Jackie Higgins is a television documentary director and writer who studied zoology at Oxford University. She made wildlife films for the BBC, National Geographic, and The Discovery Channel. She then joined the BBC’s science department, researching and writing, directing and producing programs such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon.
Her new book, Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses (Amazon, Bookshop) hits shelves today. It’s an absolutely fascinating look at the natural world.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Jackie about happiness, habits, and the senses.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jackie: Getting out the front door for a walk, in rain or shine, with or without my whippet.
The filmmaker Werner Herzog said that ‘the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.’ He was talking about Bruce Chatwin like pilgrimages, but I don’t think you have to travel far, a quick turn round the block will do. There is something about moving through the world that enlivens the senses. Simply looking or listening, feeling or even smelling what’s around me is so immersive that I forget myself; allowing my senses to soak up the outer world stills that inner chatter. Walking is a tonic for many things; it makes you healthier, staves off the blues, but also it makes me more creative. Often ideas with which I’ve been wrangling need time to germinate, in the dark, away from my focus. So a walk can clear even the most stubborn case of writer’s block.
And I haven’t even mentioned, the happiness of simply being outdoors, in nature. Or the joy I feel watching Zero, my whippet, explode from zero to… goodness knows what speed. Like the cheetah in my book Sentient, his small head and slender body mean that he’s an arrow and at full throttle, essentially airborne. In fact, the only time his feet truly connect with earth is when he takes corners and ends up keening over at such an angle that his flanks almost scuff the ground. Four-legged euphoria!
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Proust was wrong… not that at age 18 I knew about Proust’s madeleine dipped in a cup of tea, but I learned about his error while researching Sentient.
When in In Search of Lost Time (Amazon, Bookshop), he wrote, ‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me… an exquisite pleasure,’ Proust elided memories of childhood and happiness with his sense of taste. He could not have known that he was actually talking more about his sense of smell. Since, science has shown that our brain hoodwinks us into thinking that flavour is sensed on the tongue, when in reality most of the hard work is done by our nose.
Last year, I experienced this first hand on catching Covid. I noticed things weren’t right when my favourite morning ritual of a home-ground cup of coffee tasted revolting. Then, the experiences of other drinks and foods dulled. I had lost my sense of smell, not taste, and as so often is the case, I had to lose it, to grasp its worth. The loss extended beyond flavour; the world seemed drained of colour and vibrancy. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but scouring scientific journals and books, again for Sentient, offered an answer.
It turns out that our sense of smell has an intimate relationship with part of our brain that deals with emotion. Consequently, it has been called the most ’emotionally connected sense’. The neuroscientist Rachel Herz says, ‘I have often wondered whether we would have emotions if we did not have a sense of smell,’ adding with a nod to a certain French philosopher, ‘I smell, therefore I feel’. What a thought. A Peanuts cartoon might put it: happiness is… under our nose. And as one of my chapters proposes… so too our sense of desire. But that’s another story.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Yes, many, but let’s start with Aristotle, who woefully underestimated himself and every one of us when he declared we have five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste, what you’ve called ambassador senses (I like that). Sentient explores these and others, indeed twelve in all, but that is just the start. Today, most scientists would agree we have more.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised, intrigued or affected you – or your readers – most?
Some of my readers are most surprised by the exceptional animals. Whether the star-nosed mole whose star-shaped nose, the size of our little finger tip, has six times the touch sensitivity of the palm of our hand. Or the male great peacock moth that can smell a female three miles away. Or the octopus whose strange sense of body means that it might not register what its arms are up to. Other readers are more intrigued by the discovery of the senses ignored by Aristotle: our secret senses.
I was most affected by the people whom I met who related sensory experiences beyond the usual. I was honoured that they allowed me to share their stories. Whether the woman whose sense of pain misfires so sometimes she can feel as if on fire. Or the man who on losing his sight, discovered he had also lost his sense of time. Or the man who awoke one morning to discover he could not feel his body. He told me the experience was more profound than the numbness of an aesthetic; with eyes closed, he had no sense where his body lay. It was if he had been disembodied.
What is your book’s ultimate message?
I was delighted you invited me onto your blog because my hope is that Sentient brings readers happiness. Craig Foster of My Octopus Teacher told me it is brimming with my love for nature — that made me glow. Ultimately, the book’s message is one of joy, of optimism and of infinite possibility.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
A questioner. My mother was a biology teacher (the beady-eyed will notice that I dedicated the book to her). She always asked, and still does, that queen of questions: why? That said, I’ve taken your online quiz, so would love to know if I’m mistaken and my answer is wishful thinking.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Without doubt, my iPhone. Even having silenced various alerts from email, Instagram or Twitter, I still find the gadget difficult to resist, if not demanding and downright bossy!
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
While writing Sentient, I had one quote pinned on my board just over my computer — something the neurologist Oliver Sacks penned in what he knew would be his last op-ed for the New York Times, a few months before his death. ‘I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude…. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege.’
I’d long loved his books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Amazon, Bookshop). He described the fragility and diversity of the human condition with such compassion. However, these words became my daily worry beads while I wrote Sentient: they inspired me to select stories that remind us what an enormous privilege it is to be a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet. So, my motto? ‘Open your eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose and more to the everyday miracle of being sentient’. Or more simply: ‘Release your inner star-nosed mole.’ [Gretchen: The chapter on the star-nosed mole was one of my favorites.]