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5 Insights About the Five Senses

Making sense of a smorgasbord of sensory experiences with Gretchen Rubin.

Source: mervas/Shutterstock

To notice more is to appreciate more, and so Gretchen Rubin set out to become an artisan of everyday experience, exploring the tweaks that can create enduring joy, and devising habits, some deceptively small, that seed big transformations. Rubin is the author of many books, including The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. In her latest, Life in Five Senses, she takes a kaleidoscopic lens to the sensory inputs of her own daily life. Gretchen and I spoke about attention to one’s most neglected sense (it’s often not the one you think), multimodal distractions, and why the sound of other people is never just white noise when it’s OK-actually advisable!–to be boring.

1. A disappointing sensory experience can still be a rich life experience.

You tried ayahuasca and had a very paradoxical response. What happened?

It was a huge adventure working myself up to it, but from a sensory perspective, not much happened: I just threw up and fell asleep. But it felt very big. I took tremendous pleasure and got an incredible amount of energy by doing something that I’d been dreading doing, and that felt totally uncharacteristic of me. I think there’s huge value in expanding your sense of identity to include doing something you just did not think you would do. And, of course, when we do things that are novel, we get a tremendous happiness boost from that. Also this idea that acting like someone else can be very freeing and energizing. And it took a lot of courage. You don’t know how something like this is going to go. You have to stay open because the lesson you learn may not be the lesson you expect to learn. In fact, I am always suspicious of people who find exactly what they’re looking for.

Random House/used with permission
Source: Random House/used with permission

2. Switch up one sensory experience for another, perhaps for one sense you neglect to cultivate.

What are some tiny changes you made that altered your perceptions of your environment or experience?

You wouldn’t want to do this indefinitely, but one fun thing to be more attentive to when you’re eating or drinking is to eat with your non-dominant hand. This will slow you down and make you really notice the smell and the texture as well as the taste of your food. Even drinking out of your coffee mug with your non-dominant hand changes the experience.

Another way to harness the five senses with regard to eating (and to fight the idea of late-afternoon snacking) is to give yourself a hit of another sensory stimulation when you have the urge to eat. So instead, you might expose yourself to a beautiful smell or even a strong smell—a jar of pickles. Or do something very tactile, like play with tin foil or run your fingers through yarn or listen to new music.

Now, is it that you’re distracting yourself, and that’s why you’ve interrupted the impulse to snack, or is that you’re listless or restless or bored, so you’re looking for sensory stimulation, and it doesn’t actually matter if it's taste or hearing or another sense that becomes the focus? It’s giving you that jolt and plugging you into the energy source.

And it turns out that people are out of touch with their own senses, so you might want to strategically try focusing on one that you’ve overlooked. For example, those for whom hearing is a relatively neglected source of sensory input, consider making voice recordings of the people you love, check out a bird-song identification app, or write a “manifesto for listening,” considering how you might be a better listener in day to day conversation.

3. There’s a world of difference between silence and human silence.

How can people build more ritualistic or rewarding silence into their own lives or discern whether silence is something that, in fact, they’d like to experience more frequently?

I’ve always loved silence and really craved it. But when I figured out how to get my family out of the apartment for the weekend, I realized that what I really wanted was human silence: I didn’t want anybody talking to me or expecting me to talk to them. What’s interesting about that from a sensory perspective is that the brain is particularly attuned to other people. That makes sense; People are danger. People are opportunities. We see faces in everything (apophenia) because we have all this brain power devoted to faces. We hear best at the level at which humans speak. And so people distract us-they grab our minds. By taking out people, you omit distractions.

One reason I love the morning is because it is so silent. But people who are night owls will say the same thing, “I love it after midnight because everything goes so quiet.” So as a morning or night person, think about what is attractive to you in the silence. Maybe you then want to get up earlier or stay up later because that is part of what you are actually seeking.

4. It is easier to feel transformed than to be transformed. The solution may be to create a new habit.

You have come up with many habits in your years of writing and self-experimentation. What is your favorite?

How do you make an epiphany stick? Usually, it is by changing a habit because that is the way that behavior persists over time.

I love habits because if you know something makes you happier and you build it into your life then you don't have to decide to do it. You just do it. By changing your habit, you bring about the activity or behavior that will help you with that transformation.

My mother made the observation that when you see people often, you have a lot to say, but when you see people rarely, you don’t have much to say. So she suggested that we send regular family updates.

We send emails every few days, and they’re called "Update," and the motto is “It’s ok to be boring!” My dad will write about a golf game; I’ll write about something my dog Barnaby did. What you find is that it really gives you a sense of somebody’s daily life, and when you actually talk to them, you have a much richer sense of what’s going on, and you can follow up.

Constant low-level, low-value information is better than a once-a-year holiday letter 3 pages long. That’s what I call the habit of “update.” Don't wait to be interesting!

5. The senses are tied to memories–and you can really dial into that.

How do you use the senses to play around with the texture of memory?

Doing things such as looking up old houses I've inhabited on real estate sites and creating a taste timeline of foods from my youth made my memories so much more vivid. You realize that you have a lot of memories that you don’t remember that you remember until you go looking for them.

I realized that through my senses, I could really enrich my sense of my own experience of my past in a way that was exciting.

One thing I recommend to tap all senses is to create a “Five-Senses Portrait” of someone you love or of yourself: For each sense, pick five strong associations or memories. What are the most iconic impressions you have of this person? (e.g, it makes a great gift because what makes someone feel more understood and seen than a portrait of themselves?

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