Reading “A Natural History of the Senses” is like diving into a Niagara Falls of information about our constitution as human beings. In the book, Diane Ackerman delivers an expository of each of our senses that is vastly interesting, outlining the macro and microcosm of it all. The author divided the book into major chapters (Smell, Touch, Hearing, Vision, Taste Synesthesia) with subchapters for compartmentalization. Upon reading, it was as though Sir David Attenborough’s voice was narrating in the background like in a documentary as it had that feel to it.
The chapter on “smell” discussed about how the stimulation of the olfactory nerves affect our appetite for food, life, bodily drives and memories. Ackerman for example is reminded of her childhood as we would be when we smell something familiar. I for one am endeared to the smell of smoke coming from the fire of dried leaves, papers and kindling because it reminds me of the rubbish we burned from what was swept at our yard in the Philippines (sans plastic). The memory of my mother and I watching the smoke rise higher in the afternoons is invoked and I remember them with clarity every time I get a whiff of that brand of smoke.
The chapter also tells of a Russian perfumer responsible for many high fashion fragrances and how she is paid exorbitantly to be “The Nose” for a famous atelier of perfumes in New York. She is able to draw scents harmoniously from numerous elements around the globe i.e., trees, flowers, fruits and is able mix and match them so a chemist can put it all together and concoct a scent that you or I might already be wearing at this very moment. Take note as she casually exposes the formula for the celebrated eau de toilette Chanel No. 5 which contains Gardenia, ha! no wonder I never took to it, I have bad recollections with Gardenias.
Newsflash. Remember in the last decade or so when pheromones in perfumes were the fad? (even now really), well, our good author debunks the notion that if a bodily fluid were incorporated in a scent, it would be efficacious in making one attractive to the opposite sex. In the case of a woman, Ackerman argues, males from all manner of species would be trailing after her with something crazy in mind if this were so and I concur. Astonished was I to find too that sometimes, minute amounts of excrement from the anal sac of choice animals are mixed in our perfumes or colognes for an optimum whiff of musk. Nice.
The discourse above is an example on how the rest of the book goes. The other chapters on sight, hearing, taste, touch and that hyperdrive sense “synesthesia” are infused with this kind of exposition also. Science, anatomy, physiology, the cosmos, history and some mysticism and poetry are mixed in. Ackerman is a very palpable believer of evolution yet there are acknowledgements of a Creator and of creation, she flip-flops this way throughout perhaps because she attempts to be all-encompassing and is accepting. The Chicago Tribune parallels this book primarily with amorousness; as a naturalist, Ackerman does foray into sensuality as it relates with our senses but not as a rule. She can be just as effusive with savagery as she is with sensuality, take as an example the recipe for Roasted Goose from the Dark Ages found in the chapter for Taste. Egad!
Ironically, the person known in history that is a frequent point of reference here is one who has lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak, Helen Keller. Though unable to see she can describe what she “sees" eloquently and though unable to hear or speak, she can convey most effectively. I understand Helen Keller to be a woman of faith and I would venture to say that her optimism is a testament that even if physical senses are infirmed, imagination and intuition can make up for it, a case for the human being’s sense of hope.
This is quite the requested book, it was a bestseller and it initially came out in 1990, it is both subjective and objective and is a veritable education bonanza.