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53 Senses : International edition : Tuesday, 11 December 2018 19:55 ST : a service of The Public Press
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Washing one's hands of
the conflict between the
powerful and the
powerless means to side
with the powerful, not to
be neutral.
– Paulo Freire (1921-1997)

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53 Senses

     by Marlow Shami

"We have fifty three senses? But I can barely handle five!" This comment from one of my workshop participants got me thinking. How did we learn to think of more support and connection as overwhelming? Perhaps we simply weren't taught to experience our sensory connections with earth as real or valuable.

The root of the misconception lies in how overwhelming our lives are when we operate with just a few dominant ungrounded senses. That workshop participant assumed the more senses used, the greater her exposure to stress via over stimulation.

Just the opposite is true.

Think of each of your five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight) as a rock in the foundation that supports your home. Five stones won't allow an addition off the main house, nor will they support the weight of a second story. A storm might push your home off such a minimal foundation. The more senses you awaken and use the more support you will have in all your endeavors. More is better. The more sensory support you have, the less stress you'll experience. When stress does sneak up, your sense-ability's wisdom naturally helps you understand the source of your stress and guides you to what is needed to feel alive and whole again.quiet zone
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Ecopsychology is situated at the intersection of a number of fields of inquiry, including environmental philosophy, psychology, and ecology, but is not limited by any disciplinary boundaries. At its core, ecopsychology suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well being; that the needs of one are relevant to the other.

Sensory ecopsychology, a branch of ecopsychology, focuses on how the quality of human life is directly linked to the quality of one's relationship with nature via the senses. Michael Cohen, Ed. D., has devoted 40 years to the teaching and researching sensory ecopsychology, also known as organic psychology.
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Late on a winter evening, I was on my way home from Albany, New York. On the thruway entry ramp, I was struck by an urge to pull over. I honored this urge – even though my mind pointed out there was no problem -- and stopped. As I stepped out of the car my feet touched down on black ice. Cars drove by ignoring my waves to slow down. I sat in the car for twenty minutes watching car after car pass my warning flails and lights. Each passing car's brake lights lit up at the curve of the ramp just before sliding out of control. Why did I stop and why did they not? Perhaps the drivers were preoccupied – thinking about work, listening to the radio, or unable to find a rational explanation for the subtle sensory communications like the one's I'd experienced.

In the '50s the U.S. Atomic Commission conducted a study to learn how much time we spent indoors and discovered the average American spent 95% of adult life indoors. We are designed to experience our sensory connections as a part of the natural environment yet the walls of our cars, homes, and work places literally cut us off from ourselves. The foundation and anchor to life – our multisensory nature-- is often muted by walls.

Think of a time you have been really thirsty. Recall a hot day when you took a hike and forgot your water bottle, or maybe you were stuck on line somewhere after eating a bag of salty chips. That sense of thirst is real, just as real as the water that will satisfy it. This is a sense, the sense of thirst. You can't see, taste, touch, hear, or smell it, but it is real. Without this sense we would not know when our body becomes dehydrated. Healing our senses is not only essential to life, but to our happiness as well. Our exquisite sensory nature helps preserve our species and keeps us aware of being a part of the web of life. Our sensory connection to Earth's diversity of life insures healthy food, air, water, and companionship. When the connection is compromised we as a species make political, environmental, scientific, and social decisions with out the input of nature, and outcomes are often not sustainable or life giving.

Depression, anxiety, and obesity are at epidemic proportions in the U.S. We are facing unprecedented environmental challenges, directly linked to human activity. More often then not, these are the symptoms of the disruption of our primal relationship with nature. Distress is the courier, communicating the message of a broken connection to this essential relationship. Rigorous scientific studies indicate that self-esteem and cognitive function increase; depression and symptoms of attention deficit disorder, decrease in those who spend time in intimate contact with the natural world. We make better choices when we are aware of being part of rather then a part from nature.

Dr. Michael Cohen, a leader in the field of ecopsycholgy, breaks down these fifty-three senses and sensitivities into four categories. Just to give you a quick idea as to your vast sensory potential I've listed a few senses under each category below. You can find the full list in Cohen's book Reconnecting With Nature.


  1. The radiation senses: sense of color, sense of moods and identities associated with color, sense of temperature.
  2. The feeling senses: sensitivity to gravity, air and wind pressure, and motion.
  3. The chemical senses: hormonal sense, such as pheromones, hunger for food, water or air.
  4. The mental senses: pain, external and internal, mental or spiritual distress, sense of self, including friendship, companionship and power, psychic capacity.

These many senses are the real stuff that feeds our body, mind and soul. Senses and sensations usually feel alien to a modern person brought up closeted from life's sensory connections. Reason is a sense unique to our species; however it is no more valuable than the other 52 senses. In fact this sense alone can be our own worst enemy and the guard at the door of our closet. It might be scary to venture out, especially given our cultural attitude about nature being wild, primitive, and destructive.

That winter night I was able to honor my senses by acting on them. I sensed the freezing temperature on my skin as I got into my car, the quality of the street lamp's light reflecting on the road, and my car's motion felt a bit different than expected, affecting my sense of balance as I steered. I might have sensed stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) from drivers that had driven and slid on the ramp before I arrived.

As I made these subtle sensory connections I felt a healthy surge of adrenaline before stopping the car. The adrenaline alerted me to my sense of fear and dread of injury. Acknowledging the fear, even though I had no logical reason to be experiencing it, heightened my sensitivity to the subtle cues and I made a good decision. Once stopped, my sense of reason put some of the sensory input together and I confirmed my suspicions by placing my foot on the black ice covering the road surface.

Take time to honor your senses. Experience the senses nature designed for our survival. See how you can ally your dominant cognitive senses of thinking and reason with the true sustenance only your multi–sensory self can provide.


Project NatureConnect ecopsych.com (learn about the Natural Systems Thinking Process here, a simple and powerful method used to awaken the senses).
International Community for Ecopsychology www.ecopsychology.org www.anaturalsense.com

Reconnecting With Nature Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth, Michael J. Cohen
My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, Chellis Glendinning
Ecopsychology Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Brown

Marlow Shami has a private nature-based healing practice in Litchfield, CT. She conducts workshops, and publishes a quarterly e-zine NaturalSense. Her specialty is the healing connection between humans and the natural world. marlowshami@sbcglobal.net. You may subscribe to the free NaturalSense e-zine at marlowshami.com.com.

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