How We Lost Our Senses
Another coworker enters the Zoom call. I do not register the sound, but I do glance at the list of participants.
My phone vibrates a short pulse in my pocket. I pull out my phone out and shift my gaze downward. A friend responded to my suggestion with a thumbs-down icon. I frown for a questioning moment, until…
A bell rings. My code has successfully passed its automated tests. I feel victorious, as if winning a competition I never entered. I return my attention to the Zoom room.
Stuck at home and working remotely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels as if the virus forced us finally into the long-foreseen era where we interact mostly with products rather than people. Where the stimuli of machines—and our responses—have become programmed. Where our computers have become more human, and so we have become more computer.
But of course our devices are not human. They are human-friendly, yes, but they lack the chaotic character found in the rough-hewn earth and warbling birdsong and volatile minds. Life is that which forces us to wake up in order to accommodate it, not the other way around. Living is an active, improvisational art.
For many, the pandemic has dulled this art form—isolating us not just from each other but from the world at large, trading it for invented imitations. And when we become isolated from the world, our most fundamental bridge to it—our sensorium—shuts down.
The senses are our link to the broader material world — pinhole portals through which we can perceive vibrations, light, pressure, gravity, and molecules. They are the source of much of our pleasure — the delicious flavors, the sensual touches, the rhythmic sounds that infuse our worlds with life. Among forces that work tirelessly to keep us isolated, the senses stand to connect us to each other, to the whole of nature, and to the broader universe — but only if we attend to them.
While the numbing of our senses feels acute in this moment, the pandemic is but a nexus of forces that have sought to disconnect us from our bodies throughout history. The faculties of mind and processes of commodification prized by modern culture have relegated the senses to vestigial status. Engaging in sensory delight is treated as either simple-minded or sinfully hedonistic. How did we find ourselves in this state?
To reverse the desensitized state we find ourselves in—to reconnect with the world—we must trace the curves of time to understand how we arrived. I attribute the Western epidemic of numbness to a historical process arising in three overarching shifts, which I refer to as:
- The shift of spirit—from matter to man
- The shift of society—from interconnection to isolation
- The shift of reality—from senses to signs
The Shift of Spirit
When you hear the word sacred, what comes to mind? What objects, values, or beings do you put at that highest level of irreplaceability? Consider how you treat these sacred entities in your life compared to how you treat others? Through our increased attention to these entities, we imbue them with significance and give them preferential treatment through a reciprocal give-and-take of attending and receiving. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “As a result of this continual interaction, meaning is continually enriched at the same time as the object soaks up affective qualities. The object thus obtains its own particular depth and richness.” Your personal beliefs about what is sacred thus affect your attention and action in the world.
The same is true on the societal level. We can trace the arc of our dominant spiritual paradigms from one in which the spiritual center of gravity was placed out in the world, requiring the constant engagement of the senses to connect with, to a locus within ourselves.
Investigations into the earliest forms of spiritual practice have uncovered diverse beliefs and practices, but a consistent theme among all studied is a belief that a vital force, as felt in the human experience of being, pervades all of nature. This fundamental outlook on the world is thought to predate a belief in a human afterlife and even the advent of language. Even today, those who do not worship nature still find themselves connected to something bigger than themselves when entering a forest, desert, or ocean.
If you want to know what a culture looks like which places its spiritual center of gravity within the world, look no further than any of the indigenous traditions that remain today. The word “indigenous” comes from the Latin indigena, or “sprung from the land.” Indeed, for such cultures, life is inextricably connected to the places in which they reside.
In the mid-1990s, anthropologist Keith Basso reflected on the reciprocal relationship between people and place, drawing on 30 years of fieldwork with the Apache people of Western Arizona. “As places animate the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them,” he wrote, “these same ideas and feelings animate the places on which attention has been bestowed.” In Apache culture, ancestral stories are told situated within specific places, and their lessons come alive whenever one finds themselves inhabiting those places.
While every indigenous culture is inherently differentiated by its particular relationship to place, this view is representative of the general approach taken by animistic spiritual traditions. They hold a perceived unity between the spiritual and material realms. Vine Deloria, Native American historian and member of the Standing Rock Sioux, wrote in his 1999 Spirit and Reason:
“Religion, as I have experienced it, is not the recitation of beliefs but a way of helping to understand our lives. It must, I think, have an intimate connection with the world in which we live, and any religion that promotes other places — heaven and so on — in favor of what we have in the physical world is a delusion.”
Deloria’s view was that the eventual separation of spirit and matter by world religions would fail to teach people how to understand their lives because their reality is found the material world. Yet, along the way, our dominant schools of thought have divorced the two, giving more credence to abstract ideal forms of being than to our real, fleshly lives. With the rise of theistic religions, the gods abandoned the physical world to unholy status, unworthy of human attention and tending.
The Bhagavad Gita, written around 200 BCE, recounted the story of Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu, who counsels Prince Arjuna as he contemplates war. Krishna teaches Arjuna the various righteous paths, or yogas, he might take: of knowledge, devotion, action, and meditation. In doing so, he explains that there is a hierarchy to the world:
“The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and the soul is even higher than the intelligence.”
The text’s author, Vyasa, communicated an explicit epistemological stance that matter is not only “dull,” or nonliving, but also separated from the soul, which is the highest element of the self. He further used this hierarchy as a justification for war, implying that the sacred part of ourselves lies not in our expendable physical bodies, but elsewhere.
Similarly in monotheistic religions, we have seen a less-than-favorable treatment of the material world. The Book of Genesis, considered to be written around 500 BCE, explained the creation story common to Judaism and Christianity. Upon creating the world, God instructs mankind:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This perspective placed humans separate from and above the natural world, granting authority to mankind to use nature as a resource of its own consumptive means. Indulging in the sensory realm became a sin, punishable with eternal damnation.
Meanwhile, classical European philosophers were largely coming to agree with this treatment of the material world, with the cognitive and spiritual realms placed at the top of their hierarchy. In ancient Greece, early schools of thought competed on the grounds of the best framework for achieving happiness, or eudaimonia. Hedonism promoted indulgence in material delights, while Epicureanism took a more restrained approach, savoring what Epicurus referred to as “necessary pleasures” such as food and clothing and avoiding the limitless craving that gives rise to suffering. But ultimately the traditions that dominated focused more squarely on the mind.
In Phaedo (c. 360 BCE), Plato sought to demonstrate the immortality of the soul and existence of the afterlife. As was common for the time—and not unlike the format of The Gita—Phaedo took the form of a fictional dialogue. In this case, the conversation was among Plato’s teacher Socrates and his contemporaries. Socrates explains, as the bearer of wisdom:
“Thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her — neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure — when she has as little as possible to do with the body.”
To Plato, the physical world was a crude projection of another realm containing only the purest forms of all geometries and ideals, a “world of forms.” Only in the mind could one experience his utopia.
Shaped by the classical and Christian perspectives, Western European culture adopted a hierarchy not unlike the Eastern perspective outlined in The Gita. This solidified in a concept pervasive throughout the Middle Ages known as the Great Chain of Being, a ladder of life in descending order of God, angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Proponents of the Great Chain drew heavily from Plato’s works.
A shuffling of the hierarchy began with the Scientific Revolution, to the further detriment of the material world—but also as a blow to world religions. Seeking to know the world objectively, thinkers eschewed sense data as limited by a “veil of perception”: what we can sense is only a limited portal into the external world. Thus, scientific experimentation—using technological instruments to extend our information-gathering capacities—was deemed superior to sense data.
The scientific method’s major innovation was providing a lens into a more objective perspective, one which remains true outside the gaze of each individual. This view has yielded outstanding results in terms of a more reliable understanding of how the world works and how to manipulate it through technology. However, in shaping society’s conception of the world, its abstracted models have become conflated with reality itself. Consider which is more real: the touch of your skin, or a diagram of your skin cells? Despite its advances, scientific investigation will never capture reality because reality is always experienced from a subjective perspective. Conflating the two further alienates us from the world.
The senses were not the only outcast of the scientific era. Its theistic predecessors, too, took serious blows. With Nicolaus Copernicus’s 1543 publication of the heliocentric astronomical model, he removed the traditional role of God in organizing the celestial bodies. Among early critiques, Martin Luther commented in 1539 that “this fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” As we now know, appealing to scripture would not hold weight for long against an onslaught of subsequent scientific observations.
With the physical world revoked of its sacred status and the scientific lens directed away from God, the spirit needed a new body to anchor to. And it attached itself to us. As Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed in 1882:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him…Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Thus completed the transition of the locus of spirit from the natural world to an abstract and separate sphere of deities to humans ourselves as masters of the world. The stage was set for the age of human separation. We and the world alike have suffered for it.
The Shift of Society
How many people in your life do you share true interdependence with, a felt sense of relying on one another to meet your needs? Perhaps your immediate family? A close friend? Your boss? Unless you live among the communal counterculture, you may be able to count these people on one hand.
Does this mean we actually only depend on a few people to survive? Of course not; we rely on the interactions among countless other beings every day. But it does reflect the ways modern Western society has organized to reinforce a perception of isolation. Consider how your grandparents might have answered this question—or your ancestors thousands of years ago. This shift, from interconnection to isolation, further served to cut us off from the world, dulling our capacity to sense it.
Having seated ourselves at the apex of existence, we separated ourselves from the rest of the material world, which was henceforth referred to as nature. The very concept of nature evolved from encompassing the entirety of the material world, as conceived by ancient Greeks, to the part that is separate from human society. This shift is considered to have emerged among thinkers in Europe’s industrializing cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, settings which sharply contrasted against less-manipulated landscapes. The divide remains entrenched in our approaches to both land ownership and land conservation, sectioning off areas privately used by humans and regions protected from human activity.
This idea of separation would also influence how we thought of ourselves in relation to each other. Just as materialist scientific inquiry decomposed the world into parts, social scientists broke communal societies into individuals. In his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud described the natural development of the ego as a differentiation from the world. He described a will to separation as a natural tendency of all humans, even though it was heavily influenced by modern culture.
“A tendency arises to separate from the ego everything that can become a source of such unpleasure, to throw it outside and to create a pure pleasure-ego which is confronted by a strange and threatening ‘outside’…In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from the external world.”
The emphasis of the individual over the collective influenced the socioeconomic organization of Western society, converging on the conception of the American Dream — the ethos of post-World-War-II United States promising upward social mobility for self-reliant individuals. Work hard, and gain access to a suburban home, a car, and a world of consumption for you and your nuclear family.
The most influential dreamers of this era were perhaps our grand urban designers. William Levitt, who created model suburban towns, known as Levittowns, with templated single-family homes made available affordably to white residents. Robert Moses, whose designs for New York City divided communities with highways and reinforced racial segregation. Victor Gruen, who designed the modern storefront to attract pedestrians, eventually applying his principles at grand scale with the invention of the shopping mall—the cathedral of the modern era.
Yet both the root of this ethos (self-reliance) and its reward (consumption for the nuclear family) raised barriers in the mind of the public between the individual, the family, and the rest of society. And nowhere in this picture remained a connection to the more-than-human world. The vision of “filling the earth and subduing it” would finally be fulfilled, as large-scale systems of industrial production converted nature into resources for the bolstering of an isolating and conforming lifestyle.
Gruen came to regret what became of his vision for shopping centers, originally aiming to reduce suburban sprawl and activate communal life. “I am often called the father of the shopping mall,” he reflected shortly before his death in 1978. “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”
In response to this state of affairs, a group of philosophers known as the Frankfurt School began to critique the tendencies of capitalism. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in their 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment:
“Progress keeps people literally apart…The railroad has been supplanted by cars. The making of travel acquaintances is reduced by the private automobile to half-threatening encounters with hitchhikers. People travel on rubber tires in strict isolation from one another. What is talked about in one family automobile is the same as in another; in the nuclear family, conversation is regulated by practical interests. Just as every family with a certain income spends the same percentage on housing, cinema, cigarettes, exactly as statistics prescribe, the subject matter of conversations is schematized according to the class of automobile.”
In other words, we live in boxes that separate us from neighbors, travel in boxes that separate us from other travelers, and work in boxes that separate us from other workers. And each of these boxes is a product designed to serve in joint processes of isolation and conformity.
It is no surprise that we now suffer from an increase in loneliness. The issue presents itself in all age groups, though particular focus has been placed on older generations divorced from family caregivers, due to exacerbated health risks. In a study endorsed by the United States Health Resources & Services Administration, 43 percent of seniors regularly felt lonely, which increased their rate of death over a 6-year follow-up period by 45 percent. In Japan, there is a word for dying alone and remaining undiscovered: kodokushi, or “lonely death.” In 2006, kodokushi accounted for 1 in every 17 deaths.
Self-isolation — as with the ethos of self-reliance — is an experience, rather than a fact of nature. As practitioners of animistic traditions knew well, we are ever connected through the air we breathe, the energy we exchange, and the emotions we share. Our biologies and our fates are fundamentally interconnected. The modern lifestyle reinforces a different story—one of containment, consumption, and conformity that shuts us off from the world.
The Shift of Reality
There is more than one way to look at a tree. Most of the time, we pass one by and think, ever briefly, “Ah, a tree.” Perhaps we give it a more specific label, like pine or oak or pretty or tall. But there is another way to look—to directly sense its variegated greens, to feel the rough bark drag along your fingers, to whiff its chemical perfume, to watch its seeds blow in the wind. Most of us are born into the world experiencing in the latter way, the sensing way. By age eight, studies repeatedly show, most of us have replaced our senses with an inner world of signs.
In the early twentieth century, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, investigating the structures underlying language, realized that our understanding of the world is not literal but rather processed through learned concepts he called signs. He wrote:
“These signs thus function not according to their intrinsic value but in virtue of their relative position…All conventional values have the characteristic of being distinct from the tangible element which serves as their vehicle.”
Consider the example of a coin. The value of the coin is not derived from its metal but rather from the meaning prescribed to its printed symbol within a particular political geography.
With the rise of consumption-oriented lifestyles also came rapid advancements in technology and media, barraging us with signs substituting for lived experience. Once our signs traced back to natural forms, as with Apache place-names. But over time, commercial advertising implanted and manipulated signs in the collective psyche, constructing our realities on our behalf. These symbols reached us through brand logos, multimedia commercials, and cinematic product placements.
Realizing that advertising could persuade rather than simply inform, executives like Albert Lasker popularized such far-ranging products as Kleenex and orange juice—and convinced women to smoke cigarettes. Graphic designers like Saul Bass, who designed the Kleenex logo, discovered how to create minimalist symbols for these products, reinforcing their desired public image.
According to philosopher Roland Barthes, the goal of advertising was to use signs to create new “mythologies” designed to alter the values of society. In his 1957 Mythologies, he introduced us to the great myth of the powdered soap:
“Products based on chlorine and ammonia are without doubt the representatives of a kind of absolute fire, a saviour but a blind one. Powders, on the contrary, are selective, they push, they drive dirt through the texture of the object, their function is keeping public order not making war. This distinction has ethnographic correlatives: the chemical fluid is an extension of the washerwoman’s movements when she beats the clothes, while powders rather replace those of the housewife pressing and rolling the washing against a sloping board.”
To Barthes, the function of a mythology is to transform “history into nature,” ingraining signs so firmly in our perception that they are mistaken for reality itself. The story that powdered soap creates order in the home becomes a fact of nature.
With the arrival of digital technologies and internet connectivity, this process both accelerated and decentralized such that it became possible for any individual or brand to create and disseminate their own signs. The quintessential manifestation of this phenomenon has been the proliferation of internet memes as cultural building blocks, ever stacking upon one another.
From social media platforms to open-world video games to telepresence communication, the allure of digital avatars and spaces is clear. They are simulations of reality—but new and improved. They are movies we can live in. As philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in his 1981 Simulations and Simulacra, “The real cannot surpass the model — it is nothing but its alibi.” As we spend more time in these spaces, we find ourselves carefully curating digital avatars that come to feel more real than our own selves.
In commercially operated virtual spaces, the usual roles of product and consumer are now flipped: we as users are the product, and advertisers are the consumers. As a result, our tools no longer serve us at all but rather fight to capture as much of our attention as possible in order to build better product for advertisers. The shapes and colors of user interfaces are designed to manipulate our actions. Planned menus of restaurants and romantic partners are presented to us with the illusion of completeness, when a whole world of spontaneous alternatives exist beyond our devices. Customized content is delivered to us in the manner most likely to trigger our reward systems.
Design ethicist Tristan Harris has critiqued today’s smartphones as “slot machines in our pockets,” maximizing addiction by rewarding us at just the right intervals with just the right hint of randomness. “The average person checks their phone 150 times a day,” he reminds, generally to audiences shocked to learn of their own behavior. “Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?”
The mediation of our world through the interface of products removes the need to listen, to adapt, to engage fully with the world. Our responses to our user interfaces have become so conditioned that our senses too have become products. With programmed sounds, buzzes, and even scents, brands condition our ears, skin, and noses, smoothing out the once-ragged pathway from sense to brain to purchase. Our virtual spaces, tailored to our personal sensibilities, have become extensions of the self — forever in a loop of shaping us and being shaped by us.
The more attention we give these virtual spaces, the more real they become to us in comparison to the physical world, to the point where the real and virtual worlds become inverted. In the field of architecture, design briefs increasingly require the inclusion of selfie walls and hashtags optimized for photographs shared on Instagram. A new class of museums known as “selfie factories” are designed not to engage visitors’ participation in the world but to encourage them to share their experiences digitally. The real now serves the virtual.
Coming to Our Senses
With the pressures of society forcing us ever further into new worlds—simulated and commoditized—our attention to the real world degrades. What need have we to engage with the raw dust of the earth with our minds projected elsewhere—to our gods, to our products, to our avatars? What need do we have to attend to each other with our senses retracted and our hearts distracted? We have lost our ability to participate in the improvisational dance of life, to navigate unpredictability, to accommodate the agency of other beings.
But even as our beliefs and our technologies seek to steal attention away from our bodies, our senses remain ours to own and exercise. Our attention is our greatest resource, and where we direct it breathes life into the worlds we wish to come alive. With cultivated intention, the course society has set us on can be reversed. When we direct our attention instead to physical sensation, we drain life from the programmed world of signs and strengthen our bonds with the deep web of relations we hold with other life forms, with the universe at large. We restore matter to its sacred place.