Describing Colors To Blind People


Losing Sense

As students of the anthropology of the senses, one of the penultimate questions one may ask, certainly, is proposed through the following thought experiment: which sense, from our traditional five sense model, would you sacrifice in place of the rest? Which way of experiencing the world can be surrendered whilst keeping a relatively high standard of living? Ultimately the decision comes down to a value judgement  we rate the spectrum of our sensorium based on the consolidated feedback we have inherited from the collective of humanity, and also through our own individual personal experiences. How we can place one sense over the other is culturally relative, as each sense, although biologically similar, serves different functions within different cultural milieus. As we unpack our value judgements regarding the sensorium, the question remains to which I would choose to barter – which I found out through my own thought experiment, was a surprisingly simple and axiomatic exercise.

Beginning with a brief list in pro et contra fashion, I surmise that each sense has a varying ratio which I can define the values by a ‘life-preserving quotient’ versus the ‘quality-of-life quotient’. Because the somatic senses can interpret whether my hand is placed on a stove-top and that I am in imminent danger, this ranks highest on the ratio scale; whereas the gustational senses may alert me to a poisonous taste, this ranks as a less likely occurrence, and the danger of missing out on a qualitative food experience is largely what I am in jeopardy of. Because my environment is dramatically different from the hypothetical hunter-gathering individual whose sense of taste may be of utmost importance to survival, everyone’s list is subject to personal experience, cultural landscape, geographic/historical contexts, and many other factors.

The hierarchy I have rated my senses, from most important to least, is as follows: touch, vision/audition (a tie), taste, and lastly smell.

By making a (de)value appraisal of this kind to poor my olfactory senses, I must have some kind of reasoning to back this statement up. For one, my aforementioned ‘life-persevering’ and ‘quality-of-life’ quotients are echoed again here. Secondly I attribute its devaluation through our collective olfactory silencing (Howes 1987:144), which remains a vestige of Western cultural legacy. In fact, smell is so increasingly insignificant that it has begun entering the popular culture zeitgeist, as lampooned in 2007 film ‘Walk Hard’:

There may, however, be real value in disability; for instance the optimist in me can imagine that a loss of gustatory sensation can be an opportunity to change my eating habits towards healthier and cheaper foods (although the sense of smell may limit this to some degree). Although these are superficialities, the value of someone like Helen Keller who has deafblindness has the benefit of experiencing the world in a dramatically different light — to the point where a partial negation of the senses proves ancillary to epistemological and intellectual discourses by adding to our pooled knowledge hinging on the mind and sensorium.

This would be displayed best by someone born with a disability like Virgil who has in turn developed differently. As Oliver Sacks states, paraphrasing George Berkeley, “[Berkeley] concluded that there was no necessary connection between a tactile world and a sight world—that a connection between them could be established only on the basis of experience” (Sacks 1997:110). Because there are no assumptions based between mind and sight, the eye acts only as a receptor after which the mind systematically learns to create distinctions and representations. With the loss of eye function for instance, one could rely less on representations derived from one’s mind, thus allowing for a different appreciation of the world. This idea is expressed well as Sacks quotes Berkeley again, “Expecting the pictures would feel like the things they represented, … and asked which was the lying sense, feeling or seeing?” (Sacks 1995:130). Berkeley’s patient, upon given the gift of sight for the first time, does not see the correlation between how something feels and how something looks. Because there is not an intrinsic link between the two, this connotes a fundamental learning opportunity for us to study our mind/sensory connection.


Howes, David
1991  The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Pr
Sacks, Olivier
1995 To See and Not See. In An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Knopf.

Umami: The Fifth Sense of Taste

The idea of umami has proved quasi-anomalous to me ever since I first stumbled upon the term. How could the oversight of a crucial fifth basic taste have persisted within the cuisines of the West until now? Speaking with friends who are chefs, they explain umami as meaty, savory foods, often citing the example of a ripe tomato as the archetype for what an umami flavor should be. Admittedly, I remain indecisive whether I understand the true breadth of this basic taste – and by extension endure a vexatious skepticism regarding its principal existence at all – but looked forward to educating myself on the this elusive sensory phenomenon.

In this YouTube video, host Daniel Delaney gives a brief explanation and history of umami. Contrary to the traditional four tastes spectrum (sour, sweet, salty, and biter), Daniel explains that there has been a relatively recent consensus on this new fifth taste sense called umami. Found in significant amounts in almost all Japanese dishes, umami exists, in some capacity, in every dish and food; some of the highly-concentrated umami foods include the likes of seaweed, fish flakes, soy sauce, cured meats, vegetables (particularly mushrooms, tomatoes), and fermented items like cheese and wine. Accordingly to the Umami Information Center (UIC) website, our experience of glutamates and umami are so fundamental to our humanness that it is often the first thing we will ever palate, byway of our mother’s breast milk.


What is interesting of the umami historical narrative is the influence of positivist theory which acted to legitimatize the sense, and by doing so, solidified it into the Western sensory canon. By identifying both the L-glutamate compound and specific receptors on our tongue, scientists claim now to have empirically sound evidence to account for umami. Whether merit exists for this claim, or if the characteristics and nuances of taste remain partially encapsulated as culturally specific endeavor predicated upon constructs, this curious aspect of the sensorium is an intriguing study which challenges the static nature of the senses.

Likewise David E. Sutton views food and taste as an opportunity to analyze particular cultural activity, as is defined by his coined term ‘gustemology’ (2010:215). Sutton notes the lack of acknowledgement of the synesthesia-like properties which food evokes, where no sense exists within a vacuum apart from another and where it is absorbed by the eye, nose, ear, and touch as much as it is through the mouth (218). In this multidimensional space, the objectiveness of the palate come into question, along with interesting usages of food as a hegemonic or subversive tool, along with a plethora of other metaphorical and cultural relative usages.

Sutton, David. E.
2010 Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:209–23.

Response: Helmreich, Schwartz, and Sound

“Silence is golden”

This often clichéd phrase struck me upon reading Schwartz article on noise and silence. Noise pollution and sound generally are attributed to modernity through progressive industry, but is this a falsifiable assumption we collectively own? When shifting our purview into the past we often don rose-tinted glasses, can the same be said about romantic ideas of our quaint, noiseless past? As Shwartz remarks, although today we live amongst the perturbing sounds of jackhammers, sixteen-wheel semis, and boiler foundries, they have been the respective successors of noisy blacksmiths at the anvil, carts rumbling across brick, and mills grinding grain (1995:2). Noise exists in every paradigm, with or without humans, and changes only superficially by its type.

Schwartz talks at length about the obsolescence of church bells and their role in the changing Western soundscape. Architecture, diversifying religious denominations, the advent of accessible clocks, changing work-week, and even health-related issues are linked to the declining bell amid the Second Industrial Revolution(4,5). But what answer lies beneath these outward changes? The truth remains that bells “were silenced because they belonged to a constellation of sounds whose significance was in the process of being reconfigured” (6). The sounds of the church bell no longer jived with the modern sensorium.

Although silence can be viewed as sacred, spiritual, or peaceful, there exists an ambivalence which can accompany the contrary. Helmreich notes how one of his interlocutors, Bruce, finds solace in the background noise of his machines, as, “without them, it’d be too quiet” (2007:62). Therein lies the multidimensionality of silence as a way of experiencing life.

The remainder of Helmreich’s article provides an ethnographic narrative of his experience of ‘doing sound’ (2007:622) in the submersible vehicle Alvin. The article means to posit an epistemological shift to sound, where we elevate transduction as an alternative to common occulacentric ways of experiencing the world. The idea of immersion, the act of participating oneself into their surroundings anthropologically, serves a duality of meanings as he immerses himself in the silent depths; but is the deep sea really silent? With the aid of what he describes as the ‘submarine cyborg’, Helmreich is able to transcend his limited sensorium by using the equipment as a sort of prosthetic. What we find is that the deep is not barren of sound, nor a “quiet, meditative space, a silent world”, but we find rather, “the ocean is wired for sound” (626).

Helmreich, Stefan
2007 An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography. American Ethnologist 34(4):621-641

Schwartz, Hillel
1995 Noise and Silence: The Soundscape and Spirituality. No Noise., accessed November 7th, 2012.

Kaleidoscope: An Ethnographic Narrative of Experiential-Participation

Opening Thoughts and Methods

Our last session of class prompted us to approach our senses in a pragmatic lab exercise. Given to each student was an item in which to examine which, for all intents and purposes, were rather workaday items; plush toys, paper with designs, bottles holding various contents, tennis balls, and of course my item, a kaleidoscope.

Wanting to be thorough, I initially took the item in as best I could and recorded my preliminary feelings and thoughts. Only then did I approach the kaleidoscope in a step-by-step process, examining every part with each traditional sense (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and to a lesser degree taste) before moving onto the next detail. Needless to say the exercise looked to critically explore what we had in our hands, possibly to find some additional intrinsic value which our rooted prejudices may cause one to overlook or actively omit. Although I took it upon myself to systematically note every sensory observation in order to be thoroughly descriptive, I was also conscious of how my mind percolated this physical information. Sometimes feelings of nostalgia were evoked, linked to memories of childhood or otherwise. Within this paradigm I acknowledged my introspections and recorded them stream of consciousness exhaustively to their finality or source. This analytical process of embodiment, alongside the slow empirical observation of my sensorium, presented me with a holistic representation of my experiential-participatory journey.

The Sensory Experiment

On the theme of holism, I wanted to extend the narrative to the outer packaging which houses the kaleidoscope contents (it is, after all, the first thing you see and touch before the device is ever accessible). It is my experience that packaging can be as thrilling as the contents it houses and undoubtedly affects one’s buying habits and overall enjoyment, regardless of the item or whether the consumer is cognant of this phenomenon.

The package is a box consisting of four long rectangle sides which run lengthwise with two square ends. The coloring is mainly white and black with hints of red (noted was how bland the box appears in contrast to the multitude of colors a kaleidoscope exhibits). The only other colors present were found in the example section which showcased images of yellow, pink, black, green, blue, red, and orange. The instructions, age minimum, brand name, and a brief blurb on the history of the kaleidoscope completed the remaining typed print. My assumptions of this being mass-manufactured is somewhat affirmed by a trademark symbol and ‘made in Taiwan’ demarcation. My next instinct after viewing the item was to pick it up and examine it by touch. The box felt solid but was able to shift and the ink finish was very smooth. When shaken a muffled shaker sound emitted. The outside contained no scent, but upon opening the box the inside smelt rather offensive and reminiscent of a dank basement. I decided to forego tasting the box, specifically after smelling the moldiness of the inside. As I remove the kaleidoscope from the box I notice how the essence of the box has changed without its burden; the box feels flimsy and is very malleable, and as I place the box down it is easily taken by the wind several times.

As I examine the kaleidoscope visually it resembles an elongated empty toilet paper, brown in color with similar spiraling lines. The viewing end has a small black plastic piece to place one’s eye, and on the other end are the gems which will create the colorful images. The gems have three particular shapes: some are simple donut-spirals, some of flower-like design, and some heart shaped. The smell of the kaleidoscope is similar but less powerful than the pungent box insides. Once again I forego tasting the kaleidoscope, but assume, by my prejudice, that it will reveal little palatable. To the touch the cardboard exterior is very smooth and the item as a whole feels fragile, I make sure not to accidentally drop it. When the item is however thrown in the air or shaken it produces a fairly loud shaking noise, not unlike a percussive shaker that accompanies other instruments. There is no temperature change while touching it, however when I place my eye to the viewer it is slightly cooler.

Looking through the device produces undoubtedly the most stimulating sensory experience. Colors of green, beige, white, red, blue, and orange are vibrant, producing a pattern that I find difficult to describe. Pointed at different sources of light can change the colour’s hue, and adjusting the top cylinder to rotate the gems causes the images to morph into new patterns and colours. I am unsure if the rotating top is supposed to be pulled but doing so creates a new sense of depth in the images. Shaking the kaleidoscope changes the composure of the image dramatically and creates a new sense of atmosphere, sometimes creating a feeling of lightness or a more ominous dark feeling (here I find the sense of contrasting feelings of dark/light interesting, and if that is a sense in and of it themselves). Examining and rotating the device reminds me several times of bacteria shifting under a microscope lens. Standing or walking while looking through the viewer creates a sense of euphoric confusion, a slight sense of disassociation, and loss of balance faculties. It is interesting that stimulating a sense in this fashion can cause another (balance) to be so heavily altered.

Partner Experience and Analysis

Discussing this experience with my partner shows that, although he had a plush toy camel and I a kaleidoscope, we both found common themes. We both noted that our use of sight was often the first we utilized to examine, and furthermore relied on them significantly to determine what our respective item is. Is this because of the nature of my item being mainly visually galvanizing, or has it to do, in part, to a lasting Greco-Roman legacy of the sensorium? We discussed whether the visual complex we see in Aristotle’s human/animal hierarchy patterns itself in the order in which we experience something (often we see, hear, or smell something before we are close enough to touch or taste it). I also remark on the  additional senses I have experienced above the traditional five: the sense of balance, depth, atmosphere, peer pressure of fellow York student gazes, and sense of light (happy) and dark (sad).

The difficulty of intimate examination of the kaleidoscope and the task of ethnological narrative of an inanimate object is something I share with my partner.  Perhaps because we have long forgotten how to wholly examine the world around us after childhood (an image of the willing baby who will put anything in his mouth comes to mind), and thus are out of practice and unsure of how to proceed. Other analytical items such as the feeling of nostalgia was discussed, our inhibitions not to taste our items, and how environment (mine being outside, cold, drizzling, windy, at school) may affect what an item is. Past knowledge of kaleidoscopes images prompting one to think of psychedelic aesthetic, then onto LSD and the 1960’s culture, counter-culture, and music. This experiential-participatory journey has aroused several questions regarding the sensorium and how subjective a seeming benign or self-evident object can truly be.

(sorry for the length!)

Star Trek Senses

While watching an episode I fell across this tidbit enjoy…