REVIEW: Where We Meet the World – The Story of the Senses by Ashley Ward
The thrilling story of how our senses evolved and how they shape our encounters with the world
Our senses are what make life worth living. They allow us to appreciate a sip of an ice-cold drink, the sound of laughter, the touch of a lover. But only recently have incredible advances in sensory biology given us the ability to understand how and why our senses evolved as they have.
In Where We Meet the World, biologist Ashley Ward takes readers on a breathtaking tour of how our senses function. Ward looks at not only the five major senses—vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch—but also a host of other senses, such as balance and interoception, the sense of the body’s internal state. Drawing on new research, he explores how our senses interact with and regulate each other, and he uncovers what we can learn from how other animals—and even bacteria—encounter the world.
Full of warmth and humor, Where We Meet the World shows how new insights in biology transform our understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our environment, revealing the vibrancy—and strangeness—of both.
Dear Dr. Ward,
I find myself drawn to these scientific books that talk about how we interact with the world. Your book hits that sweet spot of information and entertainment without the dreaded textbook dryness that has left me disappointed in other books. We may think we know all we need about our five senses – except that now scientists are realizing we have and describing many more. We might have as many as 50 more but regardless of an exact number, without them, living and surviving would be much harder.
Our brain doesn’t actually sense anything, it just collects and integrates what is sent to it. If needed, it smooths little bits into a whole, and fills in missing stuff with its best guess. Senses can be “fooled” (vision is likely the most vulnerable to this) and probably no one’s are alike. Genetic differences can make eating coriander a nightmare for some, age and gender changes how bitter other foods taste to us (pregnant women and young children have heightened responses which are thought to be a protection against eating toxic plants). When your kiddo refuses to eat broccoli, it isn’t just to try your patience.
Our vision is the result of life having started in water and (for some) then migrated to land. Mammals’ relatively poor color vision was further shaped by mostly hunting in the dark – what kept them alive when, as the size of shrews, they ducked and dodged through the pre-Chicxulub night world when it paid to stay beneath a non-avian dinosaur’s notice. Our senses have been further honed by genetics as well as culture. Various cultures list different senses as being the most important to them though a large number, when asked which one they’d stand to lose, pick smell.
Humans live in a more colorful world than say dogs or cats as we have 3 types of cone cells to their 2 types and more cone cells overall. But just for a day or two, I’d love to see through the eyes of a mantis shrimp. They can see wavelengths from ultraviolet to infrared as well as polarized light and have 12 cone cells. Imagine having one of them do your interior decorating! But humans really should avoid cell phones before bed as our melanopsin (which shuts off production of melatonin) is activated by blue. Our languages and culture also shape our perception of colors. Most languages have terms for black and white with red usually being added next. These are mostly followed by yellow or green and then by blue or brown. English didn’t have the word orange until relatively recently making due with red or red/brown to describe “redheads.”
Human responses to various sounds seem to be hardwired protection devices to avoid diseases. The sound of vomiting is the most loathed sound, followed by sniffling, and listening to someone chewing with their mouth open – bodily functions, especially ones connected to a risk of disease transmission put us on alert. Language appears to have propelled us as a species and despite the multitude of them spoken, most people can accurately intuit basic emotions when listening to others even if they don’t understand the words being said.
Our sense of smell, while nowhere near as good as a bloodhound’s, is actually not that bad. Once again though, pregnant women appear to have an increased sense of it, probably to help protect against eating something that might hurt their baby. Our noses can help us with kin recognition as well as potential disease detection. Sadly, smell has been historically used to denigrate certain groups including Jews and Black people.
The need for touch was horribly demonstrated in the Rumanian orphanages before the fall of communism when there were too many babies for providers to touch much at all, much less cuddle. The act of being held causes stress levels to drop and babies cry less. Tactile therapy helps preemies to gain weight more quickly as well as helping development of their brains.
The whole book is filled with fascinating facts and information about how we experience the world around us, the importance of all our many and varied senses including the “new” ones such as proprioception. I found it interesting as well as accessible though my advice would be to read it more slowly than I did. There’s a lot to take in and most of it will spark scintillating dinner conversation. B
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