Sunday, June 25, 2017

Phenomena: Secrets of the Senses

Book Review: Phenomena: Secrets of the Senses – by Donna M. Jackson (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008)

This Big Lots find was fun to read. It covers both sensory phenomena and extra-sensory phenomena. It is timely and nicely illustrated. It explores neurological and psychological phenomena as well.

She tells the story of Ian Waterman, a man who due to a rare illness lost tactile sensations from his head down – he lost his sense of proprioception. He had to retrain himself through vision to move his body parts and is the only of ten people in the world with this condition to retrain himself to walk. 

Senses help us navigate the world. We are familiar with the five senses but up to 21 have been identified, including senses of hunger, thirst, balance, fatigue, gut pressure, bladder pressure, and senses that adjust heartbeat and measure oxygen and carbon dioxide blood levels. We begin exploring the world through our senses while in the womb. Jillyn Smith, in her book Senses and Sensibilities, noted that hearing the paired sound of the heartbeat while in the womb may be why babies begin words with double sounds like ‘da-da’ and ‘ma-ma.’ 

A perception is a sensation combined with an interpretation of its meaning. What we perceive is also influenced by our cultural conditioning. How our sensory systems work is still mysterious even though our knowledge of neuroscience has grown. The brain fills in hidden parts of our visual system and likely other sensory systems as well. 

People with unusual medical conditions also teach us about neuroscience. Capras syndrome is condition where people lose emotional connections with others – they might think a family member is an imposter because they feel no emotional connection to them. Perceptions are shaped not only by sensory information but also by how that information is processed and interpreted. 

The mind-boggling placebo effect (and nocebo effect) is explored. The powerful aspects of the effect suggest that the mind-body interface is relevant to pain perception and that the power of expectation is very real and potentially useful.

Our senses are excited by novelty and change. Our senses also filter and distort. They are limited to the spectrum ranges we have evolved to experience. Filtering keeps out irrelevant “noise” so that we can focus on the sensory input relevant to our survival. 

She next delves into the “sixth sense” involving psychic and paranormal phenomena. Many people believe in the existence of ghosts and ESP. Prophetic visions are extolled and examined. Much parapsychology is fraudulent but there are places where scientific experiments have been and are carried out. Sometimes statistically relevant results are obtained in favor of ESP. One study suggested that infra-sound, sound pitched lower than the human threshold to hear it, could be one explanation for perceived haunted places – either the place projects infra-sound and/or the ability to hear it is enhanced in a heightened state.

Animal super-senses have been suggested for the fact that animals can sense earthquakes and tsunamis before they happen and flee to safety. Catfish have been observed to jump and twist before earthquakes and this likely informed a Japanese legend of a giant catfish that creates earthquakes. Migratory birds navigate by the earth’s magnetic field. Bats use their own type of SONAR to map their surroundings. Rattlesnakes sense body heat. Dogs and other animals hear high-pitched ultrasonic sound, and other animals and insects see into the infrared or ultraviolet relative to us. There is some evidence that responding to unusual animal behavior in regards to earthquakes, combined with the presence of small tremors called foreshocks, can be used to evacuate people as one successful case in China showed. Some scientists think that the animals are actually responding to low frequency infrasounds associated with thunderstorms and earthquakes. They could also be sensing actual ground vibrations or even electrical signals from certain rock types. Sharks may respond to changes in barometric pressure by moving to deeper water to avoid incoming large tropical storms. Dogs have acute keen smelling abilities and can detect cancer in humans by smell. More research is needed to determine what chemicals the dogs are detecting. This may one day lead to accurate cancer detection via a breathalyzer-type device. 

Our mind has two facets: conscious and unconscious. With the conscious facet we can reason. The unconscious facet can likely be utilized through our intuitive faculties. Psychologist Seymour Epstein says that intuition is simply what we have learned unconsciously, without realizing it. Author Malcolm Gladwell thinks we develop intuition through ‘rapid cognition’ or ‘thin-slicing’ bits of experiences that we analyze unconsciously for patterns. It is perhaps a survival mechanism to evaluate potentially dangerous situations. We also stereotype, for good or ill, in order to evaluate. We make generalizations based on environmental and behavioral clues. Intuition, however, is not always accurate. Psychologist David G. Myers notes that we may overemphasize feelings and ignore more rational analysis and thus many people hold more or less unconscious prejudices. He also says intuitions shape many of our fears, some quite irrational. Gladwell notes that the success of intuition (through rapid cognition pattern recognition) depends on our ability to train it and follow logical rules. Psychologist Gary Klein notes that past experiences shape our ability to respond quickly and accurately to new situations. 

Coincidences can be eerie and fascinating. Likelihoods of occurrence can be predicted mathematically. 

“Coincidences happen when two or more unusual events occur at about the same time and “by chance are related to each other by some kind of noticeable similarity” wrote psychotherapist Robert H. Hopcke.”

Hopcke also said that ‘synchronicity’ occurs when a coincidental event has special meaning to someone, typically in an emotional and symbolic way. How we view coincidence and synchronicity often depends on our own background. Coincidences are paradoxical in that causal connections seem to appear when logically there are none. In science coincidences are often used to discover hidden causes. We and scientists look for coincidental events specifically in order to predict future occurrences. On the other hand coincidences can also lead to increases in superstitious beliefs and behaviors.

There is clear evidence for accurate ‘precognitive dreams’ where what happens in the dream then happens in waking life nearly identically. Freud distinguished the conscious and unconscious minds and thought that dreams served as outlets for repressed fears and desires. Jung defined the idea of the ‘collective unconscious’ and considered that dreams included some universal symbols and experiences that all people share unconsciously. Psychologist G. William Domhoff thinks that we dream of hopes, fears, future events, and unfinished business. Dream expert Gayle Delaney notes that dreams often involve relationships with other people, survival, and solving problems. Some see dreams as psychological adaptation while others see them as random biological events and brain signals that stir memories and emotions through creating narratives. Clearly there are both neurobiological and psychological aspects to dreams. Psychologist Rosalind Cartwright notes that “finding the emotional link between images is the key to decoding the dream.” Dr. Robert Stickgold and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School (among others) think that dreams play a role in learning and memory. When we are working hard to learn something new we often dream about it. Cartwright also gives some advice for remembering dreams: wake without an alarm clock, stay still on waking, keep eyes closed while reviewing dream, give dream a title, and then write it down. After a while patterns may emerge and one might discover one’s own dream language.

Synesthesia is when people experience senses differently. They may see music or hear colors. Typically, two or more senses are coupled. By some estimates up to about 4% may experience some form of synesthesia. Half of those experience several forms. Some see it as blended senses. According to Dr. Richard Cytowic the clinical characteristics of synesthesia include: 1) involuntary and automatic, 2) consistent and generic, 3) memorable. Synesthesia is typically established in childhood. Synesthetes say it helps with memory but can be occasionally be frustrating when there are conflicting associations from the outside world. Most find the condition highly pleasurable and some integrate it with artistic pursuits. Neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard have determined that color and number-shape areas of the brain which are adjacent become cross-linked physically or chemically. Since synesthesia often runs in families there is thought to be a genetic component for the linkage too. That connection may be related to early brain wiring and pruning – the genes may prevent early wiring to be pruned out as the brain develops and matures. This is the proposal of one theory – Ramachandran and Hubbard’s ‘Cross-Activation Model of Synesthesia.’ Ramachandran also notes that we are all synesthetes to some degree and thinks “it’s possible that artistic people have extra connections between brain regions that allow them to associate concepts more easily than others.” Their use of metaphors and imagination may aid the associations. In their experiment where they gave two shapes and two names where one shape had sharp jagged edges and the other rounded edges and where one name was “kiki” and the other “bouba” about 98% of people paired kiki with the jagged shape and vice versa. 

Turkish blind artist Esref Armagan has the ability to accurately paint what he touches despite having been (presumably) blind since birth. He can utilize perspective from multiple angles. He was taught through words how shadows worked. He draws on a raised line surface so he can feel what he has drawn while he continues to draw. He draws with his fingers with fast-drying acrylic paints. He has mastered three-part perspective. A few drawings are reproduced in this book and they are quite nice. fMRI studies have discovered that Esref activates the visual parts of his brain even though he has never utilized them for actual vision. He is able to transfer – to draw shapes accurately simply by feeling them. Such ‘sensory substitution’ is made possible by the plasticity of the brain.
Peter Meijer, a research physicist from the Netherlands, developed a method of converting video images into complex sounds. His system is called vOICe. Through the system a blind person can train in utilizing the sounds to activate their visual system. A woman blinded in a chemical accident twenty years previously was able to get very good results. More portable mobile versions of the system now allow the woman to “see” with a webcam and a boom microphone. Through further training she can now make out more distant features and even though her ‘vision’ is vague and without much detail she does seem to see and feels her experience is much enriched.

There is a condition known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, first described by A. Jean Ayres in the 1960’s where their sensory inputs may be over-experienced or under-experienced (hyper or hypo). General sensory integration is mainly a quality of life issue and those with the condition identified in childhood can learn to cope and improve their sensory integration through sensory therapy.
Phantom Limb Syndrome is quite common among amputees. It is often painful and frustrating but it also keeps memory of limb capabilities handy so that the ability to utilize artificial limbs is enhanced. People born without limbs also sense their limbs but without the pain experienced by amputees. This suggests that limb manipulation is hardwired. It seems that the brain develops sensory maps of our limbs and when the limb is gone and there is no new sensory information the brain alters its sensory map of connections to the limb. Ramachandran also worked in this area and found some sensory substitution of adjacent areas of the brain as in one case where touching a part of a patient’s face made the person feel he was touching the thumb of his amputated limb. This was verified through brain imaging. Cross-wiring of sensory connections can trick a person. Ramachandran wanted to find out if the reverse was true – whether rewiring could lead to relief from phantom limb pain. He devised an experiment with a sideways mirror in a cardboard box positioned where the limb would be in order to provide visual feedback. This worked fairly well and is currently being further developed. Training with the set-up is a requirement, apparently for the re-wiring. A loss of sensory signals as well as a lack of motor feedback may cause phantom limb pain. Mirror-box research also has led to other ways to trick the brain. Robot-arm experiments where a robot-arm provides realistic visual feedback has shown that one can become ‘embodied’ in the robot. Such ‘embodied cognition’ can inform our ideas about how sensory consciousness works. Such virtual reality techniques have been termed ‘telepresence.’

Vestibular system damage due to infection can lead to a condition where a person cannot even stand without support. Neuroscientist and orthopedist Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita developed a sensory substitution technology based on touch called the Tongue Display Unit (TDU) that involves hundreds of electrodes delivering impulses to the tongue in order for people with vestibular problems to regain their balancing capabilities. Again it is brain plasticity that allows it to succeed. The device is now known as BrainPort. The tongue offers a cosmetically hidden, chemically stable, constant pH, and constant temperature environment for transmitting electrical signals. The brain may have a back-up system for processing sensory messages which may be how it works. Some think the technology may one day be developed for sensory enhancement so that we may one day be able to develop animal-like super senses. The tech is also being used to help divers navigate murky waters at night and a torso-based version is being used to enhance spatial orientation awareness for U.S. Navy and NASA pilots in order to prevent rolls and improve control of craft. Video games may one day employ such technologies.

“Technology’s changing the way we make sense of our world – and subsequently, the way we interact with it.”

NASA officials state:

“We are approaching the point where we can extend the self, virtually placing people into actual remote environments.”

Through such virtual techniques environments like active volcanoes, the ocean floor, and the surface of Mars could be explored. Robotic vehicles are one type of interface.

This is actually a book for young readers. It was fun, fascinating, relevant, and highly informative.

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