Friday, 1 August 2014

Sensing the world

This post has been inspired by my recently attending two weddings within 8 days of one another: my youngest son and youngest daughter who each acquired mates of whom I thoroughly approve. As might be expected the two occasions generated quite a bit of emotion: happiness for the young couples and pleasure at suddenly being related to a large number of new people. They caused me to reflect on the different ways in which we sense the world around us.

The 5 classical senses are sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. We normally think of them as being the main ways in which we acquire our knowledge of the world around us. One of our sense organs is employed and the corresponding chemicals that are generated and the neurons that are fired induce in our brains a more refined knowledge of the world around us than we had before. Or to put it another way, the sense organ gathers data and we process this data with our brains.

Yet, the classical senses are not the only ways in which our brains acquire knowledge. The two recent family weddings gave me knowledge of what other wedding guests were experiencing in their own consciousnesses. I was aware of their own happiness and, while some of this awareness came from visual and other classical senses, it seems that these alone don't explain the sense of connection that is made when we let our analytical guards down. I felt a sense of sharing that it is hard to believe arose solely out of simply seeing and hearing the same sights and sounds as the other guests.

Of course I am not describing anything mysterious or unique: almost everyone has experienced an empathetic connection (some more than others, depending on the day to day situations they find themselves in).

I think one often hears this empathetic sense pooh-poohed as being not so reliable as the sense of sight (to fix on the classical sense that seems to be the strongest in most humans - though not in all animals). Can you imagine, in a court of law, struggling to communicate something that you have knowledge of through empathy? Yet the same difficulties might not be present if you described something you knew through being an eye-witness. 

Certainly I admit that empathy can often get things wrong. But the point I want to make is that the classical senses can often get things wrong too. Increasingly, psychologists are discovering that our brains can easily be fooled into wrong interpretations of what our 5 sense organs have detected. Even sight which is the sense we use all the time to navigate and whose reliability we rarely question is now known to be very imperfect - a fact which is exploited to the hilt by stage magicians. Courts of law no longer use the eye-witness account as the gold standard for deciding how or whether a crime has been committed.

What this suggests to me is that our empathetic sense should be accorded more respect than it has normally received. I do not know whether our empathetic sense is more reliable than our classical senses. Indeed I think the issue of comparative reliability of all our senses is very complex. It is probably not the same for everyone and very likely it changes throughout our life-times.

Anyone want to conduct experiments in empathy?

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