'Extra-sensory' perception: a question of access
Reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation for my book commentary for this course, I came across an interesting passage in which Grandin notes that on a very basic level, human beings and animals have the same kinds of brain cells—the same neurons—we just use them differently. Grandin concludes, “That means that theoretically we could have extreme perception the way animals do if we figured out how to use the sensory processing cells in our brains the way animals do” (63). She goes on to recount a story of one of her students who is severely dyslexic but has such acute auditory perception that she can hear radios that are “turned off”—that is, she can perceive the radio waves being received by the radio, even if the radio itself is not playing. From this, Grandin deduces that those with frontal lobe problems—autistic people, dyslexic people, etc.—are more able to access the kinds of sensory perception available to animals, including extra-sensitive vision and hearing. For the rest of us, the frontal lobes get in the way—as the source of our specific I-functions, our consciousness, they block our access to those heightened modes of perception.
Reading this passage, I wondered how this process worked. How is it that (non-autistic, etc.) human consciousness, the very thing that makes us human, also deadens our access to sensory perception? Or, more broadly, what is the relationship between perception and our perception of our perception—perception itself, and our consciousness of it? Grandin cites a story from Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to offer her own explanation of this phenomenon. I own Sacks’ book, so I thought I’d turn to the story myself, before looking for other examples.
The story in question is called “The Dog Beneath the Skin.” In it, Sacks describes meeting a 22-year-old medical student who, after an amphetamine binge, dreamed he was a dog and experienced, in his dream, all the unimaginable smells that dogs smell every day. Upon waking, however, he found that the smells were still there. For the next three weeks, his world was greatly enhanced: he could recognize people he knew by smell, he found that there was “a whole aesthetic, a hole judgment, a whole new significance, which surrounded him,” Sacks writes. “It was a world overwhelmingly concrete, of particulars, a world overwhelming in immediacy, in immediate significance,” the student says. After three weeks, it was gone, but for that brief time, it seems to me, the student had accessed that part of the brain that we share with dogs and other animals—that part capable of unbelievably rich olfactory perception—but that is somehow inaccessible to most of us in our daily lives.
Searching the Internet, I found an article documenting a somewhat similar effect on the visual spectrum. In “Vision gets better with the right mind-set,” Bruce Bower outlines a study done by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer that showed that people who were “experimentally induced to believe they could see especially well” in fact did experience enhanced vision, enhancements that went far beyond conscious factors such as alertness or motivation to focus on particular visual subjects. Accordingly, those participants who believed they could improve their eyesight with practice saw better than those who didn’t think such improvements were possible. Bower writes, “Langer’s new findings build on long-standing evidence that visual perception depends not just on relaying information from the eyes to the brain but on experience-based assumptions about what can be seen in particular situations.”
I remember in high school, I had a friend who claimed to have rid himself of his need for eyeglasses through eye exercises he had found online. Langer’s experiment suggests, according to Bower, that if such exercises seem to work for some people, “it’s not because of any physical effect on the eyes or the brain,” but rather due to those people’s increased belief that vision can be improved that way. This article is not the same as the phenomenon Sacks and Grandin describe, but what they have in common is the idea that perception is not simply a question of biology—rather, it is inextricably bound to our perceived perceptive abilities.
Grandin offers another example that more definitely establishes this fact. She describes experiments done by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock that show that people receive perception data of which they are consciously unaware. Mack and Rock asked subjects to report “which arm of a cross that flashed onto a computer screen for about two hundred milliseconds was longer” (65-66), Grandin writes. At the same time, however, Mack and Rock flashed words like “grace” or “flake” on the screen, too. Subjects didn’t notice the words—they were looking at the crosses—but Mack and Rock showed that they had, in fact, seen the words. Giving them just the first three letters of the words—“gra” and “fla”—Mack and Rock saw that thirty six percent of subjects identified the words from the screen, compared to just four percent in a control group that had not been shown the words on the screen.
So why is it that we seem often to be unaware of this kind of sensory information? As Grandin explains, it comes back to the frontal lobes and the way people experience perception. Most people, she writes, “can’t consciously experience the raw data, only the schema their brains create out of the raw data” (65). Our frontal lobes get in the way, screening out that raw data to provide us with a more coherent and simple schema of the world. Animals, who have comparatively smaller frontal lobes, could never have the jump in perception that the subjects of Langer’s studies experienced—for them, perception is simpler, just data. For us, consciousness acts as a filter, and in order to see the world the way animals, the way some autistic people, do, we need to get around that filter one way or another—through drugs, through injury to the frontal lobe, or through consciously modifying our own expectations about our perception.
Bower, Bruce. "Vision Gets Better With The Right Mind-set." ScienceNews. 27 April 2010.
Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. 1970. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998.
Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Harcourt Books, 2005.