The taste of the past

The latest edition of The Psychologist has a fascinating article on ‘sensory history’ – the practice of investigating how people from the past differently interpreted and understood sensory experiences.

I was first alerted to the idea by a book review we covered back in 2009 which noted that the superstition of the ‘evil eye’ – where you can curse someone by looking at them – makes more sense when you realise people believed that the eyes actively emitted rays rather than passively receiving them.

This new article is by sensory historian Mark Smith, author of the book Sensing the Past, who examines how the meaning of the senses has changed over time.

This part particularly caught my eye (pun intended) as it describes how the print revolution made the sense of sight seem more ‘truthful’ and ‘objective’:

In part, at least, historians of the sensate attend to the nonvisual senses principally because we have, for so long, assumed the supremacy of the eye in the human sensorium. Historical interest in smell, sound, touch and taste has been animated often because of the assumed ascendancy of vision that emerged following the print revolution and the developments of the Enlightenment, many of which supposedly elevated the eye as the arbiter of truth, the producer of perspective and balance (courtesy of the invention and subsequent dissemination of visual technologies such as the telescope, microscope and camera) and, in the process, diluted the value placed on the nonvisual, often proximate senses of hearing, olfaction, tasting, and touching.

It seems – or, at least, some sensory historians now theorise – that this supposed revolution in the senses was so thoroughgoing that moderns –at least those of the Western 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century variety – increasingly dismissed the other senses as reliable indicators of reason and truth and, instead, came to associate them with emotionalism or, more often than not, hardly worthy of sustained scholarly investigation.


Link to ‘The explosion of sensory history’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist who has trouble sensing breakfast, let alone history.

2 thoughts on “The taste of the past”

  1. The belief that the eyes emit rays has cropped up again with the Mayo Clinic doctors newly randomized controlled study proving the efficacy of external qi energy healing — published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

    External Qigong for Chronic Pain,
    Results from a peer-reviewed, randomized, controlled, clinical study
    Ann Vincent, Brent A. Bauer, et al Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
    Jamia Hill, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota

    Good luck with your neuroscience research.

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