This guest blog post by Dr Merle Fairhurst is part of AHRC Science in Culture Theme ’s contributions to Universities Week 2014.
Between 9-15 June 2014, universities across the UK are inviting everyone to be inspired, get involved and discover the work that they are doing to improve the way we live our lives.
Our everyday understanding of perception is that we see, touch, smell, taste and hear. As such, we often describe our thoughts and emotions in terms of five distinct senses. Until recently, these senses have been studied and described both by philosophers and scientists in isolation.
Modern cognitive neuroscience is challenging this understanding: instead of five we might count up to 33 senses, served by dedicated receptors. Instead of simplifying how we experience flavour merely into taste, research suggests at least two separate ways in which flavour information is sensed. Touch can be pleasant, painful, thermal or pressure related; with separate sensory fibres and pathways for each aspect of how we feel through our skin. Similarly, how we “see” can be broken down into colour and contrast vision, or neural pathways that deal with the nature of the object or where that object is in space.
Studying isolated senses is misleading: everyday, real world experiences such as watching a film or eating a meal involve several different senses working together.
At the cinema, the sounds seem to originate from the lips of actors, even though we known they come from distant loudspeakers.
Flavour is a rich example of sensory interaction: what we call the “taste” of food largely comes from smell rather than taste buds. A loss of smell will greatly affect one’s eating experience. Flavour experiences are also affected by colour, spatial arrangements and even sounds. These effects demonstrate that multisensory interactions are the rule rather than the exception.
The science of perception is advancing quickly through psychological experiments and through brain imaging techniques including in individuals with sensory or cognitive deficits. We need a new theoretical framework to host the explosion of scientific results: philosophical thinking is needed to relate brain processes, behaviour and subjective experience. Specifically, it is essential that together we create language and a framework to describe the way in which sensory information is combined to create a rich and unified experience. The multisensory nature of perception will be understood only though philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists working together to re-evaluate how the senses work together.
The AHRC Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Neuroscience and Philosophy of perception project integrates philosophical and scientific studies of multisensory perception. Philosophers and scientists are working together to consider existing scientific evidence within a philosophical framework, with the specific intention of raising critical questions which can then be tested through experiments. This will provide the vital philosophical input to the development of a cognitive neuroscientific account of the senses (5 or 33 senses), of non-sensory influences on perception (e.g. experiencing an artwork as a social group) and of the underpinning of conscious perceptual experience.
The impact of the research is far reaching and extends beyond the academic sphere.
Our work thus far includes collaborative projects with museums (e.g. The Tate), artists (e.g. Patrick Hughes, Shelley James), charitable organisations (e.g. Fifth Sense) and companies (e.g. British Summer Fruits Association). We have identified specific ways in which the experience of the flavour of strawberries is enhanced by the context and specifically the sounds heard while eating. We are also exploring the nature of enhancing the multisensory experience of walking through a museum and interacting with artworks.
Can you help? Touch, taste, hear, see, or smell to help us better understand how we perceive and experience the world around us. If you are aged between 18 and 35 and are interested in participating in scientific research for Rethinking the Senses, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details of ongoing projects. Participants will be reimbursed for their time.