Today, we look at the mind beyond the brain. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Diane Ackerman's book,
The Natural History of the Senses,
takes us on a trip into unsettling territory:
... the mind doesn't really dwell in the brain
[she says] but travels the whole body on caravans
of hormone and enzyme, ... making sense of the
compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste,
smell, hearing, vision.
She asks us to imagine living in full contact with
our senses -- leads us through the gamut of
physical contact with external reality. It's less
natural history than it is consciousness raising.
She recites a vast inventory of case histories of
sensate experience. And I realize how impoverished
most of us let ourselves be, as we underuse those
senses. She describes
... crisp foods like carrots [with] little taste
but lots of noise and mouth action. Coca-Cola,
[with its] intense sweetness, caffeine, and prickly
feeling against the nose ... was first marketed as
a mouthwash in 1888.
We let ourselves be numb to so much. Now this
terrible invitation to engage sense fully. What
excesses lurk in there?
Ackerman looks at Rodin's statue the Kiss and
savors the total sensate engagement of two people
lost in one another. She quotes Rilke: "Here was
desire immeasureable, thirst so great that all the
waters of the world dried in it like a single
drop." That kind of intensity threatens our steady
But remember Ackerman's other theme: "The mind
doesn't really dwell in the brain." She tells how
touching newborn children teaches them the
difference between I and other. That says far less
about the senses than it does about the intellect.
She makes the fusion of mind and sense explicit
when she talks about synesthesia -- that odd
process where one sense feeds another. When you
hear an old tune you might taste jam or smell a
perfume. Authors and artists learn to tap those
"Picasso walked in the forests of Fontainbleau
where he got an overwhelming 'indigestion of
greenness,'" she tells us. Auden drank tea. D.H.
Lawrence climbed naked into a mulberry tree. Dame
Edith Sitwell prepared to write by lying in an open
You may think you journey only tentatively into the
realm of the senses. But when Ackerman tells this
power of association, it's clear there is no place
to live free of that realm.
Which of us doesn't use the senses to break loose
from verbal thought and see through things? I walk
the dog or sit alone in the lunchroom -- reach for
the smells that only dogs know, savor food and
murmuring voices at other tables. Who knows what
psychic triggers those things pull? But pull them
they do! I always do best when I listen to the mind
that doesn't dwell entirely in the brain. And so
too, I'll bet -- do you.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds