There are times, don’t you find, when pondering seemingly mindless questions are entertaining rather teleological -they serve no purpose whatsoever, except, perhaps to fill otherwise empty time. But are the answers to senseless questions necessarily meaningless, or is that not the point? Can context be a prison?
My father once told me that answers are everywhere -it’s the questions to which they are the answers that we have to find; they are like doors along a corridor. The difficulty, he said, was in finding the appropriate questions: the right keys to open the doors that had been locked. So I like to think I approach questions a little differently. I was reminded of this by an essay in an edition of the Conversation written by Harriet Dempsey-Jones, a Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neurosciences, UCL: https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-best-sense-scientists-are-still-battling-it-out-113598
What is the best sense, she asks? And how would you ever be able to answer that without being deprived of it? Of course, even then, the loss would only be in comparison with the situation before its disappearance. So is the question even meaningful?
I have to say that her question rather caught me by surprise, though; I don’t think I’ve ever wondered about which sense is the best -I kind of enjoy them all, to tell the truth. I obviously treasure vision, but I also really enjoy touching and being touched. I like the fact that I can balance and stand on my feet under what I would consider trying circumstances -I would hate to think of a life spent needing to depend on visual cues and have to hang on to things, or end up splotted on my back if I blinked at the wrong time. You see the problem? Somatosensation had a big influence on my peri-pubertal development -I mean, what good are hormones if you can’t feel them, let alone allow them full scope at that age?
I’d miss Beethoven too, if hearing were snatched from my ears, or wherever: (Beethoven was born on my birthday, so I feel I owe him something for the notoriety I’ve always milked from it), and I’d especially miss Rachmaninoff and my ability to spell his name, even with my eyes closed. Watching a silent symphony, or peeking at a keyboard -even an occupied one- just wouldn’t be the same. So…
The author goes on to describe other problems that might result if you get on the bad side of one of the senses by not choosing it for gold: ‘Many foodies might think that taste gets their vote for top sense. However, those who have tried eating after dental anaesthetic can attest to the risks and difficulties of eating without Somatosensation’.
She also touches on (sorry) touch, in this protean struggle for supremacy: ‘Touch forms a core part of our humanity. It is the first sense to develop in a fetus in utero, and some suggest the integration of sensations related to the body may form the basis of our fundamental self-consciousness.’
Vision, however, has a lot of cards up its sleeve. ‘The primary brain area for processing visual stimuli, the visual cortex, takes up the largest area of any individual sense… The high reliability of vision means that if there is a conflict between what two senses say, vision will typically warp our final perception to be in line with the visual information.’ In other words, people may choose vision over other senses because we’re more aware of what we see than what the somatosensory system provides for us in the background.
Finally, Dempsey-Jones gets to the subject of smell -not to what other people might perceive about us undeodoranted, but what the sense actually does for us. ‘… smell is a form of chemoreception which is thought to have been the first “sense” to evolve in our early multicellular ancestors. Smell is the only sense that bypasses our brain’s sensory relay system – going straight to the cortex for processing.’ Straight to the amygdala, actually, so it is associated with emotions, and in fact is what allows both mother and baby to recognize each other in a crowd -if thronging should ever be a problem in a nursery, I suppose. It’s obviously good to have a backup plan -just in case.
But you know, I’m glad they don’t allow nepotism anywhere near the sensorium: we’d all end up the poorer. In a government forced to trim down its cabinet, nobody’d probably vote for Smell because, well, we’d save on deodorants, and I suspect that, in a pinch, taste would also get a rather small portfolio if Vision were in charge -because vision is like that, eh? The Somatosensorium would be stripped to the bone and there’d likely be a push for more eyes.
And yet, with all these seemingly mindless counterfactuals swirling around, I think I know how my father would react.
“You’re wondering what sense would -or should- win Gold?” he’d say.
And I’d nod, wondering how he was going to solve the highly unlikely conundrum.
“So, really, you’ve just stated the answer.” And when I’d look confused, he’d explain. “The sense that wins the game is what the game is all about, correct? It’s the answer to some sort of question about preference…”
Again a nod.
“You still have to look for the right question -the key that opens that particular door.”
I would continue to look puzzled -my father was a hard taskmaster. “Uhmm… But the game’s only over when the answer is decided, dad. When you have the answer…”
“And the question that fits the answer you already have, is what?”
“What is the best sense…?”
“Well, would you allow me to re-word the question as “Under what circumstances would only one sense be the answer?” He would stare at me hopefully, and I would probably shrug. I mean, that sounds like a reasonable rewording. It still manages to encapsulate the issue.
His stare would continue. “And so…?”
“You’re asking me what circumstances…?” He would nod, patiently and probably smile.
“I… Well, I don’t…” I would sigh -what else is there? “I can’t think of any, actually…”
He would reach over and pinch my cheek -my father was a cheek-guy- “Neither can I,” he’d say. “There’s nothing behind that door.” And his smile would broaden to fill his whole face -he could actually do that sometimes. “So if there’s no answer behind the door, there’s no key…”
“But, if there’s a door, I’d still like to open it… You know, just to see what’s behind it…”
Then he’d probably put his arm around me, and say, proudly, “That’s my son!”
My childhood was like that…