An Article by Prof. Dr. Manuel G. Bedia coordinator of the ISAAC (Interdisciplinary Systems Approach in Artificial Cognition) – University of Zaragoza.
The reality that we perceive around us is nothing more than a product of our mind. In the world there are no smells, colors, sounds and flavors. No red or orange sky at sunset, no tasty cakes and round fragrant flowers. These states, that tinge our experiences (the “qualia” in scientific terms), are generated by the brain as a result of the interaction of our sensory systems with different types of physical stimuli affecting from the outside. The relevant question that scientists have recently begun to make is, do senses independently record information or is perception more complex than we thought?.
Humans have always regarded the senses as a window to have access to the outside, a way to obtain information about the world, they understood and survived. However our senses are “reality cameras” which transform electromagnetic frequencies into images; vibrations, sound and chemical reactions in odors and flavors. Regarding those stimuli and their perceptions recreated by the brain, the lastest ones build the outside world as humans, with their sensorimotor properties, can access it. For instance, as you read this article, the visual system is tuned to the different linguistic-visual stimuli; e.g., your hand, if you are moving your computer mouse, you will be feeling the texture in the fingertips, your ears may be listening to the faint sound of a conversation between neighbors … all channels send sensory information to the brain and with it, it makes a map of the situation in which you find yourself. We experience the world as colors, sounds, tastes and smells, but they are merely products of our mind generated from sensory experiences.
The complexity or beauty that we feel and experience, have to do with the mind itself and its possibilities. These possibilities, and the sensitivity with which we experience, can be enhanced through practice and the right incentives. So far humans used to think that senses acted individually and that the brain processed them separately. Each one was responsible for a type of perception. It is true that even with this conviction, we recognize multisensory experiences daily, that is those in which relations are established between several senses. One example: the combination of the smell coming from a meal and its taste, adding the touch (the texture of foods), hearing (if crunchy) and other qualities, such as temperature, smell, etc., provides us, while enjoying food, with a deep multisensory combination.
Anyway, we still belief that each of the “ingredients of this experience” (smell, taste, touch, sight) as a bounded area of influence. We have this belief so etched in our way of thinking, that we consider a pathology those who perceive sensory information through channels different to their own. This is the case of synesthetes, which may, for example, perceive colors when listening to music. Thanks to brain imaging technology, it has recently been able to study what happens in the brains of synaesthetes when their perceptive system is in operation: a person with synesthesia “can see music” because their brain wrongly registers part of the activity related to sight in the cerebral cortex that manages hearing. These people’s senses are mistakenly connected to each other. However, discoveries in the last decade seem to contradict the idea of “pure senses”. Nowadays, there are numerous studies showing how, in some way, senses affect each other in a natural way (that is different to the pathological case of synesthetes). The process by which the knowledge made from our experiential patterns, projects into other domains and lets us experience them in those terms, is known as crossmodality. For example, there are sounds that can alter the perception of flavors. Generally speaking, we tend to find more tasty crunchy foods, like cereals. The reality is that certain sounds alter our taste perceptions. Other crossmodal research activities demonstrate how, for example, sight also affects the taste of certain foods. Researchers have shown how our senses appreciate the taste of chocolate differently depending on the characteristics of the container where they are taken. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Oxford, the chocolate tastes better in an orange coloured cup. These facts dramatically redraw the image we had of the world and ourselves: our senses not only mislead us by “creating a world” in our consciousness, but also trick theirselves. Since the early moment that we start a perception, they are responsible for increasing, enhancing other senses, competing even among them, and altering each other in amazing ways.
These research activieties about cross modality have been born only a few years ago and we still do not really know the ways in which senses are interconnected and affect each other. However, the phenomenon is of great importance and could have obvious educational applications: E.g., it could help to improve performance by certain sounds. Interestingly enough is that the plasticity of our brain, can guarantee us that even when we are not talking about innate abilities, we could develop it as soon as we knew how to manage it, opening new doors to people to increase their sensory and experiential sensitivity, multiplying the sensory effects of certain channels with the help of interference and combination with signals coming from others.
In such a promising context, let me welcome you to a world of crossmodal experiences with Readmusync. When you experience them, just remember that the ability of our brain to mix information coming from different senses is learned over time. Enjoy them and be sure that you will increasingly have the ability to enjoy more and more