Sense and Sensibility
No, not Sense and Sensibility the book. We are talking awareness and understanding. Our five senses and the world around us.
“An ability to understand, recognize, value, or react to something, especially any of the five physical abilities to see, hear, smell, taste and feel.” Cambridge English Dictionary.
“A sense is an awareness or recognition of something; the stimulus may be subjective, and the entire process may be mental or intellectual.” Dictionary.com
- A faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus: one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.
- A sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems.
- Perceive by a sense or senses.
“An understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable” Cambridge English Dictionary
“Ability to receive sensations”
Merriam Webster Dictionary
Sense and Sensibility
“When one of the five senses goes, the others grow and get better to make up for it.” In other words, when someone loses their eyesight, their senses of hearing, touch, taste and smell suddenly become much better than before. This is a commonly held thinking. It is actually bunkum!
The human brain has a remarkable ability to rewire itself in order to accept and process incoming information via a different route. The ears, nose, tongue and fingers, however, do not have any sci-fi style capability to grow or intensify. If only…
What actually happens though, is that those of us who lose one of our senses, learn to use the others more and more effectively.
Since my eyesight conked out, I have become increasingly aware of how I am taking in information about the world around me in different ways. I have always been blessed by, and grateful for, a very good sense of hearing. However, I previously didn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as I do now.
I’ve never considered myself a particularly ‘touchy-feely’ person. Now, though, I touch and feel things a whole lot more than I ever did before, simply out of necessity! I can’t honestly say that my sense of taste has improved (I have a condition in my mouth that has significantly reduced the functionality of my taste-buds), but I am definitely finding myself sniffing and smelling things a huge lot more than ever I used to.
As humans, we are hardwired to a world dominated by vision. Our most dominant sense by far is our eyesight. Our world and even our language is driven by our eyes. Just think of the many phrases that are derived from, revolve around, or are dependent upon sight to make sense:
A few examples:
- I see what you mean
- Look at it this way
- I will look into that (meaning ‘I will research it’ – not ‘I will physically look inside’ for example)
- Oh! I see! I get it now!
- Look on the bright side
- The future is not looking too good
- He went that way
- It’s over there
- Keep your eye on the ball
- I should have seen that coming
- More than meets the eye
- Turn a blind eye
- A sight for sore eyes
- In the public eye
- … there are many, many more sayings in general use in the English language that are all based upon our most dominant sense.
Of course, some of these are simply figures of speech. We all use them and they are generally accepted by most VI people as such. They are not offensive. They are simply part of our language that we all regard as open to interpretation according to whatever way we ‘see’ the world.
A few examples, though, are simply infuriating and very unhelpful. If a VI person has asked for directions, then ‘It’s over there’ or ‘that way’, is meaningless! Even if accompanied by a good firm arm-wave, finger-point or a glance in the direction of ‘there’ or ‘that way’, we have no idea where ‘there’ or ‘that way’ is! Maybe that could be the topic of another blog for another time…
What I am trying to tackle here is the change in awareness of the senses. I can only speak from my own experience, but I would be delighted to hear from others in comments below.
As I’ve already said above, I am truly blessed by my sense of hearing. I would say that is now my primary source of sensory input. I now ‘see’ the world far more via my ears than I do by any other sense. It was a very young primary school child who first pointed that out to me!
Back in the very early days of my partnership with Guide Dog Oakley we were walking around the streets of Sompting, West Sussex (that was home then). The route took us past the back entrance to the local primary school. We had just crossed the road. I heard a little voice saying “Mummy, that lady didn’t look before she crossed the road with her doggy!”. It was that child’s observant comment that made me think back. I realised that I was no longer in the habit of turning my head to look both ways before stepping off the kerb. He/she had shown me that I was simply listening carefully.
With my now very tiny window of vision, I can easily lose a juggernaut or double-decker bus (or both!) in my ‘blind areas’. So I, suppose my subconscious mind had stopped bothering to try to look. Instead, this child had pointed out just how much I was concentrating on audio input.
I used to be keen on observing nature when out in the countryside. It was a great delight if I spotted a bird of prey, or a rabbit or squirrel on the ground. I would scan my eyes around constantly trying to spy any wildlife in the undergrowth, across the fields, or above in the tree canopy. Nowadays, I search for the sounds of the critters around. I may well hear the rustle of a bird or a little furry beastie in the hedgerows, or identify the eerie mewling of a raptor soaring high above.
On a good-eyes day, I might, if I am very lucky, be able to aim my tiny pinhole at the source of the sound, and thus be blessed by a sighting. However, this is often a painful process if the light is too bright, or, more often, a disappointing one if I fail to locate the owner of the call. I used to love to see the birds and beasties. Now, I simply love to listen to them and am beginning to learn to identify some species by their song/call. I can honestly say that I am much, much more appreciative of the stunning array of beautiful birdsongs than I was ever even vaguely aware of before.
A country walk in the past might have shown me perhaps a dozen different birds. That would have been the most noted highlights of that given walk for me. Now, I hear hundreds of the little songsters and am so much more aware of their beautiful presence than I ever was when I was looking for them. God has provided us with the most stunning and astonishing choir and, previously, I was far too preoccupied with trying to glimpse their appearances to truly hear their performances.
For me, as I do still have a little bit of useful vision, it is often my ears that draw my eye to the beauty around me. A fabulous example of that was a few years ago when we were moored near Hungerford, on the Kennet and Avon Canal. The very rugged nature of the bank meant that we couldn’t get the boat close enough to the bank for me to disembark (I am not very sure-footed and so am very unsure of using a gangplank).
Tim had taken Oakley (also a reluctant gangplanker – he had leapt the gap instead!) off for his necessary walkies in the evening. It was a beautiful balmy summer’s evening and we had removed all the windows in the boat. I was busy sorting laundry when I heard munching noises coming from outside. Following the sound to the bedroom window at the stern of the boat, I managed to trace the source to the steep mud-bank. I couldn’t see well enough to identify the muncher. Therefore, I picked up my iPad and used the zoom function on that to magnify the scene. That revealed the utterly enchanting presence of a family of water voles chomping their evening meal of reeds and grasses.
The laundry remained unsorted for a good long while that evening! I struggled to see much detail, but it was a treasured time watching and listening to such endearing little creatures.
With the Covid-19 restrictions in place at present, the idea of shopping is simply abhorrent. Not only because of the obvious concerns, limitations and difficulties that everybody is facing, but also because touching and smelling are off limits. This makes the whole process incredibly difficult. Browsing shelves is hard enough work at the best of times. But just now, the concept of only picking up the items that are intended for purchase makes it extra challenging.
I would normally take my time. Pick up an item that I think is what I’m searching for, based on colour and shape, and on the general theme of the shelf I am browsing. So, for instance, if I am needing baked beans, I would find the right aisle. Then scan for orange coloured cans. Then I would pick up what I think should be baked beans and bring it closer to my face to check for more detail. At present, though, it is generally not good practice to either take time, or to pick things up and put them down again.
For fresh fruit and vegetables, I would normally shop the loose items as much as possible (trying to reduce on plastic packaging). Picking up to touch and smell items would normally be confirmation or not of whether or not to buy. Wearing a mask puts the smelling bit off limits. This means that I currently leave the vast majority of the shopping to Tim.
Wearing a face mask is actually peculiarly disorientating. Although I am getting more used to it now, when the practice was first introduced, nearly a year ago, I found myself wobbling and staggering as I walked. (I assure you that it was nothing to do with the home-made gin!). I still cannot really explain this, except that it must have something to do with feeling air movement on the face or something… it was most odd!
As mentioned earlier, echo-location seems to be one of those things that I’ve discovered I’m doing without realizing. Orientation by bounced sound it seems is another skill we humans have without knowing it. I’ve found myself on occasion walking a route that has become very familiar. Even on a very bad eyes day, I know exactly where I am by the sound of my own footsteps.
A really good example of this is the towpath in Wolverhampton. We spent our first Covid lockdown by the top of the Wolverhampton 21 locks. So, my ‘daily constitutional’ walk was limited to one of three routes along the towpath; down the lock flight and back again, or the other way, away from the locks where there was a choice of two branches of the canal system.
On occasion, it is nice to be able to go out alone and to be ‘normal’; to walk on super-familiar territory without a white cane, which I still feel draws unwelcome looks and attention sometimes. It probably sounds a little odd, but, just once in a while, to not be ‘that blind woman’ rattling along is truly to be treasured. To simply blend in and just ‘be’ is wonderful. So, sometimes, I would take Ozzie for a walkies on one of the two branch routes and be just an ordinary dog walker.
On a good eyes day, in good light, I felt safe enough to do it and I really enjoyed it! What I discovered was that I was subconsciously knowing my whereabouts on the route by the sound of my footsteps and/or Ozzie’s little jingling bells on his harness, bouncing back to me from the surface, or lack of, beside me. I would always walk carefully on the edge of the wide towpath furthest from the water. (I did have some semblance of sensibility!). A variety of walls, hedges, open grassy areas, chain-link fencing and security fencing (the chunky vertical metal spike things often around industrial sites) bounded that side.
Each of these barriers gave a very different audio feedback. Each of these also varied according to weather conditions; particularly wind. Perhaps the most notably remarkable of these was the industrial security fence rails; with the right air conditions, it is possible to ‘hear’ every single stake in that fence! The sound has a sort of vibrato effect as it bounces off the railings but travels through the gaps. A white cane also gives audio feedback from surrounding surfaces in the same way.
When walking, I cannot often tell what surface I am treading by sight. Unless I stand still and peer closely at it, the ground will generally be a simple blur of the general colour of its surface (black tarmac, grey slabs, brown earth etc).
Looking at the ground has become an automatic bad habit. This may be because I hate the concept of tripping or stumbling. So, even though I can’t actually see much of use, the instinct to ‘watch where I’m walking’ is very strong. In good light, on a good eyes day, I will notice the change in colour if I stray from tarmac to grass, for example. However, on a bad eyes day or in poor light, I have no such visual information. The sound of my footsteps and the feel of the surface underfoot very often gives me a far better picture of where I am going.
Sense and Sensibility and Beyond
There is another aspect to my Blind Vision that is little to do with the physical side of sight. It is about spiritual inner vision: the way that God speaks to me through vision. That will be the topic of another blog.