An eye-opening look at the mechanics of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
Rosenblum (Psychology/Univ. of California, Riverside) begins with a memorable scene, as he accompanies a troupe of bicyclists through a suburban street. All are blind. Like bats, they navigate through echolocation, making sounds and detecting their reflection from nearby objects. The author emphasizes that this requires no special gift. Following his instructions, readers with eyes shut will have no trouble sensing a wall; bicycling requires practice. As encouragement, he points out that an entire league of blind baseball players exists, assisted by bases and balls that emit sounds. Casting his net widely, Rosenblum interviews individuals with sensory skills (master sommeliers, film and architectural sound designers, professional tasters), those who have lost senses but adapted (blind artists, deaf lip readers) and, perhaps most important, scientists who work in this field. It turns out that no sense works in isolation (food eaten in the dark tastes bland), our bodies react to stimuli too faint to detect and practice not only makes perfect, it produces detectable changes in our brains, sometimes within hours. Readers will have to pay closer attention to the book’s second half, which recounts an avalanche of sensory research, aided by new high-tech scanners that reveal an amazingly plastic brain whose local areas once assigned to specific senses routinely exchange responsibilities. We can see speech, hear shapes, touch flavor, taste odors and smell affection.
Rosenblum’s enthusiasm is contagious and his prose accessible, and he is mostly successful in explaining massive amounts of information about sensory abilities we take for granted.