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Sensory Awareness: Why People (Including Scientists) Are Blind to It

What is sensory awareness, and why is it overlooked?

This series of blog posts has been describing pristine inner experience—that is, whatever is directly in your experience at some moment.

To study this, my colleagues and I have given people beepers to carry into their everyday natural environments; When the beeper randomly beeps, they jot down notes about whatever experience happened to be ongoing (their "pristine" experience) when signaled by the beep. Later, we interview them about these experiences.

Last time, I said that there were five frequently occurring phenomena in everyday inner experience: inner speech, inner seeing, feelings, feature 4, and feature 5.

I didn't say what feature 4 and feature 5 were, giving you the opportunity commit yourself to your speculations about them. Now, I'll describe feature 4: sensory awareness.

My colleagues and I have a very specific and perhaps unusual definition for sensory awareness. Sensory awareness is the direct focus on some specific sensory aspect of the body or outer or inner environment. Sensory awareness is not merely responding to the characteristics of the environment. To be engaging in sensory awareness, you must be paying particular attention to some sensory aspect.

For example, if you're reaching for the door handle to open the door, that is not sensory awareness—you're seeing the handle as part of an instrumental task. But if while reaching you're particularly drawn to the shiny gold glint of the handle, that is sensory awareness.

Thus sensory awareness is a phenomenon of experience, not a characteristic of perception. The handle falls on your retina the same way regardless of whether you see it for its instrumental value (as a means for opening the door) or for its glinty goldness.

Another example: As you're reading this post, your hand is resting on your mouse as you scroll. That is not sensory awareness. But if while scrolling you are paying particular attention to the grooves on the mouse button, directly aware of the sensations in your fingertips, then that is sensory awareness.

Another example: You're thirsty, so you take a drink of Coke. That is not sensory awareness. But if, as you drink, you particularly notice the cold tingliness on your tongue, that is sensory awareness.

Everyone can have sensory awareness: Everyone can notice the glinty goldness of a handle, can attend to the groovy surface of the mouse, can feel the cold tingliness of Coke. What makes the phenomenon interesting is that some people do engage in such sensations if half or nearly all of their waking moments.

And what makes the phenomenon even more interesting is that such people typically don't know that they do so at all, much less thousands of times a day. And they don't know that they are different from other people in that regard.

Here are some examples from "Stella," one of the women with bulimia nervosa that Sharon Jones-Forrester and I have studied (Hurlburt & Jones-Forrester, 2011; Hurlburt, Heavey, & Bensaheb, 2011).

Sample 3.4. Stella was at work pulling a box off the shelf. She was focused on the dry dustiness of the box surface and waviness of the surface caused by the corrugations beneath it.

Sample 3.6. Stella was on the phone with her father, who was screaming at her. Instead of hearing what her father was screaming, she was noticing the distortion of the sound as the phone loudspeaker was being overdriven by the screams. She was also noticing the vibrating sensation in her skin next to her ear caused by the phone.

Sample 6.3. Stella was playing with the tips of her hair and was aware of the grainy texture of the tips against her fingers.

Sample 7.1. Stella was at work in conversation with her new boss. He had physically moved too close to her in a way that Stella found threatening. In response, Stella had leaned back. At the moment of the beep, Stella was feeling the stretching sensations in her back as she arched away from him. Thus, at the moment of the beep Stella was not aware of feeling threatened by her boss's advance; in fact, she was not aware of her boss at all. She was focused on the relatively inconsequential arching sensations of her back.

Some of those sensory awarenesses are mundane--anyone can feel the grainy texture of hair tips. But some are strikingly focused, as in paying attention to the arching of the back rather than the threatening situation.

Prior to her sampling with us, Stella had no idea that she frequently paid attention to sensory details of her environment, even though she did so most of the time. This is an example of Jessica's paradox that I described a few posts ago, and it gives some insight into why Jessica's paradox exists.

When reflecting a few minutes, hours, or days later, Stella probably will remember that she took the box off the shelf, that her father screamed at her, that her boss is a creep. But she probably will not remember the wavy corrugations of the box, the phone's distortion, the arching sensations even though experientially at the moment those were more salient.

When retrospecting, people may systematically overlook the features of their own inner phenomena. Because the psychological science of experience rests primarily on retrospection, sensory awareness remains a largely unknown phenomenon.

Next time I'll describe feature 5. In the meantime, I urge you to commit yourself to your speculation: Send yourself a text or jot down a few words describing what you think is the fifth main phenomena of inner experience. And again, don't feel bad if you find that difficult—you're in good company.


Hurlburt, R. T., Heavey, C. L., & Bensaheb, A. (2011). Sensory awareness. In R. T. Hurlburt, Investigating pristine inner experience: Moments of truth. New York: Cambridge, pp. 309-324.

Hurlburt, R. T., & Jones-Forrester, S. (2011). Fragmented inner experience in bulimia nervosa. In R. T. Hurlburt, Investigating pristine inner experience: Moments of truth. New York: Cambridge, pp. 28-48.

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