothing is more adaptable than human perception.

Posted May 12, 2020

Kristin Hardwick/Negative Space
New technologies habituate us to new sensations.
Source: Kristin Hardwick/Negative Space

Have you ever felt your phone vibrating in your pocket and reached down to answer it, only to discover that it wasn’t ringing after all? If so, you’re not alone.

In a 2012 study, 89 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing this phenomenon. Anecdotally, it seems equally widespread among all smartphone devotees. In fact, the phenomenon is so common it even has a name: “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”

Even though almost all of us have felt them, phantom vibrations didn’t exist before the rise of mobile phones. Our phones have almost become an extension of our bodies, and new technologies have habituated us to new sensations. 

Perhaps nothing seems more solid and immutable than our senses. From childhood, we learn that there are five—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—and we understand these five as a central part of the physical fabric of existence. 

Because the senses are rooted in biology, we almost instinctively assume that at every stage of history, humans have used their senses in generally the same way. For example, we’ve learned to visually scan our environments for danger, withdraw our hands when a fire gets too hot, and shy away from the repellent, sweet-sour scent of rotten meat. 

That general similarity is deceptive. 

While the senses do have a biological facet, they are highly adaptable. Throughout time, the ways that humans have categorized their senses, described their sensory experience, and relied upon their senses have significantly varied. For example, in the U.S. today, many people think of sour milk as “bad” or “gone off,” but in Scandinavia, people have historically consumed the viscous stuff with gusto. 

Our bodies may not change dramatically, but the way we think about and use our senses is in perpetual flux. After all, perception is not dependent on the body alone. Here are a few other examples that highlight just how elastic the senses can be: 

  • For 700 years, the largest wholesale market in Paris took place in the middle of the night. There was no reliable street lighting, so customers relied on their non-visual senses to make purchasing decisions. This significantly affected the relationships between buyers and vendors, especially when it came to building trust. 
  • In the 19th century, many museumgoers felt comfortable touching and licking artifacts. They considered physical contact a better way to learn from and connect to objects. 
  • When trains became a more common form of transportation, many riders complained of headaches or disorientation. Because they had never traveled at such speeds before, they had to learn to look and focus their eyes in new ways.  
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Historical museum accounts indicate that visitors enjoyed touching artifacts, even visual ones like paintings.
Source: Mick Haupt/Unsplash

The way we understand the world is a composite of nature and nurture, and in many cases, the raw material of both comes to us courtesy of our senses. 

No one articulated this viewpoint better, perhaps, than 18th-century philosophers. In 1751, the mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert pronounced, “All our direct knowledge can be reduced to the ideas that we get from our senses… Nothing is more indisputable than the existence of our sensations.”

D’Alembert and many of his contemporaries believed that understanding sensation was the key to understanding the entire world. After all, every scientific experiment is filtered through vision, every emotion yields a physical reaction, and every idea is built upon a foundation of experience. 

We are embodied creatures. And that embodied reality is as integral to our minds as the ideas that circulate within them. Our senses give us internal access to the outside world.

Likewise, embodied existence is just as integral to our past as the large-scale events that fill history books. Often, when people think about history, their minds go to major events, like World War II, or major changes, like the rise of industrialism. But humans have experienced a subtler and quieter—but no less impactful—set of changes over time. 

Think of it this way: When you look back on your life, you likely remember overtly historical events, like 9/11, or you recognize the power of historical ideas, like political ideologies or religious teachings. 

But you may also remember the soft dampness of your first kiss, the way your mother’s perfume smelled, and the way the steering wheel felt the first time you held it. These quiet moments are rarely remarked upon by history, but they’re crucial, nonetheless. They have an impact on how a person navigates, participates, and behaves in the world. 

Josh Applegate/Unsplash
In the Catholic Church, incense is used during Mass and other solemn processions. The smoke symbolizes prayers rising to heaven.
Source: Josh Applegate/Unsplash

Sensations aren’t just individual, either. For example, Americans associate certain sounds with sporting events; Catholics might associate the smell of incense with a religious service; smartphone users worldwide impulsively check their pockets at the slightest imagined twitch. If individual identities are forged in sensation, so, too, are collective ones. 

When we’re aware of and open to the fact that our sensations have a history, we gain access to new ways of thinking about perception. We become attuned to the large-scale value of emotional moments and the intensity of physical feelings, and we’re encouraged to question long-standing assumptions. 

Sensory history opens up new perspectives on the relationship between physical experience and mental states, and it can reveal a great deal about who and how we are today. 

References

d’Alembert, Jean le Rond. “Discours préliminaire des éditeurs (Juin 1751).” In Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raissonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), edited by Robert Morrissey. https://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/node/88

Classen, Constance. “Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum.” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (Summer, 2007): 895-914. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25096398

Drouin, Michelle, Daren H. Kaiser, and Daniel A. Miller. “Phantom Vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and Associated Psychological Characteristics.” Computers in Human Behavior 28, no. 4 (July 2012): 1490-1496. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.03.013

Roginski, H. “Fermented Milks | Nordic Fermented Milks.” In Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences, 2nd edition, 496-502. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-374407-4.00184-9

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.