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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Making Sense of Our Senses

See today, we feel more afraid of the world and our own neighbours than we have in four decades, when in comparison to other times, this is the safest time it's been on the planet in recorded history. We don't realise it because from our social media synched smartphones to our political conversations, we are inundated with messages of fear. Mob mentality leads us to believe there's violence all around us and society is full of xenophobic vibes, and "us versus them". But all that fear isn't healthy. In fact, according to neuroscience, fear is killing us.

Understandably, in many ways, everything we do in our daily lives - good or bad - soaks into us, building a memory bank that is constantly referred to by our subconsciousness. What we fill our senses with affects us not only on a basic, visible level, but it also affects our very inner experience with which we see and shape our world. We store memory in our touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste and a myriad of other senses.

Cue to now imagining our senses drowning in an ocean of fear. Our senses not only help us understand and connect with our world, they are also memory sticks of unlimited capacity. The memory of a great (or terrible) day can be stored in your fingertips or a scent, so that a touch or particular smell will remind you of it immediately. If anyone believes they have a "sixth sense", what might best describe that but the connection to the memory of others?

Kerbside psychology notwithstanding, in a sense we're all amateur psychologists - we've got our own first-hand experience at being human, and we've spent years observing how we and others behave in different situations. This intuition, however, fuels a "folk psychology" that sometimes overlaps with findings from scientific psychology, but often does not.

Moreover, some erroneous psychological intuitions like a "sixth sense" are particularly widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent, but worse - when our physical senses are blanketed by misguided, destructive emotions like fear, it sets the scene to cement popular myths or misconceptions.

You can start to see a ghost or monster on every corner if you're not careful, if the fear is constantly switched on. So, it's important to challenge these myths, not just to stop the fear or set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes - like immigration and refugees - and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing. The fact is politicians are people, too. As the Trump presidency shows, sometimes they are the most vulnerable in our society to folk pyschology.

Taking extra care with what we constantly feed our senses - thinking before we speak, act or even eat for example - will not only benefit society but archive a healthy catalogue of memories individually. It'll be a collection of scenes that you'll constantly want to rewind and play back in your mind sometime. Think about it: If your life isn't something you want to look back on, then aren't you doing something wrong?

Undeniably, if you constantly fill yourself up on junk, it will clog up your senses and affect your emotional well-being. The point isn't to sufferingly abstain, however, but to mindfully be aware and balance out what we do. Sometimes what we consider junk can be cathartic or a mood booster when taken in small doses. In fact limiting its dosage, aids in making it beneficial. Eating junk food every day isn't going to help you physically, but using it as an occasional treat can help boost your regular well-being physically and emotionally.

Rather than seeing this in terms of "mastering" and "enslavement" - where some would suggest this is a form of mastering your senses instead of being a slave to them, I see it as a marriage of cooperation. It requires awareness, understanding, communication with oneself, and the knowledge of trusting compromise - sometimes you will need to surrender yourself completely to your body, sometimes you will need to rein yourself in.

Knowing when to do that is where an individual's personal wisdom comes in to play, and what we often confuse with folk psychology. We need to use our own first-hand experience at being human to engage our uniqueness, using the years spent observing how we behave to make decisions when it comes to our relationship with our senses.

Ideally, this rational way of being will help us control our fears, or at least ground them to some basis of evidential reality. Instinctiveness or "gut feeling" or a "sixth sense" might also be evidence of how well attuned we are with our senses; it isn't magical, or a spiritual "gift" we are born with. Some will naturally be better at it than others. Some will need to work at it.

Some people might be emotionally or physically incapable of it, or have discovered the use of different senses that others might not. Some might have a dominant sense (apart from the visual) overriding others. Depending on the individual, the aim should be to balance the dominant sense, or the senses you have, so that your perceptions can have collaborating cues from the other senses.

However our eyes might trick us, or our hearing may fail us, very rarely will all our faculties fail. And sometimes viewing a situation through one of our lesser used senses may open us up to new sensations that we would not have experienced otherwise. If the senses are properly used, they will offer the right impressions; and even if they don't, allowing yourself even a few moments of reflection might allow you to see another point of view.

Consequently, in our everyday lives, we will all need to be in a good relationship with ourselves. It's a marriage of balance and compromise. Next time we treat someone badly we should remember this: we are hurting ourselves, too. That bad action will be stored in us, logged away, ready to pop up at the slightest prompt from our senses. It will come back to haunt us. It may even disable us, at a time when we need out senses the most.

One way I try to use my emotions constructively is as instruction or a thermometer to gauge my reactions, and then use reasoning to fine tune them. Instead of using our emotions as a stick to beat each other with, try using it as a form of communication with yourself. When your body is trying to tell you something, listen. It may be important.

Contrary to popular belief, calm will not solve all issues, but it will help to correctly identify them before you move to address them. This isn't a form of emotional suppression, either, which is equally as bad as allowing your emotions or unchecked fears to run havoc across your senses. We have to let our emotions have their say, we just don't have to let them have their way. Allowing yourself to feel grief when a loved one dies is normal. It's part of a process, but it is a process. Your anger, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean you have to act on it, and certainly never to react blindly because of it.

Know, then, that there will be times fear is helpful when a quick reaction is required, anger is necessary when "just letting it all out" emotionally is cathartic to say the least. It's a way of being able to dump any emotional baggage (of your own and others) on the side of the road, so you can move on. But these are immediate responses or inherent communicative aids that help us out of approaching danger or pent up frustration. The less we fear, the less we hate, the less we may find outselves in situations that require their immediacy or involvement.

You = Honesty, Integrity, Transparency (HIT)

Of course, communication - very literally what we live for - is key. I mentioned grief is a process, but in a health culture where death is seen as a failure, discussing it seems to admit to that failure. But palliative care specialists believe families and even health care workers need to get used to talking about death more to make it easier. And our senses not only help the way we process the information of our surroundings, it's also how we communicate and reach out to the world. Even in today's digital world. Our senses are not one-way streets; they are inroads and main exits that lead inside and take us outside of ourselves.

Understanding that blocking these important pathways, with destructive emotions or over-policing them with unfounded fears, only aids to cut us off from ourselves, each other and the world we live in, may indeed allow us to reach a stage where we act as though we have a "sixth sense" of ourselves. Make no mistake, we need to be able to commumicate with ourselves as clearly as the need to communicate with others. The best ways to do both requires honesty, integrity and transparency, because proper communication is, what I like to call, a three pronged HIT.

Proper communication is actively inhibited by the fear we feel today. Not only is it bad for our brains and physical and emotional well-being, it stops us communicating properly. Being filled with messages of fear makes us unable to send out the correct messages, while blocking our senses from being able to process information reliably.

Understandably, when we are fearful we are less honest; we lose integrity and shy away from transparency. If we talk about people behind their backs, but don't want them to know or hear what is being said, it's because we are frightened our own dishonesty or lack of integrity will be revealed. It's the same when we cut ourselves off from constructive criticism.

Surrendering to our biased and unfounded fears, simply put, endangers us all and makes us, well, shitty people, if I'm to be honest. And I don't like that term, because it devalues us. But that is what constant fear does, it devalues who we are, because we use it as an excuse to devalue others.

Supplant fear for hate, and it's the same thing. From our social media synched smartphones to our political conversations, these are the messages bouncing off us, and we echo the same, becoming a little less each time. But if we learn how to communicate properly, understand our physical processes a little more and take charge of our emotional well-being, then our actions may in time be passed down the line to reverberate, not as echoes, but as a resounding call to a better future.

Yes, ultimately, we know death will always win out. That's how our world works. There is no way getting around the second law of thermodynamics. But death does not always mean destruction or destruction mean the end. As long as we turn death into a fighting chance at life, we win, too. Think about it, listen out for it, try to see it, and you may just sense the truth of it.

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