Reflections Part 2

Reflections on how we come to know the natural world and strengthen our relationship with it

by Michelle Kelly

May 2010

Human Sense

“Nothing is more indisputable than our senses." - Jean le Rond d'Alembert, French mathematician, mechanician, physicist and philosopher (16 November 1717 – 29 October 1783)

Human Senses Our Five Senses, image courtesy of Image Zoo Illustrations

Our senses are our connectors to the world. They are the mechanisms that reveal the conditions and situations that may harm us or bring us benefit. At the most basic level, our senses perform critical survival functions. It’s human sense that we pay attention to them, and trust them.

In pre-school we learn that we have five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing that enable us to register sensations from the outside world.

In addition to sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, we are considered to have at least six additional senses that register sensations from inside our bodies include: nociception (pain), equilibrioception (balance), proprioception & kinaesthesia (joint motion and acceleration), sense of time, thermoception (temperature differences), with possibly an additional weak magnetoception (direction).

We sense hunger when we experience a lack of food, thirst when there is a disconnection from water, and suffocation when our lungs do not get enough oxygen. We can say we have a sense of intuition, a sense of justice, a nature sense, and even extrasensory perception. In The World Peace University Field Guide to CONNECTING WITH NATURE: Creating Moments that Let Earth Teach, author Michael J. Cohen describes 64 different senses, or connectors.

Many references list between 9 and 21 human senses, depending on who you might ask, and how one might define a “sense”. We can say that for something to qualify as a “sense” a distinct sense organ must be associated with it, each sense organ consisting of specialized cells that have receptors for specific stimuli. And we can require that a sensory structure’s primary source of information should be physical stimuli originating from outside the brain. Still we may not agree on how many senses we have.

Our senses translate stimuli from environments outside and inside our bodies into signals. Our senses have receptor cells that link to the nervous system and transmit the signals to a relay station (the thalamus) in the brain where they are further processed.

If we stop to think about it, despite not having a clear idea of how many kinds of senses we have, they are continually sending a huge number of signals to our brains, all at once! How many of these signals are you aware of at this very moment?

Perception and emotion

“The range of what we think and do, is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change - until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” - R. D. Laing

We are not aware of the work the relay station is doing: processing the myriad of signals from our senses. Thankfully, this happens in our subconscious brains and our conscious minds are spared he overwhelming and impossible chore of trying to pay attention to all of this sensory information. We are free to focus on tending to the important tasks at hand.

Under the radar of our awareness the relay station sifts out the “important” sensory signals filtering out other “less important” sensations, while simultaneously communicating with multiple parts of the brain at one time, making value judgments, banning solving other problems, maintaining our focus on a specific sensation, shifting our attention to other sensations, and sending the important stuff on to the part of the brain that joins together information from all the senses, creating a representation of what we are seeing, smelling, tasting hearing, feeling and/or otherwise sensing.

Perception Vs Reality
Dog Catching a Ball? from
Did you happen to see that gorilla in the room?

In 1781, Immanuel Kant, the famous philosopher, proposed that our knowledge of the world depends on our modes of perception. Still in the subconscious, our representations and perceptions of the realities of the world are translated and colored through the unique emotional memories of our past experiences. Emotions permit us to experience fear, disgust, joy, surprise, sadness, or threat and are our primary survival tools. As such, they receive neurological message priority and for expediency, we often unconsciously react to them. 

Once we have a representation of the signals our brain links what we are experiencing with what we “already know” about it or with how we “felt” about it from memory. Emotions enable the subconscious brain to interpret, arrange, direct, and summarize the information we receive through the senses. The process of attaining conscious understanding of sensory information is perception.

Behavior and emotion

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.” - Gregory Bateson (9 May 1904 – 4 July 1980) British anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected many other fields.

Emotions also influence our decisions and actions, and learning, from the subconscious. In her book, Molecules of Emotions, Dr. Candace Pert wrote: “To a greater or lesser extent, the first ways in which the world has made sense to us continue to underpin our whole subsequent experience and actions.” Much our personal, social and environmental problems result out of our misperceived disconnection from the natural world. Our actions are our thoughts and feelings laid bare.

The Pulitzer Prizewinning Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, observes that "Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world, " and there is an growing body of research from the relatively new field of positive psychology that reveals a person's ability to effectively think, and learn and act is closely linked to physical and emotional well-being

There may be something to be said for the vision of a culture in better emotional balance.


"The laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive." - Henry David Thoreau

In his book “Coming to our Senses”, Jon Kabat-Zin, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School notes, “We are not fragmented in our being. In fact, body, thought, and emotion are intimately blended through complex nerve networks, and function in concert to shape our awareness, shape our knowing of the world, and our participation in it from moment to moment. That we do not recognize this is merely a measure of our alienation from the natural world and from our own feeling body.” We are never not connected to nature... we are just not noticing.

Mindfulness is defined as calm awareness of one's body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself. Mindfulness is also referred to as being the trait of staying aware of (paying close attention to) your responsibilities.

“Mindfulness is like a parachute, it slows things down so you can notice more. It can not only change our lives, but the very structure of our brains.” ~Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind can Heal the Heart by teacher, author, and psychotherapist Tara Bennet-Goleman, M.A.

Imagine opening up more opportunities for your learners to engage in genuine self-reflection and self-awareness of their own human nature: through cognitive intelligence, and with emotional intelligence. They might start to recognize the “nature” in their nature, feel more at home in nature, and want to spend more time outside in nature! They might also awaken to their own beauty, unique strengths, and potential in this universe to make their best possible contributions in creating lifestyles that are truly sustainable in the long-term ecological sense.

Is it the ability to recognize the mismatch between the ways in which we currently perceive and fulfill our needs and wants - and the natural processes that drive and maintain ecological integrity, and humanity within the human nature of every child?

Trusting in human nature means we acknowledge our body-mind-emotion-nature connection without anxiety, and with freedom. It means engaging kids through their senses in the fullness and joy of mindfully inhabiting their own inner nature - holistically, secure in the harmony of their interconnection and interdependence with all of nature. Connecting with students through this trust can ignite a contagious hope motivating and sustaining positive, creative action that launches kids on a kind of transformational journey of awakening - their sensitivities tuned to meaning and purpose in their daily lives, and to becoming personally responsible for their own development, and their own actions – from the inside-out.

The rest will surely come.

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