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What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Sensual Perception?

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For knowledge we heavily rely on what we perceive from our senses, as they provide first-hand experiences, giving us “primary evidence” on surroundings and situations. However human’s five senses touch, taste, sight, sound and smell also have their limitations, so therefore they each have weaknesses to the amount or accuracy of knowledge they can give.

Starting from the sense of sight, a popular expression is “seeing is believing” as we depend on this sense to confirm reality. However beliefs from sight vary from person to person as we perceive things differently. An example of this would be the fact there was a time when people believed the earth was flat, as that was how it “appeared” as people could see the distant horizon as a straight line, it was only when the few who thought otherwise went forth to prove against this knowledge that they were able to open new vistas of reality through their vision.

Another expression, “a picture is worth 1000 words” implies how sight is a more honest, simpler but larger way of giving across knowledge, although what also must be taken into consideration is how it may not present the same conclusion to everyone. As the “words” or messages we take from sight are influenced by our interpretations, whether we view a picture literally or look more deeply for something more metaphorical or emotive, proven in pictures of propaganda, where images are used to sway or indoctrinate the masses through their sense of sight.

As with sight, we cannot always trust that all will be as it appears, as images can be manipulated thanks to advances in digital technology and how we can deceive our mind through visual tricks such as those demonstrated through Optical Illusions, where depth, shape of lines/pictures can be difficult to interpret.

Although sight also has it strengths, for example going as far back as the early times in human existence where we relied purely on our senses and instincts it was vital for watching for danger around and assessing situations on their appearance. Our sight can also determine the shape and depth of objects as we can differentiate between dimensions (e.g. 2D or 3D.) The brain also can resolve ambiguities from incomplete data given through our sight. On the other hand, if this important sense is lost (otherwise known as blindness) or impaired through other devices we’ve created we are able to survive without it, and often through an innate strategy for survival other senses will become more sensitive in order to compensate.

Hearing, another sense has also been important for the use of human survival as a way of “hearing” unusual sounds that may stand for danger and for communication through language/tongue. However, human hearing can be seen as limited, as often scientists find the existence or presence of sounds we cannot hear through our own ears, for example it was only recent times it was discovered that elephants communicate through very low frequency sounds that travel huge distances or another example using another animal would be they very high frequency sounds dogs can hear but humans cannot, e.g. a dog whistle.

Human hearing also deteriorates through age, as sensitivity towards sounds of higher frequency is lost. However our hearing is sophisticated enough that we can organise the sounds we hear, grouping and segregating these factors so in one aspect “we hear what we want to hear.”

Sounds can also be interpreted or misinterpreted by different people as they stimulate varied emotions. As we generally connect the sounds we hear back to our memory, meaning we can recognise a person with a distinguishable voice- as no two people pronounce vowel or consonants exactly the same but we are able to distinguish the similarities. Or an instrument from its “type” of sound. In addition if sounds, like a piece of music are heard they are an example of when varied emotions are felt by different people.

The sense of smell is important and is often used subconsciously for instinctual reasons. As just recently it has been discovered (but also being explored further) the extent to which the smell of a partner can affect our attraction to them, and how contraception methods that affect a women’s hormones, like the Pill can change her scent, meaning when she comes of the Pill, herself and her partner may not feel the same attraction. As through body odour, humans supposedly look for partners with dissimilar scent (therefore dissimilar DNA make-up) to ensure their future child would have diverse immune systems. Our perceptions and evaluations of others are influenced by their smell, as unpleasant smells connect to our disgust or negative opinion of another. However, the perception of what is a “good” or “bad” smell can be interpreted differently between people as it is attached to previous knowledge gained/taught. Although we mainly rely on sight and sound to build pictures, smell often is forgotten as another method to create a picture in our mind.

For example mothers can recognize their babies by smell, and newborns recognize their mothers in the same way. The smells that surround us can affect our well-being throughout our lives. Smells also can stimulate emotion, as a whiff of pipe tobacco, a particular perfume, or some other long-forgotten scent can instantly conjure up scenes and emotions from our memories. The average human supposedly can recognize up to 10,000 separate odours. As we are surrounded by different odours that are given off from trees, flowers, earth, animals, food, industrial activity, bacterial decomposition and other humans. Smell is often tied with the sense of taste, as the olfactory system (that distinguishes scent through the nose) also is a main organ for the sense of taste. As the combination of smell and taste produce the sensation of flavour. Taste is possibly the first sense we depend on as a newborn, as scientific discoveries have found a baby has more developed nerves and muscles in its mouth before its eyes or hands.

The basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter, although some researchers say studies show that a meatlike taste, known as umami, exists also. Nonetheless taste is again another sense that has varied interpretation between different people, as it is still not quite understood why we have different inherited preferences of certain foods/tastes. The sense of touch allows us to evaluate the temperature of our surrounding or an object, the texture and shape of an object as well as perceiving pain. Touch is our oldest, most primitive and pervasive sense. It’s the first sense we experience in the womb and the last one we lose before death. Human skin has about 50 touch receptors for every square centimetre and about 5 million sensory cells. Touch is also an important tool in building human physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Touch can be broken down as a collection of several senses, encompassing pressure, pain, cold, and warmth. The senses of itch and tickle are related to pressure, whereas burn injuries are related to pain.

Touch receptors are stimulated by mechanical, chemical, and thermal energy. However the “feeling” we receive from touch can be amplified, if we focus on it with our mind, for example you feel a larger/stronger sense of pain when you focus on an injury. In conclusion, the human senses have enough strength to enable us to survive and develop our knowledge of our surrounding world to a point which we feel comfortable. However, as explored in my essay, each sense also has its limitations as well as its capability to be influenced by our inherited preferences, memories or previous knowledge.

The senses can also be influenced by certain human states as tiredness, drug/alcohol abuse, nutritional deficiencies, etc are all detrimental to the sensitivity of senses causing us to perceive something mistakenly. The fact different people perceive or interpret information gained from the senses differently also leads me to the conclusion on whether using the senses should be a viable way of gaining knowledge, for example if every human being does not see the same, how can it be judged to whom is seeing correctly? The difficulty of coming to a conclusion of which information is accurate to all human beings is a major weakness of the senses, as although in most cases we our senses tell us similar things; through our different experiences in life we absorb the facts in a different way.

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