Sensing the Extraordinary

When reading the extraordinary writings of the mystics and visionaries of the Middle Ages it is impossible to ignore the multisensory complexity of spiritual experience. The colours, sounds, music, smells and taste of spiritual ecstasy are evoked, often synaesthetically, by holy women like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena.

So when Professor Barry Smith’s Radio 4 series ‘The Uncommon Senses‘ was advertised, my ears pricked up (a multisensory metaphor?). The series debunks the myth of the five senses, highlighting current neurological thinking that there are, in fact, between 21 and 32 senses.

The principle of the five human senses can be traced back to Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), where he devotes separate chapters to vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Medieval philosophers wrote much about the senses, often considering sight to be the most superior.

This illustration depicts the seven tunics and three humours of the eye. From ‘The Book of Macharius on the eye’, late 14th-century. BL, Sloane MS 981, f.68.
Medieval scholastic teaching about the senses was primarily derived from Galen’s division of the brain into specific regions. The human senses were thus also given particular locations in medieval philosophy. The diagram below shows the categorisation and situation of the external and internal senses. As well as the external senses of taste, hearing, and so on, other ventricles of the brain here correspond to the faculties of imagination, estimation, and memory. 

By Johann Lindner, Leipzig, 1472-1474. Wellcome MS 55, f.93.

Another strand of the philosophy of the senses in the Middle Ages distinguished Man from animals by our unique capacity for Reason.

The east wall in Longthorpe Tower, Petersborough, Cambridgeshire, c.1310
This early 14th century wall painting of the Wheel of the Five Senses depicts King Reason at the centre, his left hand controlling the wheel. Medieval understanding was that all our God-given human senses should be controlled by Reason, which gives us a rationality that separates us from animals. Around the wheel, anti-clockwise from the top left, are symbolic representations of the bestial world. A spider’s web denotes touch – generally thought of as the ‘lowest’ of the senses. The vulture’s sharp vision signifies sight, a monkey holding a piece of fruit, taste, a cockerel, known to crow at dawn, symbolises sound, along with a boar – which has poor vision but acute hearing. There are some faded areas of the painting, but it is possible to make out a hunting dog at the top right, who might represent smell.

Medieval astronomers like Campanus of Novora (c.1220-1296) made much progress in charting the planets and stars in the night sky, relying primarily on the sighting of those objects through telescopic instruments and astrological charts. Modern physicists have other mechanisms of locating, and ‘knowing’, the universe. Planet X, for example – long-considered to be an extra planet in our solar system – has not yet been visually observed, yet scientists claim to know of its existence through calculation and the observation of its gravitational effect on surrounding planets. 

Planet X remains invisible, yet seems to exist in its spatial and scientifically perceived presence.

So seem to operate the multitudinous senses that are part of our subconscious cognition. 

And perception, is a loaded term indeed.

I think these questions of sensory perception can help us to understand the extraordinary experiences of medieval visionaries. For while we might continue to term religious individuals who experience mystical phenomena as visionaries, the label is decidedly reductive when we consider the multisensory experience that they describe.

The medieval mystics, then (if that is a preferable term), were perhaps ahead of modern day science since they already knew of these multiple ways of perceiving the universe. Perhaps, modern scientific understanding has taken 600 or so years to catch up. 

How to define a ‘sense’ is of course problematic. We might consider that a human sense is a way through which the brain receives information about the world and the body. This allows for a fairly broad interpretation. Some scientists, however, restrict the definition to the three physical categories of incoming information – mechanical (touch, hearing and proprioception); chemical (taste, smell and internal senses); and light.

With such varied potentials of definition, it is easy to see how scientists have now identified many individual senses. The sense of touch, in fact comprises several somatic senses, including the perception of pressure, heat, and pain. Additionally, there are several ‘interoceptive’ senses which analyse information that originates in the body. For example, the organic sense (the sense of internal condition: hunger, thirst, pain, the need to empty the bladder etc.), and also the sense of balance, which is enabled by a fluid-filled vestibular system in the inner ear. This system also lets us sense acceleration through space, and is linked to the eyes, making it possible to cancel out our sense of motion. Moving your head while reading, for instance, makes little difference to your ability to focus on the words on the page.

The sense of ‘proprioception’ is the awareness that we have of where each of our body parts is located in space. Even when we close our eyes, for instance, we still know that our left leg is there. This sense works via receptors in the muscles called spindles, which tell the brain about the current length and stretch of the muscles.

Such receptors provide communication between the body and the brain: the brain’s way of perceiving sensory experience. In our skin, we have temperature-sensitive receptors, receptors that detect mechanical pressure, pain receptors known as nociceptors, and receptors that detect itches, called pruritic receptors. 

Taste can be divided into sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and in fact, the different types of food were linked to the body’s constitution in medieval medical understanding. The many Regimens of Health that were translated into the European vernaculars from the fourteenth century by writers like Bernard of Gordan, advised countering a cold constitution with warm, and spiced, foods. Medieval thinking, which had a holistic approach to the body and its health, seems more intuitive perhaps than modern medicine. But research is beginning to uncover the profound connection between body and mind through studies which, for example, show a symbiosis of the gut and the brain, and the plasticity of the brain – a function that means that practices like mindfulness actually alter the brain’s physiology. It seems that medieval physicians might have been right all along. 

It is possible to approach sensory phenomena by focusing on ‘incoming information’, ‘perceptual experience’, or how incoming sensory information is used. Bats have long been known to echo-locate. But some visually-impaired people have started to emulate echo-location by emitting a clicking sound with the tongue and listening for how it rebounds off the immediate environment. This ability depends on the sense of hearing, but the perceptual experience and function is more like vision. And studies have found that blind people are much better at echo-location than non-blind individuals.

Given that the senses often amalgamate in our perception (scientists have shown how the colour of food affects its taste, for example), it might be more fruitful to adopt a holistic approach. Some people experience a constant mixing-up of the senses, called synaesthesia. Described medically as a ‘condition’, I wonder if those synaesthetes would agree. Synaesthetic techniques have long been used for artistic purposes – John Keats’ poetry is rich in its blend of sensory experience – and many would consider such a dynamic experience of the world as more of a gift, than a disorder. Such examples perhaps throw up questions of consciousness itself.

Indeed, the sense of proprioception (the awareness of our bodies in space), can be lost, in rare cases. Sufferers develop a lack of coordination and eventually a complete lack of awareness of their body. They feel disembodied; that their mind and body are separate. But might it be possible, I wonder, to learn how to switch off this sense temporarily in order to exist only in the mind – or perhaps the spirit? Might the mystics of the Middle Ages have acquired sensory control through their intense meditations and experience of the metaphysical?

This is why such research seems vital for our understanding of medieval mystical phenomenology. 

Or perhaps medieval mystical phenomenology is vital to current research. 

For while it has taken 21st scientists hundreds of years to isolate, name, and describe myriad individual senses, human beings have experienced such complex perception from time immemorial. 

Medieval visionaries and devout people frequently described the experience of bodily and sensory phenomena as inextricable. Margery Kempe, of course, regularly describes seeing Christ as ‘verily’ (truly) with her bodily eye as with her spiritual eye. She knows these senses, or mechanisms, are different, but the resulting perception is the same. She also describes multisensory experience. She hears music gustatorily; ‘a sound of melodye so swet & delectable, hir thowt, as sche had ben in Paradyse’. And, in fact, Kempe herself conflates her own sensory experience synaesthetically. She smells ‘swet smellys wyth hir nose’. She sees ‘wyth hir bodily eyne many white thyngys flying al-abowte hir on euery syde as thykke in a maner as motys [motes] in the sunne’. When she becomes afraid of these visual disturbances she hears the voice of God, who tells her that it is ‘God that speketh in thee’: revealing how she now perceives such optical signifiers to have audible meaning. Such descriptions are common in the writings of medieval holy women, who learned to achieve a closeness with Christ in a visceral way, highly dependent on the image of God incarnated. 

Similarly, Catherine of Siena, who spends much of the Il Diagolo emphasising the spiritual need to repress her abject flesh, describes God’s mystical revelations using multisensory language which seems intrinsic, and necessary, for relating her experience. She explains the relationship between the different types of spiritual tears, as God teaches her, as being interconnected – ‘they season each other’. She recounts God’s promise of ‘spiritual calm’, when she ‘tastes milk’ from Christ in divine union. Such imagery connects, of course, to the medieval understanding of Jesus as Mother, popularised by Bernard of Clairvaux,  and sophisticatedly developed by Julian of Norwich. 

But Catherine’s revelations surpass even multisensorality. God tells her, ‘I want you to rise above your senses so that you may more surely know the truth’. She obeys. 

And then she knows truth. 

It is taken as read that Catherine knows how to transcend the very senses that lead her to divine communion. Such was the cultural-religious milieu, that sensory, or perceptive, experience was understood as limitless.

So what can we take from the assumed synaesthesia of such holy people in the Middle Ages? Should modern science even stop at its count of 32 senses? Can we even ‘count’ perception? And what can we learn from these extraordinary human experiences that were sensed so multifariously, and so determinedly-enduring that they were written, and read, and re-lived, and reanimated, over the course of nearly a millennia?

Human senses are extraordinary. 

Julian of Norwich writes that our changeable senses are of a mingled wisdom – human nature, mixed with divine enclosure:

‘God deemeth us upon our Nature-Substance, which is ever kept one in Him, whole and safe without end: and this doom is of His rightfulness. And man judgeth upon our changeable Sense-soul, which seemeth now one, now other, — according as it taketh of the parts, — and showeth outward. And this wisdom is mingled’. 

The senses can, indeed, seemeth now one, now other.

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