Sensory Design-title

Sep/Oct 2010 cover    Our cover picture for this month reminds us of the beautiful season we are currently enjoying, especially those of us who live in a place where the change is as extreme as it is here in Michigan. Before long we will be experiencing snow and temperatures well below freezing, and this period before the cold is one of great beauty and change.
    The colors of the leaves are not the only indicator that we enjoy. I have a blind friend who talks about loving fall. His sense of fall is that there is a whole new variety of sounds — leaves crunching, wind blowing through the trees, birds of all kinds sending out unusual sounds as they head to their winter quarters. He talks about the smells of fall, uniquely different from those of spring and summer which he also finds to be appealing. Another comment he has made is that he can feel a difference in the touch of things — even of the air itself. The humidity is lower and leaves and grass have a different, brittle feel to them. He made a comment about what he called “the ultimate fall sense.” When I asked what it was, he looked up from his pumpkin pie and held up a piece on the end of his fork and just smiled.
pumpkin pie    We frequently talk about man’s senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste — and take for granted our capacity to experience these senses. We all recognize that most of these sensations play a role in our survival. Taste can often tell us when something is good to eat and when it is not. Seeing a dangerous object can aid our survival. But senses go far beyond survival; they also bring us pleasure and an understanding of our environment. Our capacity to taste does not just tell us whether or not something is rotten. It also gives us a variety of sensations that are not survival oriented, but bring us flavor. A fish eats without concern as to what spice has been used or what the texture of the food is. We humans find flavor enjoyable, and we have whole industries based on flavor. Salt can bring us critical minerals like iodine or potassium, but Jesus talked about salt losing its savor (Matthew 5:13) and He was not talking about its mineral content.
    We all know that sound can be a warning device, but we also know that sound in the form of music has a very different function. When you hear a cardinal singing in a tree near your house, you may be tempted to think that he is welcoming the day or trying to impress humans with his beautiful song. The fact is, the cardinal is warning another male to stay out of the area and away from his mate — or else. My mother used to have a canary that sang like crazy every time he heard a recording of Bing Crosby singing a particular song. She would talk to the bird like it was a fellow human asking it if it wanted “to hear Bing.” One day I brought an audio oscillator home to work on a science project. I found that every time I hit middle C with two harmonics added, the bird began singing like he did with Bing. I later found that the sound was at the frequency of a particular insect that was the bird’s main food in its natural environment.
girl with flower    Even our capacity to smell goes far beyond the survival issues of animals. Animals use scent for a variety of purposes. Our understandings of pheromones has expanded greatly in the past 50 years. We have learned that animals convey messages about territory, food, and mates by laying down chemicals with distinct smells that can be interpreted by other members of the species. The use of smell to find food is used by many animals. In humans, smell combines with taste to give us flavor. The nose being placed just above the mouth is no accident. It is what gives us the capacity to enjoy flavor. We enjoy perfume, cologne, flowers, and even have sexual pleasure all because of smell. In a similar way, touch goes far beyond survival and brings us all kinds of security and pleasures of many kinds.
    What is required for all of this to be true? How is man unique in his capacity to enjoy those things that are not just survival issues? The equipment that enables us and our animals to hear, smell, taste, touch, and see is very similar. In all of us, that equipment is incredibly complex. All animals have the capacity to sense light. Not all of us see the same kind of light. Rattlesnakes see infrared which our eyes cannot detect. That ability enables them to see warm-blooded prey in the dark. The equipment to detect the infrared is similar to what enables us to see visible light. All living things have the capacity to sense sound. Most of us know that our sound-sensing equipment detects (hears) frequencies of 20 to 20,000 Hertz. We also know that dogs can hear frequencies above 20,000 Hertz, called ultrasonic sounds, dish of dried materialthat we cannot hear. Whales can hear frequencies below 20 Hertz. They can communicate over long distances in the ocean by using these low frequencies, called infrasonic sound, which we cannot hear. Fish and snakes hear through lateral slits instead of ears like we have, but in all cases there are devices that convert the longitudinal waves of sound into transverse waves of electricity so that they can be interpreted by some kind of a brain.
    What is unique in humans is not the mechanism that detects the sense, or even how it is converted to an electric wave. What is unique is how we apply and use the information the sense brings string instrumentus. My mentally challenged son with an IQ of less than 50 can identify virtually any perfume that comes within 20 feet of him. One of our favorite stories about Tim, involves an airplane trip. After we were seated Tim commented that someone was wearing a certain perfume I had never heard of, which was very rare and expensive. A woman five rows up heard this and turned and told Tim that she was in fact wearing that perfume. She told us she was a cosmetic dealer and had never met an American who knew what it was. Tim could identify ten perfumes on that plane, but knew that this particular one was different and exotic and expensive.
    How is it that music can be a major influence on us? In 1 Samuel 16:23 we read that Saul was relieved of his distress by the playing of music. This goes beyond survival or warning Mother and childothers. Sexual pleasure has very little to do with reproduction. In the Bible we find repeated references to the need of humans to enjoy the sensual experiences that God has built into the marriage relationship (see 1 Corinthians 7:1 – 5 and Proverbs 5:18 – 20 in reference to women’s breasts). Hugs in the animal kingdom may offer warmth or protection, but in mankind hugs convey a fulfillment of a psychological need. The death of my wife Phyllis brought many anxieties to me, but the realization I might never be hugged again as she hugged me was probably the most traumatic.
    Sociobiologists attempt to give mechanical explanations to all of these things — usually in evolutionary theories. When you look at both the physics of our senses and the unique way that we as praying handshumans use and interpret these sensations, there is evidence that it is carefully designed and orchestrated to give us ultimate joy and pleasure.
    Enjoy the fall, savor the spring, and most of all enjoy the love and emotional needs that our beautifully designed senses help us experience. God designed them, told us how to best enjoy them, and tells us to appreciate them. As David wrote, “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well” (Psalm 139:14, KJV).
--John N. Clayton

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