But aren’t our senses overloaded already?
Yes and no. Digital technology is very good at stimulating us, but only visually and aurally. What we see and what we hear is associated with what we think, so sight and hearing are considered more rational senses and these are the ones that we now feel are overloaded. But have you heard anyone complaining recently that they’re smelling too much? Or tasting too much? Or touching too much? These are considered the more emotional senses because they’re less mediated by our conscious brain and more directly connected to our emotions. We’ve tended to neglect these emotional senses.
Has the pandemic made us more attuned to these senses?
I think the pandemic has shown us all how important touch can be. Lots of people have been able to see family members, hear them and communicate with them, but they’ve still really missed that tactile stimulation.
I’ve been working with Unilever for a long time and this fits with what we’ve been looking at. Your skin is your biggest sense organ – it’s around 20% of your body mass – and it’s got a lot of receptors that like to be stroked. The importance of touch is well established across many different species but, 20 years ago, tactile things like massages or olfactorial things like aromatherapy felt like luxuries. Today, we understand the neuroscience so much better and these things look like necessities. We know why stimulating our emotional senses is so good, but also how to do it better. We’re beginning to understand how the senses combine. Stroking is not just what you feel on the skin; it means someone is close enough to you for you to smell them. If touch is accompanied by a pleasant smell, it will be nicer; if there’s a bad smell, you might not notice its effect at all. That’s why those La-Z-Boy massage chairs never feel quite as good as getting a massage from another human.
Some long Covid patients are losing their smell for significant periods of time. They’re reporting that life becomes like living in a movie. They can see it going by, but they’re not really engaged in it. When you ask people which sense they would most hate to lose, the answer’s always vision. But if you look at the suicide rates among people who have lost a sense, the highest rate is among those who lost their smell. You lose all the pleasure of food, and so much social and emotional contact that you didn’t realise you had.