Friday, May 29, 2009

Have we got a sixth sense - awareness?

Traditionally, we are said to have five senses: hearing, touch, taste, sight, and smell. However, no firm agreement has been reached on this number; since definitions of what constitutes a sense differ; some holding that we have five additional senses: a sense of pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception), joint motion and acceleration (proprioception & kinesthesia), a sense of time, and a sense of temperature (thermoception).
To these five major senses, couldn’t our sense of awareness be added. Sense, after all, doesn’t necessarily include having to be in physical contact with what is stimulating the senses. Sight and hearing clearly do not involve touching, whilst our sense of smell depends only upon molecules making contact with our olfactory systems.

Being aware can take a number of forms: we can be aware that we have met someone before, that the word ‘Tiddles’ will most likely be the name given to a pet – a cat – and that we have dialed the right telephone number, even when we cannot clearly or fully mentally remember the actual number.

How many times have you relied on the relative positions of the numbered buttons and the order in which they appear in the dialing code as and when you are dialing the number, rather than beforehand?

What is that? If it is memory, why do we have to remind ourselves by the act of actually dialing the number? It cannot be touch, because all the buttons feel the same. Direction seems to fit, but in this case, it is the direction and distance of the buttons relative to each other and in that particular order and no other – it seems to be a sense of direction coordinated by our consciousness.

It clearly has something to do with our memory, but we rarely think of it working through our sense of touch – in just that way. In a sense, all senses connect with our memory, even to inform us that we have never sensed something before.

Our awareness that the Earth revolves around the sun, for instance, may have something to do with our learned knowledge of the movement of planets in the solar system, and may be connected to our perceiving that the Earth’s position relative to the sun is continually changing.

It is this perception that I believe is linked to something like an ‘archaeology of our knowledge’ – a vestige of primordial awareness – but now quantified by the sciences and placed in more or less absolute terms in reference books.

What would stone-age men and women have ‘known’ of this movement? They would certainly have noticed it, but not having a concept, ‘sun’ or ‘Earth’, they would not know or be aware of what was happening – in the way we talk of knowing or being aware these days.

Our knowledge of the way we move in orbit around the sun has been handed down to us from Galileo and others. But our sense that one or both is moving goes back to those days of stone and flint. Without prior knowledge from our schooling, our senses would tell us little more than our predecessors knew about a lot of things. Could we, for example, say what the Moon is, or where it is, or how far away it is? Could we understand its phases, or that it affects our tides. The sciences have given us a lot, but has our awareness moved on? Just as the ruins of Ephesus mark the city and its borders, our sense of awareness marks the limits of our own knowledge of our world, and although it is probably growing continually with experience coupled to memory, some parts of it will not be so radically different from what they were at our beginnings.
Robert L. Fielding


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