This semester, I’m sitting in on a class on the senses in early modern Europe– sight, taste, touch, smell, sound.  Science now recognizes more than 5 senses, having added such senses as balance, kinesthetics, temperature, and more senses of touch than just one.   In the early modern period it can be (and has been) argued that sight and hearing were not the privileged senses they are in our contemporary culture.  Smell, taste, and touch enjoyed a higher standing amongst sensory perceptions.

But that got me thinking again about the privileging of sight and sound in our present society, especially in popular culture.  As I watch AE play with toys and watch movies, I notice how integral sight and, secondarily, sound are.  Baby toys are a bit more egalitarian– they are more tactile at least, if not more tasty (though a drooling teething baby might disagree).  But think about how important it is to us to be able to see  in order to enjoy or to understand.  How such cultural sites as museums and monuments depend on sight:  what’s the point of the Washington Monument or of the Lincoln Memorial, if not to be gazed on in awe?  I think most people would say that sight would be the last sense they’d choose to lose, if they had to.  But think how important smell is to taste– indeed, how each sense overlaps and enriches the other.  How would our ability to taste be compromised if we could not smell?  As one classmember pointed out, hearing is not some disembodied sense, but it relies on the material vibrations of the eardrums to function.

When one is thinking about the senses and sensory perception in the past, and the experiences of the past in general, we find that it is really difficult to reproduce such transitory experiences such as smell and taste.  In period films they often do a great job of recreating the visuals and sounds of a past culture (I’m thinking of Shakespeare in Love, in particular, or in more recent history the recreations of D-Day in films like Saving Private Ryan, which many vets described as uncannily accurate, missing only the stench).  What if movie theaters, in addition to providing surround-sound, provided scents to go along with the film?  How would the stench of blood in war films disturb our senses?  What if musems let you taste and touch the past, or at least our recreations of the past?  One guy in this class I’m auditing spoke of visiting a Viking museum in York, England, which featured sample rooms or marketplaces from Viking times, with things to touch (rope, pelts, wood) and smell (fire, meat, apples).  The professor, who works on smell in particular, spoke of a dinosaur exhibit that employed the expertise of a team of scientists in order to simulate the smell of dinosaur-breath (a mixture of grasses and leaves, rotting meat, dirt) that so frightened and disgusted visitors that it was changed to a mild scent of fresh grass, effectively turning a carnivorous dinosaur into a vegetarian.

What is the one sense you couldn’t live without?

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