In his book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Juhani Pallasmaa argues that our culture privileges the senses of vision and hearing as the most sociable, while the sense of smell, touch and taste are deemed archaic “with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.” Without integrating all the senses, we will never be able to be in the world completely, with a full sense of belonging, intimacy and integration. A passage that stood out for me was dedicated to the significance of the shadow, which puts all senses on an equal footing:
“How much more mysterious and inviting is the street of an old town with its alternating realms of darkness and light than are the brightly and evenly lit streets of today! … In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze. … The human eye is most perfectly tuned for twilight rather than bright daylight.
… the extraordinarily powerful sense of focus and presence in the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt arises from the depth of shadow in which the protagonist is embedded like a precious object on a dark velvet background that absorbs light. The shadow gives shape and light to the object in light. … The art of chiaroscuro is a skill of the master architect too. In great architectural spaces, there is a constant, deep breathing of shadow and light; shadow inhales and illumination exhales light.”
Today around noon, while running through empty fields and along a forest, I saw a beautiful weather spectacle. Half of the sky was brightly illumined by the sun, the other was still submerged in fog. Wisps of smoky fog were dancing on the fields. The February sun was not its usual bright self, but more dim and hazy. The whole scenery plunged me into the depths of contemplation. In such moments, as the author of the above quoted book would undoubtedly agree, all the senses form a unity; they seem to coalesce and gently touch one another. I had a sense of being airborne, as if something was carrying me through the landscape. I had a brief moment of an utmost sharpness of thoughts and vision, with the body being the intricate part of it. While contemplating the deeply dark façade of the forest, I saw how wholeness does not let light stand above darkness, or the mind above the body. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki wrote in his book “In Praise of Shadows”
“A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for the shadows, there would be no beauty.”
Were it not for full sensual participation in the world, there would be no beautiful thoughts, either.
“….alternating realms of darkness and light…” reminds me of lying in the dark a few nights ago watching a firefly flashing its code to its reflection in the mirror on the wall. A beautiful jewel!
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A precious analogy. Thank you.
Very nicely written. Scientifically speaking, there’s the “triune brain theory” (the old brain theory) which neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean developed. MacLean coined the concept of the “limbic system” in 1952 and went on to place the limbic system into an evolutionary context. He proposed that the human brain is really three brains in one, a “triune brain.” These are the “Protoreptilian brain” (old brain), the “Paleomammalian brain” (emotional), and the “Neomammalian brain” (rational-neocortex). Also, the triune brain theory became popular through Carl Sagan’s Pulitzer prize winning 1977 book The “Dragons of Eden”.
As of now, this theory is no longer valid with neuroscientists because allegedly, the brain cannot be “divided” into 3 parts. First of all, the “reptilian brain” is equally present in all vertebrates, and it’s connected to all of the brain. So is the limbic. In fact now the limbic and the neocortex are essentially the same in all mammals, so one does not function without the other. This is the reason this model has been disregarded in neuroscience. All three parts of the brain are interconnected, they cannot be studied independently.
A blind person’s neocortex is perfectly normal, although he/she is blind, they will navigate life through touch, sound, taste and smell. They will rely much more on both the limbic and “reptilian” brain than a seeing person would. However, because the neocortex has helped mammals to compensate in ways never thought before, the old brain theory is no longer used.
When Juhani Pallasmaa says: “In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze. … The human eye is most perfectly tuned for twilight rather than bright daylight,” one gets the idea of how specialized senses are. They are pathways of communication to ourselves, yet each is only used sparingly, although most professions on earth demand we have vision. As one ages, however, one begins to understand what Pallasmaa is truly saying.
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I studied the brain a long time ago and found the subject really compelling. I love this idea of the parts of the brain being interconnected. That basically goes along with what Pallasmaa is saying, as you rightly point out.
Thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate the effort and research.
Lovely! I’ve long been entranced by the play of light and dark, and the beauty and mystery they create in combination. Recently I’ve been reading Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. I’m sure it’s going to be inspiring several of my next blog posts. I love especially what she says about the sense of smell: “Smell was the first of our senses, and it was so successful that in time that the small stump of olfactory tissue atop the nerve cord grew into a brain. Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled!”
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Thank you for your kind words.
I have heard of Ackerman’s book. It seems truly fascinating. I am looking forward to your posts.
“And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate.” – one of the best quotes from The Perfume.