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Sensory overload

31 March 2017


WHAT is the vocation that de­­mands the most empathy, whose fol­­­lowers display the greatest under­standing of humanity? Teaching, perhaps? Medicine, or the priest­hood? Dream on. The people who study these things say that the milk of human under­standing runs most richly through the veins of snipers and hostage negotiators.

Forget the Hollywood clichés — brooding mavericks and misan­thropic geniuses; these people can align their thoughts with ours, and, in the breathless words of one Sus­sex University researcher, get our hearts to beat together.

What they have, and we have not, is an uncommonly high level of interoception: one of the many senses discussed by the philosopher Barry Smith and his guest experts in The Uncommon Senses (Radio 4, weekdays). It emerges that there are not, in fact, five senses: there are more like 30. Interoception is the awareness that we have of the work­ings of our own bodies: the sense of one’s heartbeat, of butterflies in one’s stomach, and the bristling of the hairs on the back of one’s neck.

The fact that the hostage negoti­ator Chris White is better than average at assessing his heart-rate makes him also better at assessing the emotional states of others. A sniper takes the killer shot between heartbeats, a skill that also makes him particularly good at gauging what his victim is going to do next — although proving this scientific­ally might be problematic, what with all that pesky ethical consent to deal with.

The Uncommon Senses is just the kind of programme that the Radio 4 listener craves. The episodes are perfectly designed to provide us intellectual dilettantes with just the right amount of information. We can now impress our friends with the Bouba-Kiki Effect, with the latest theories about “the sixth sense” and the supernatural, and ex­­plain why only schizophrenics can tickle themselves.

After four episodes of the pro­gramme, however, I started to won­der whether I wasn’t myself being manipulated by the smell of starched white coats and the sound of computer-generated music. For all this talk of 30-odd senses, one must continue to monitor one’s own sense of credulity.

There is no better case-study in cross-modal sensory perception than dining. The enjoyment of a meal depends on much more than how the ingredients have been put together. I assume, therefore, that the gathering of Icelandic pagans featured in Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday) will next year be enjoying their feast of whale- and horse-meat a good deal better than this, when they will have left behind the centrally heated, strip-lit hall that they currently inhabit, and moved into the purpose-built hill-temple on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

John Laurenson’s was a sym­pathetic account of the resurgence of interest among Icelanders in their Viking ancestral gods, where Freya, Odin, and the like return as re­­presentatives of a non-judgemental, interfaith ideal — and not a blood sacrifice in sight.

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