When I tell people about my book Life in Five Senses, which is about how we can tune in to our five senses for more energy, calm, creativity, luck, and love, there’s one question that I often hear.
“What surprised you most?” people ask. “You did all that research, you did all those self-experiments, you went on those adventures, what was most surprising?”
Many things surprised me, but one of the things that surprised me most was the degree to which we all inhabit our own individual, idiosyncratic sensory worlds.
Partly it’s due to genetic differences, partly it’s our upbringing, partly it’s our personal history, partly it’s our own preferences.
Intellectually, I knew this before I started working on the book—but it was, and is, always a surprise to realize how true it is.
Here’s an example.
I have a particular enthusiasm for the sense of smell, but I’m also an under-buyer. I love the holiday smell of paperwhite narcissus flowers, and every December I tell myself that I’ll buy them, but I never do. That’s my under-buyer side kicking in.
But this last December, I was just finishing Life in Five Senses, and I thought, after all I’ve done to engage with my senses, this year I must buy those flowers! So I bought a pot.
I put them out on a table, and I loved smelling that sharp, sweet distinctive smell every time I was near.
A few days after I’d put them out, I said to my daughter Eleanor, “I’m so happy I bought these paperwhites. I love the way they look, and even more, the way they smell.”
“I didn’t know they had a smell,” she said, and she leaned in to take a big whiff. Then she pulled back her head. “Oh,” she said, “that’s what that smell is! I really don’t like that smell! It’s terrible! I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from!”
“You don’t like it?” I asked.
“No,” she shook her head. “I think it’s awful. Really. I was worried that maybe a mouse died in the wall or something.”
I liked that smell, and Eleanor disliked it. Same smell, completely different reactions.
And here’s another interesting thing about sensation: context matters. Our responses aren’t absolute, they are also shaped by association.
A few days later, Eleanor said to me, “Actually, I don’t mind the smell of the paperwhites anymore.”
When she thought she might be smelling a dead mouse, she hated the smell. When she knew she was smelling a flower, she liked the smell better.
Understanding that people experience sensations in different ways can help us all to be more understanding—not to dismiss people’s objections to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, but instead to respect them so that we can create sensory environments in which everyone can feel comfortable.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston observed, “Every man’s spice-box seasons his own food” and it’s true.