Trees can heal the mind and body, Christyl Rivers

How To Use Ecopsychology To Unlock Sensory Benefits

Ecopsychology identifies fifty plus senses to navigate your life

Christyl Rivers, Phd.
Apr 9 · 10 min read

Every human being has multiple senses

In the field of Ecopsychology, experts disagree as to how many senses human beings actually have.

If you grew up with public education, no doubt you studied the five primary senses: sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. These are the most prominent senses we have, but they are not the only ones.

Each organism, of course, has various senses, like a bat’s ability to use echolocation, or migrating birds’ abilities to use magnetic cues.

Human beings, having evolved along with all other animals and even plants, also share some of these senses, heightened to varying degrees, and not always in use. Before I get into the list of some of these myriad senses, a little background information is necessary.

In the 1970s, researcher Guy Murchie, at Harvard Biological Laboratory, recognized more than eighty. Since that time, his findings have been re-categorized for convenience.

The current tally, if we are counting our senses according to Dr. Michael Cohen, comes to fifty-three senses, (53) in total.

Cohen writes about fifty-three human senses in his Ecopsychology book, Reconnecting with Nature.

To improve and reconnect with nature, you can delve into your many sensory gifts simply by learning what they are, what they provide, and how you can open up to the experience of multi-sensory observation. When you note the natural world and what it offers, you have a richer, more fulfilling relationship with our external world.


Belonging in the world

For example, although you may not be entirely aware of your full experience of color, your unconscious mind will pick up on the warmth and joy of a bright, yellow daffodil.

Similarly, your unconscious mind can also record drab, or dark colors of deep blues and blacks, and may register sadness, or loss. Identifying these ‘color’ senses opens up new avenues of self-knowing.

Being open to such sensory input exercises your mind and senses.

In psychology, and related fields, self-knowing is the most vital tool available to help shape healthy emotional, mental and behavioral health. Therefore, discovering more about your own connections to the natural world will improve your internal and external relationships by using heightened senses.

The goal of using ecopsychology is re-connection to the world with which we evolved. That is, if I may say it more simply, to find our belonging. Our modern world driven by industry does not always drive us to remember that the whole, beautiful, and intricate, world of nature also is crucial to your quality of life. Belonging in the world is achieved by opening our senses.

At the simplest level, however, your senses can be guided by your awareness and acknowledgment of your connection to all of the creation.


Four recognized categories of your many senses

The senses we experience are categorized for convenience into four units. We experience most of these under the heading of ‘The mental senses’. Because human beings have abstract language, writing, mastery of time-keeping, and such abilities as recording dreams, sharing creativity, and much more, our mental senses are many.

The other three headings for understanding our senses include ‘The feeling senses’ by which we gain awareness of our location, our sense of gravity, our awareness of pressure, vibration and more.

The third category is ‘The chemical senses’. These senses are often very keen in other organisms but are still important to human beings. We chemically experience taste, smell, hormonal changes in our bodies, our drives for food, water, air, and more.

Obviously, the human body runs on automatic for most of these drives, but creating an awareness of them offers the ability to know, connect, and more fully appreciate our belonging as natural creatures to the biodiversity of Earth.

Think of a time you had a craving for something salty, for example. Items in nature provide the raw materials needed for you to satisfy your need for chips, or savory foods, to manage your body’s need to replenish electrolytes.

The natural urge to hunt for food, for example, is in and of itself considered a sense driven by chemical cues within the body.

Finally, our fourth category includes ‘The radiation senses.”

These are sensitivity to light, color, temperature, and seasonal awareness. Light sensitivity, varies in each person, but to one degree or another, we all sense and feel ultraviolet light and radio waves. We each experience a sense of winter and summer internally.

Some of us are driven to withdraw indoors during heavy, cold seasons. We have a sense of hibernation left over from our ancient evolutionary programming. We also have a sense of being lighter and more energetic in the spring, as this is a programmed response for organisms to rouse themselves, plant, hunt, and mate with renewed interest.

As an exercise, you can do right now, look out the window and note any natural thing that attracts you. You will use several senses in just one look. Likely, you will note sound, beauty, a branch bending in wind, a mood inspired by clouds, or any number of things that your senses connect you to in just one quick glance.


Overlap between our senses

Our horticultural sense and our ability to cultivate crops depend upon our knowledge of the seasons, but also overlaps into our mental senses because as complex beings, humans have internally stored vital information that allows us to map out our food sources mentally.

Before we take advantage of our radiation sense of when light, temperature, and season are just right, we mentally picture what food, forest, and domesticated animals we can manage.

Modernity and industrialization have largely removed our connection to food sources because we have supermarkets. However, being in touch with one’s food, and caring for the animals that make food possible, such as dairy cows, or hog farms, and corn fields, allow a human being to be better in touch with a healthy respect and admiration of food procurement.

To say it another way, our inattention to food sources results in unhealthy, fat and sugar-laden diets that lead to heart disease and diabetes. But, paying attention to agriculture allows a person to have a fuller sense of connection to such sources.

It requires us to rethink the destructive aspects of food production. Soil degradation, erosion, deforestation, and using toxins is an industrial requirement of modern agriculture that is out of touch, and not utilizing the many senses we have to make wiser choices.

Making just a simple change, such as Meatless Mondays, or waste fewer Wednesdays, put the power of your sense of community and belonging to work for your own benefit. This works for food, and other choices you make.

The world’s oceans, one might say, are in peril due to over-fishing, pollution, and plastic contamination. But the ocean’s connection to the human being is more than just a food dependent one because of a great many of our senses, chemical, feeling, mental and radiation, connect us very strongly to the oceans of our watery planet.

It is not a coincidence that the human organism, comprised of nearly 75% water, is connected to a planet that is three-quarters water, as well.

There is considerable overlap between our many senses, then, and knowing as many senses that you can open up consciousness to find ways of improving our lives.


Web-strings and Selene allures

Now that we have identified some of our senses in use every day, I would like to introduce the mechanisms by which we open up sensory awareness.

Michael Cohen uses the term ‘webstring’ to note the living threads with which many senses are tied. That is, when you feel a sense of thirst, that can be described as the ‘tie’ or ‘webstring’ that binds you to a glass of orange juice, or other refreshing beverage. The web alludes to the great web of life, it is a vast network to which you belong.

You can sense a webstring by noting whether at the moment you are too hot, too cold, or just right. Temperature is both a feeling, radiation and mental sense you have. Turning toward a warm sunbeam, or cool breeze means you have identified a webstring connection.

Any sense that you can identify will be the result of a kind of pull, or attraction that nature provides for organisms to thrive.

Similarly, a Selene allure is a yearning, or draw, toward any person, place, plant, or network that pulls you toward it. You might say your family dinner is a Selene allure to unite with loved ones. You might also say the apple pie after dinner is a Selene allure that allows you to share desert with your united family, and give in to your craving (hunger sense) for sweets.

The term “Selene allure” alludes to the moon goddess Selene, or Selena, who is the ancient personification of the moon. The moon influences all life on earth by managing the tides. She is also a great metaphorical companion for the Earth goddess, Gaia.

Together, with the sun, Sol, who is often personified as male, Gaia and Selene create and control all living beings as attracting individual parts of one enormous network. The network can be called the ‘web’ but I prefer the term Selene allures because it is never confused with our technological, online web, or world wide web.

Tied together with all the forces of nature that attract, among them, gravity, the strong and weak nuclear force, and of course the electromagnetic force that controls your brain waves, you can see why understanding them is useful to increase sensory awareness. Every force from gravity to our pulsing neurons works together to generate and experience our senses.


Several senses to help you create awareness

Having noted several senses already, you are probably already aware of many more just by the simple exercise of having glanced out the window. So far, I have not put all fifty-three senses in a list, as that is the most boring way to learn about them.

Experiencing sensations is more important than memorizing them. But, now that we have gone over the four categories and some of their overlap, we can look at a few of our senses more closely.

Reconnecting to nature is a task worth taking on. All the perils of modern life and its discontents are largely attributable to our separation from nature. Opening up the senses is an easy, and achievable way to reconnect.

Belonging to humanity requires one sense that ecopsychologists call colonizing, or being open to realizing that you are a small part of a super-organism.

We survive to be a part of the whole by realizing support that is both human, and non-human.

We connect, belong, and are receptive to the many others that support life.

Without trees and plants, of course, we would not breathe the oxygen they provide, to take just one important example.

A sense of appreciation, respect and devotion, both to life itself and to one’s continuing belonging, also gives humans and other animals a foundation for fairness and ethics.

For an example of this sense, think of your gratitude upon seeing a colorful sunset, or hearing a beautiful birdsong. Then realize the satisfaction that comes upon your natural inclination to share such things with others. We also find great satisfaction upon feeling generous, and warm toward others, satisfying and encouraging our sense of support and trust.

It is especially important to introduce small children to Selene allures of biology and beauty. Children are naturally inquisitive about the many everyday marvels that we sometimes miss. The antics of animals are greatly celebrated and attractive to humans, hence we have LOL cat videos.

Among the feeling senses of our body in space and time, our senses of motion, weight and fullness, (such as when you feel a drive to either fill, or empty, your bowels) spatial awareness and proximity, balance and awareness of air pressure, and external forces. Rather than listing each such ‘feeling’ sense, a simple exercise can help you experience many of them at one time.

Stand by any body of water, be it a river, pond, lake or ocean. Put your hand or foot in the water, and mentally record each sensation. You will then be experiencing the difference in gravity, the pressure, or pull of water on your hand, the motion, a sense of hot, cold, light and temperature. In short, by feeling water, you will be employing almost every one of your more than fifty senses, including its taste and smell.


A final word about our mental senses

Having studied ecopsychology for more than a decade now, I believe that our mental senses are particularly well attuned to benefit from how we interpret the natural world. A few of them that I have not yet mentioned are worth noting. A sense of fear, for example, is experienced with the body, but often is born of a mental reaction to stress, or over-work.

Your body’s nervous system does not distinguish between real-world threat and mental stress. A hormonal response of cortisol and adrenaline often occurs just from our constant worry and anxiety. To alleviate some of this stress, pay particular attention to how nature solves problems. As Einstein has said, “Look deeply into nature and you will understand everything better.”

Because we make mental maps of the world, and our abstract sense of what we find to be a threat is often inaccurate, finding sensory allures that tie you back to your belonging in the real world can help.

For example, you may be very nervous about having to give an important presentation at work, but look at how nature provides for every need, and you can create calmness by realizing not just harmony, balance and belonging, but also humility, and even humor at our own perception of our self-importance.

Remembering, that all of us are in this together hearkens back to our sense of community, which is also considered one of the most important mental senses.

Examine also the mental sense that humans often have that seeks to control, or dominate, in many circumstances. Then realize that it is an ephemeral sense, that usually becomes useful only when we collaborate with others to resolve some problem or project.

Human animals are territorial, this too, is a mental sense. It evolved to help us survive in small groups when resource gathering was often limited by environmental factors.

But, today we have created boundaries, borders, and concepts such as money that allow us to navigate through abstractly defined mental maps.

Modern science, however, has demonstrated that belonging as one species dependent upon biodiversity, we also need grounding in our original sensate being. We must constantly regard our mental senses in relation to the living world.

In this way, we can all sense one another, and we can make sense with our senses, of our sensational world in the most fulfilling ways.

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

Christyl Rivers, Phd.

Written by

Writer, Defender of the three dimensional, and Cat Castle Custodian.

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

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