The Tangled Web Our Senses Weave
In 2005 I traveled with four friends to Guatemala for two weeks. In a great trip filled with many exciting new experiences, the highlight was a visit to Tikal National Park to see archaeological sites dating back to the Mayan civilization.
In the jungle cottages where we stayed, each of us was given a separate room. My husband was not able to travel with me, so I was alone in the room. There was no electricity from 10:00 p.m. until the morning. Unable to sleep soundly, I awoke at 2:00 a.m.—to utter and total darkness. It was pitch-black. I had no flashlight or cell phone next to my bed, and I saw nothing. Nothing! No distant streetlamp, no moonlight, not a star through the window. I could not hear anything either—the jungle around me was completely still. This was the closest I had ever been to sensory deprivation. It was a most unpleasant experience.
At dawn’s first light, I got dressed and ran outside. With the sun on my face, hearing the chatter of birds, I felt reborn! No other person was in sight, but I reveled in the beauty and colors of nature and was delighted when a group of armadillos, an animal I had never before seen, ambled by. I was so grateful that life was not as barren and blank as it had seemed in that dark room. In those brief hours of darkness, I had come to realize, in the most emphatic way, the vital connection between our physical senses and our mental states.
It is crucial for us to be able to sense the external world, but at the other extreme from sensory deprivation is sensory overload, which can come from living and working in a big city. The urban environment is relentless and bustling—scurrying pedestrians, aggressive drivers, lumbering trucks and choking exhaust, kamikaze bike messengers, splashy window displays, the unbroken skyline of hard-edged buildings, the screaming heat, and densely packed bodies. I for one love cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Tel Aviv, where I live, but sometimes even I need to get away from it all—just for a while. Unlike me, other people get agitated by too much stimulation and prefer quieter, more natural landscapes in the suburbs or countryside.
Between these two poles lies an entire spectrum of stimuli. Total sensory deprivation and stimulus bombardment are both bad for us. Yet wherever we are, we are constantly exposed to environmental stimuli and cues. We touch things that have different temperatures and textures, we smell good and bad odors, we see myriad colors, and we lift objects to sense their weight. We experience much of our world quite consciously through our senses. But without noticing it, we are also unconsciously influenced in the most amazing ways by the physical experiences our senses convey.
In this book, I will take you on a systematic tour of our senses and reveal how your sensory experience of the world influences the rational mind you believe you have, as well as the independent thoughts
you believe you make. I’ll explain why warm temperatures make us temporarily friendlier and the color red causes us to perform more poorly on tests. I’ll show that drawing close dots on a Cartesian graph makes us feel more emotionally close to others and that résumés fastened to heavy clipboards make a better, more professional impression. And I’ll demonstrate why clean smells, like that of Windex, promote cleaning behavior, while showering before a test is more likely to lead to cheating. In case these statements sound impossible, I have to tell you that these findings have been proven repeatedly in lab experiments and published in some of the best peer-reviewed academic journals in the world. These astonishing facts actually point to a new way of understanding how our minds work. And Sensation presents these studies to you, the general reader, for the first time.
This book is about the way our sensations influence us. Unseen cues that surround us may cause us to lose sleep, fail a test, and even fall in love. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” only a princess is sensitive enough to feel a pea placed underneath twenty featherbeds and twenty mattresses. But in fact we are all extraordinarily sensitive to the stimuli in our environment. Like the princess, we may not always know what disturbs us under our radar, but we are nonetheless affected.
Many of the effects of these triggers are short-lived; they “glow” ephemerally in the subconscious for a little while but don’t change us permanently. Yet what is brief is not necessarily unimportant. Our actions under these triggers’ influence can make a significant difference in our effectiveness in business meetings, classrooms, and sports. They can affect how we feel on first dates and how we’re perceived in an interview for a job. This book will raise your awareness of these triggers, or “peas,” and their effects—on both your own and others’ thoughts and actions.
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My research into effects of their environment on people began, basically, when I was eighteen years old and a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, where I was stationed in a classified bunker several stories belowground. I was in my first year at my university, studying psychology, and would work forty-eight-hour shifts at the base so I could leave to attend class, where I would sit through lectures about the human mind under extreme conditions. With a slight sense of irony, I would then return to a metal cave to work without sleep for another two days straight. My life was basically an experiment.
At the base, we lived and worked under relentless fluorescent lights, breathing the same recycled air over and over. We napped in small pitch-black rooms, where, during most of my time underground, I lost track of day and night. Immersed in psychology at the university when I was aboveground, I couldn’t help but study every facial expression and odd behavior of my fellow soldiers whenever I returned to the bunker. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already fascinated by the way our environments shape and influence us. The world became a lab to me.
I received my degree in clinical psychology and followed it with postdoctoral studies at Harvard. As a professor of psychology, I studied how stereotypes, personality characteristics, and culture influence our behavior, specializing in the psychology of gender identity in both children and adults. I designed interesting experiments that were published in prestigious journals, and I truly loved what I did.
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Then, in 2008, I read a study by Laurence Williams and John Bargh in Science.1
They had found that subjects who held warm cups of coffee were more likely to perceive someone else as emotionally “warm.” The results of this study, and others like it, seemed almost like science fiction in their revelation of subtle but profound influences on our
thoughts, perceptions, and judgments. They moved me in a way that no studies ever had before. Reading them reminded me of how, after reading a book about psychoanalysis as a senior in high school, I’d been thrilled to discover the power of the unconscious to influence our minds and bodies. The stories of patients who had suffered from physical symptoms such as paralysis or vision disturbances but were cured by “talking techniques,” by becoming aware of unconscious drives that caused their symptoms, had inspired me to become a psychologist. Now here was another kind of revolution in psychology.
But these studies were conducted in a lab, with regular people who did not suffer from any pathological maladies. These new studies examined everyday behaviors, such as interactions with friends, evaluations of job candidates, and social judgments. Moreover, the studies did not deal with hidden or deeply suppressed motives, desires, and fears that unconsciously influence our behavior. Rather, they dealt with physical sensations that we experience all the time and that unconsciously influence our behaviors.
Most of us would like to believe that we exert control over our behavior; so it is somewhat disconcerting to discover that seemingly irrelevant environmental factors and physical sensations affect our behavior all the time. The findings were counterintuitive—and so they were alluring to me. I decided to return to research into the association between body and mind, but with this new approach, which is now known as the theory of embodied cognition.
* * *
I’d grown up in busy Tel Aviv, but I used to spend summers with my aunt on her kibbutz, which gave me some of my best childhood memories. In those days, living on the kibbutz was like living on another planet—no phones, no cars, just endless fields with houses sprouting up here and there. People were different there, calmer; they even
wore different expressions on their faces. Whenever I visited, I noticed that I was different too. We all felt part of a larger landscape and purpose; we were more in touch with the forces of nature and how they ruled our lives and routines. One summer there, I had an epiphany that we are more like sailboats than motorboats; even though our hands are on the wheel, the unseen force of the wind matters much more than we do. Now, as an adult, after a lifetime of studying the mind, I finally have the science of embodied cognition to show that the little girl in a field was more right than she then knew.
Temperature, texture, weight, sound, taste, smell, and color, among a symphony of other physical sensations, affect us every day. We are moved without knowing we are being moved. We feel ownership of and responsibility for our decisions and actions, yet they are greatly influenced and sometimes created by the sensory world around us.
After thirty years of conducting my own studies, studying the research of others, and teaching thousands of students, I am more inspired than ever by this embodied material. When I teach my graduate students about these recent studies, I can see their surprise. And when my students and I create our own experiments, we surprise ourselves. Several studies, for example, found that people’s moral judgments of others are affected by disgusting tastes. Yet I would venture to guess that you, like most people, feel that your moral values come from deep inner convictions that are unassailable by simple, transient changes in your environment.
I’ll begin by discussing the effects of temperature on our moods and the decisions we make. It turns out there is reason behind why we sometimes blow hot and cold. I believe that you will be as fascinated as my students and I have been with these innovative experiments, the theories behind them, and their implications for your own life.