Sensation

What are you doing right now? Reading?

Your brain is kind to you - it turns a bunch of pixels on a glowing screen into an image and then processes that into something that you recognise. Letters. It makes those letters into a word that somehow has come to mean something to you.  Somehow, some dots formed by coding that began as ones and zeros in your computer became a mental image depiction of something far more powerful that words themselves.

So what's your left pinkie finger doing right now?

I imagine that you would have to stop and think. This is a question in stark contrast to your mental location only milliseconds before. You would have had to distract yourself from thinking about how words are formed, how we began a written language, how computers and books and language have revolutionised the way in which we live a thousand times over. And then you would have directed your attention towards your left pinkie finger. Mine, it's currently hovering above the keyboard, then resting upon the "A" key, they hovering again as it waits its turn to type. It oscillates up and down in expectation of its next move.  Sometimes, it drifts towards the "Shift" key, where it will work its magic in creating a capital letter.

My big right toe is sitting on the edge of my desk chair's foot process. While I think, it slides up and down and I can focus on the bumpy texture of the plastic. The image created in my brain is both a known image - how I would expect the base of my chair to appear in its black plastic with a round wheel at the end - and deeper, mapping the shapes that would create that bumpy sensation.  Getting off my seat, I see that the actual bumpy pattern is smaller than I imagined it. Instead of being shaped somewhat like the spots on a leopard, they are small and uniform, like polka dots on a child's tunic.

Pausing to think what I might want to include in my next paragraph, the ticking of my clock becomes apparent. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. A sound so loud that friend's who've stayed in my room while I'm away have removed the clock in order to sleep. A ticking precisely associated with the tiny movements of the clock's hands, which appear to almost pulsate under the stress of time.

Sensation is a curious thing. We take so much of it for granted - our ability to single out the sensations on which we would like to focus (or more likely, those that are the most interesting, because we all know how hard it can be to focus on the most necessary but mundane lecture when there is the wafting smell of delicious food on the air), the sounds of music above the roaring of traffic, the way our body can tell us where we are in space even when there is no light. Sensation is more than a feather on our skin or a car door crashing shut, it is also all that we purposely do not sense in order to make meaning out of the world.

Try for a moment to feel everything that is currently touching you. You can close your eyes if you like. Feel your toes on the floor or in their socks or shoes, feel your ankles bent so that your foot can be comfortable, your legs curled under a blanket or in pants or starting to get pins and needles from your odd position. Feel how your shirt sits against your skin, how the tag on your underwear (you knew you chose the wrong pair this morning) is sitting exactly the wrong way to be comfortable. The way your hair sits against your neck and that niggling itch in your left ear.  It's impossible (for me, at the very least) to keep all of those thoughts in my head at the same time. I'm vaguely aware of the way the keyboard is so smooth against my fingers and the desk hard against my elbows. I can feel the stretch in my right leg as I sit with it crossed on my chair. But I can't feel everything. I can only imagine how difficult and overwhelming it might be to sense all of those things at once. To then hear the ticking clock and the screeching birds, the whir of the fridge and the music from down the street,  and to sense the different light levels from all the corners of the room would destroy my ability to think about what I actually wanted to type. My brain would be overwhelmed.

This blog, however, was inspired by how we talk about sensation.

Anyone who has ever felt any pain in their life has probably been asked, "is it dull, throbbing or sharp?" I don't know how you cope with this question, but I've always found it difficult to describe. Sometimes the pain doesn't feel like any of those things. What I have noticed, though, is that the way in which we describe pain often correlates to tangible sensations. If I have a headache, I might say that it feels like hands pushing on each side of my head, or it might feel like the bridge on my glasses is too tight, or my eyes are pushing into their sockets.

The way that most people describe pain is neither objective nor standardised. I imagine it would only be those practiced in pain who would present to a health care professional, stating "I have a 6/10 headache that is dull and throbbing at the temporal region bilaterally." Even then, they would likely have more personalised ways of expressing that pain to their friends or family.

I recently met someone who described a skin sensation as doughy. I'm still trying to work out what that means. Doughy. When I think about dough, I think of making bread, of kneading it and rolling it through my hands. Is a doughy sensation that which you feel while rolling dough? And if I describe that as something I feel without baking, does that mean diminished sensation? As if I cannot localise the position of whatever is touching the 'doughy' skin? Or is it a slowness of sensation, as if the skin is like me in the morning - slow, less sensitive and wholly unaware of what is going on.

The inability to describe, in any standardised way, our sensations is in part because of how we are wired and in part because we spend very little time learning how else we could describe these things.  I wonder how different our descriptions would be if visualising, verbalising and drawing out sensory input were part of our early childhood. If we spent time trying to put voice to such fundamental parts of our lives.

And I wonder what more our brains would do if we understood our world that much better.

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