‘Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Philosophy and Neuroscience of Perception’ is a three-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the Science in Culture theme.
Our everyday understanding of perception is that we see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. The vocabulary of five distinct senses ramifies through our descriptions of thought, emotion, and aesthetics. Until recently, philosophers and scientists alike have accepted this framework and studied each of the senses in isolation. Modern cognitive neuroscience is challenging our understanding of sensory perception: instead of five we might have to count up to 33 different senses, each served by dedicated sets of receptors. Studying the senses in isolation is also misleading: everyday experiences, such as watching a film or eating a meal, involve different senses working together. At the cinema, the sounds we hear seem to originate from the lips of the actors we see on the screen, even though we know they come from distant loudspeakers. Flavour is a particularly rich example of sensory interaction: what we call the ‘taste’ of food and drink largely comes from smell rather than taste buds. A loss of smell then, whether temporary or permanent, will greatly affect one’s eating experience. Flavour experiences are also affected by the colour of the foods, their spatial arrangements and even the sounds that accompany them. Finally, the sense of our bodies not only combines tactile and proprioceptive cues, but is also dependent on vision. All these effects demonstrate that multisensory interactions are the rule rather than the exception. This shift in the study of perception towards multisensory experience requires an entirely new framework, to which both the humanities and the sciences need to contribute.
We will draw upon the expertise of philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, allowing them to work together in entirely new ways. Through seminars, workshops and conferences, they will consider existing scientific evidence within a philosophical framework, with the specific intention of raising critical questions to be tested empirically. Philosophers and scientists will work together in this work, including the design and conduct of experiments within a new experimental space at the Institute of Philosophy, the first of its kind to be dedicated to interactions between the sciences, the art and the humanities. Collaborations, events and new online resources, available to specialists, the media and the public, will highlight the importance of the multisensory revolution in research on perception.
Through extensive collaboration with a variety of other partners, not only academic but also in the arts, industrial, medical and educational sectors, our project should also have strong impact within and beyond the academic world. It will aid in the development and design of new technologies that use multisensory interactions to help deaf and blind people and those who suffer from untreatable pain, changes in body image, or reduction in the sense of smell. It will inform the rapidly advancing efforts to enhance sensory experience, such as in the appreciation of the visual and performing arts, in the retail and service industries, and in gastronomy and education.