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Diane Ackerman on the Secret Life of the Senses and the Measure of Our Aliveness

“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop…”

“How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” So marveled William Blake two centuries before we had the tools to confirm that, at the very least, every dog is a world of delight closed to our limited powers of sensorial perception. Out of such seemingly simple discoveries across the animal kingdom sprang the rattling realization that our notion of “reality” is really a plurality of radically divergent impressions, shaped by the singular biases of perception that each of us brings to our experience of the world. The same sliver of “reality” — a table, a flower, a city block — is experienced in a wholly different way by a bird, a dog, Blake, and you.

That plurality is what science historian and poet Diane Ackerman explores with unparalleled elegance in A Natural History of the Senses (public library) — her 1990 masterwork of science and poetics, which gave us the fascinating inner workings of smell.

Ackerman writes:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses… Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality.

Art by William Blake for John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ Click image for more.

Ackerman goes on to explore the biological machinery behind each of our senses as a function of consciousness and although the book is strewn with shimmering prose from cover to cover, it is in the closing pages that her sensibility rises toward Blake’s, folding the physical into the poetic in order to transcend it and enter the realm of the spiritual. Ackerman writes:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.


Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

How wonderfully befitting that Ackerman, a Thoreau of science, should call to mind Thoreau himself and his defiant defense of “useful ignorance” in her closing lines:

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle, and learn by heart, there will still be vast unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. “For my part,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

A Natural History of the Senses, equal parts illuminating and elevating in its entirety, was followed by Ackerman’s equally magnificent A Natural History of Love. Complement this particular segment with Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is central to morality, Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery, and Wendell Berry on the essential role of ignorance in human progress.

Published August 6, 2015




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