Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/The Rivalry of the Higher Senses

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By G. T. W. PATRICK, Ph. D.,

PROBABLY no subject presents to the psychologist and the physiologist a greater number of unexplored regions than that of the senses and the organs of sense. As yet we do not know how many special senses we possess. To the traditional five are now added the muscular sense, about whose organs there is no little dispute; the temperature sense, including separate end-organs for sensations of heat and cold; and the now problematic sense of equilibrium, whose organs are thought to be the semi-circular canals. Still less is known about the senses of animals. Some of these, as has been shown, are sensitive to colors, sounds, tastes, and odors to which the human sensorium does not react. Most interesting are the patient experiments of Sir John Lubbock, proving that the eyes of ants are sensitive to the ultra-violet rays of light. To them, therefore, even "white" light is not white. "The familiar world which surrounds us" says Lubbock, "may be a totally different place to other animals. To them it may be full of music which we can not hear, of color which we can not see, of sensations which we can not conceive." The presence of doubtful sense organs in animals, such as the muciferous canals of fishes, strikingly suggests the limitations of science; for we not only do not understand these organs, but perhaps never can understand them, as such sensations may be outside the range of our possible experience.

Returning to the human body, we find that very little has been said about the relation of the senses to each other, the order of their development in the evolution of the race, or the present tendency of their relative development. The theory proposed by Democritus, that all our senses have been evolved from the sense of touch, seems likely to be established by biological studies. But it may be more accurate to say that all the senses are specialized forms of a primordial sense, which may have been less like our sense of touch than that of sight. In this connection one recalls, and with somewhat less skepticism, certain recent experiments of the French investigators in abnormal psychology, showing that hypnotized subjects see and hear with their finger-tips.[1] With the growth of intelligence, there has been a steadily increasing use of the two senses which give us the finest discriminations and the widest knowledge of our surroundings, viz., the senses of sight and hearing. When each animal was obliged to search for and select his own food largely by smell and taste, the latter senses were no doubt the best developed. For tones, colors, and form these animals had little care. They thought, as far as they thought at all, in images of taste and smell, as we think in images of sight and hearing. Many animals now are smell-minded, and in the thoughts and dreams of dogs and deer we may suppose that images of odors are as prominent as visual images are in our own. In man the crude organs of taste and smell have given place to the delicate eye and ear, both as avenues of knowledge and as sources of higher pleasures. What is true of taste and smell is true also of touch. Not confusing this with the muscular sense, the information we get from the sense of touch is small and the pleasure less. That this sense is capable of such remarkable improvement in the case of the blind is evidence only of its once greater use.

It is not now my purpose, however, to compare the senses of sight and hearing with the lower senses, but with each other. It is, perhaps, not realized by many that there are certain new conditions in modern life and certain innovations in our system of education that are bringing the eye into unprecedented importance in comparison with the ear and the other organs of sense; that this greater relative use of the sense of sight will result in its greater development, while the lessened use of the sense of hearing will lead to its deterioration. Such a result would not only threaten several noble fine arts connected with the ear, and incidentally weaken the memory, but would also effect an important change in man's personality. I will try to point out the prevailing eye-mindedness of our times, together with some of its causes. A moment's observation of our own stream of thought will show us how largely it is made up of visual images. Any one may easily verify for himself what the experience of deaf-mutes has proved, that thought is both possible and common without language, though this has so often been denied. It is quite true that ear-minded people, with small visualizing power, carry on much of their thinking by the symbolic imagery of words. Most people doubtless do their more abstract thinking largely through these convenient media, though Galton suggests that abstract ideas are, after all, only generic images, composite photographs, as it were, of the various individual things of our experience. At any rate, if we examine our own minds we see that what goes on there is, for the most part, a ceaseless flow of images of concrete things, and that of these images the visual ones are in a vast preponderance over those of the other senses. Even the word image suggests a visual form, and imagination should mean derivatively the reproduction of such forms. In our abnormal mental states—such as dreams or the delirium arising from fever or drugs—our experiences are visions rather than sounds. In our dreams we see much and hear comparatively little, while it is still rarer to dream of tastes and odors. The congenitally blind are, of course, exceptions to this rule, while blind deaf-mutes, like Laura Bridgman, dream in terms of what senses they have, and there are other exceptions. There are "voices" occasionally as well as "visions," and ear-minded people dream less, no doubt, in visual terms. But the dreamer is the "seer," as our very language shows.

Now, there is, in the nature of mental life, no reason why our images should be drawn so largely from the sense of sight. It is an accidental circumstance, due to the fact that we use the eye more than any of the other organs. The difference is both quantitative and qualitative. Our ears, to be sure, are never closed, but if we note the character of our auditory perceptions, we see that little attention or intelligence is needed in this direction. The significance of what we hear bears no comparison with the significance of what we see. In every-day life the principal office of the ear is the apprehension of spoken language. The limited and ever-repeated vocabularies of our verbal symbols call for little discriminative use. Thus far the ear is a drudge, carrying lifeless symbols to be interpreted. Even the spoken word is by many persons mentally turned immediately into the visual image, either of the thing represented or the printed or written word. On the other hand, some people, in reading, mentally represent the spoken word, but it is the motor representation of the spoken word, not a sensory image of its sound. The intelligent hearing of music forms a notable exception to the usual mechanical action of the ear, yet in the life of the average man the time given to music is comparatively insignificant.

The eye is not only more active, but its action is more intelligent. It brings us into closer relations with the outer world. It gives us not a time series of single elements, but a constantly changing space series of numerous elements. It is the constant and normal interpreter of our outer life. By its means we select our food, recognize our friends, detect our enemies, guide our steps, and co-ordinate the movements of our arms and hands in eating, drinking, writing, reading, sewing, weaving, cooking, washing, plowing, planting, building, painting, drawing, driving, rowing, fencing, and in innumerable other manual dexterities. In all these movements our actions have become automatic—that is, they are directed reflexly by the muscular sense, but still always need some assistance from the higher senses, and the sense used in almost all cases is the sense of sight. For instance, with closed eyes we can write, but imperfectly. A practiced musician may play with closed eyes, but commonly, even in this art pertaining to the ear, the eye is busy, glancing at the keys and following intently the printed score. So far has our eye-mindedness gone that we use the word see not only for purely intellectual perception, but even for perception by the other senses. We say that we see the fallacy of an argument, or we see that the paper is smooth, or the orange sweet, or even that the piano is out of tune, when we mean that we understand, or fee], or taste, or hear.

Now, in the use and relative importance of the two higher senses there has been a marked change even in historic times. It is possible, indeed, to trace the evolution of the eye during the last two thousand years, and to discover some of the causes producing the change. The ancient Greeks, for example, were ear-minded. By this is not meant that the sense of hearing was at that time absolutely more prominent than the sense of sight, but relatively so. Notice, then, how the Greeks used the ear, with its complementary organ, the tongue, while we use the eye and the hand. They were a conversing people; we are a writing and reading people. With them poetry was sung or recited; with us it is read. They conducted politics in the Agora; we in the newspaper. Success in political affairs depended with them largely upon oratory; with us but slightly. The instrument of philosophy and discussion was with them conversation (dialectic); with us it is the monthly or quarterly review. With them music was the most prominent branch in popular education; with us it is least so. Although the principle of Greek education was harmony of all the physical and mental powers, we have only to glance at the educational system at Athens to see the comparative unimportance of eye education. In the training of Athenian youth, next to gymnastics, music received the most attention, and grammar—the remaining one of the three elementary subjects—included learning as well as reading the poets. Music included not only singing and playing upon the cithara and lyre, but also the cultivation of poetry. Music and poetry, again, were not cultivated as fine arts by the wealthy and leisurely classes merely, but were a part of the very life of the people. They were composed, too, upon the tongue, not upon paper, and they were apprehended and learned by the ear, not from a score or book. Even the laws were taught in song at Athens. Law and tradition, music and poetry, even arts and sciences, were transmitted orally from one generation to the next, apprehended by the ear and stored in the memory. In earlier times, when writing was not in general use, codes of laws, Homeric poems, and Vedic hymns were transmitted orally and accurately from generation to generation. Instruction in those days did not come through the cold medium of a book, but directly through the living words of parent and teacher This constant use of memory and reliance upon it gave it strength, and a man's learning, if limited, was at least in his head at command and not in his library. Compare modern fiction with that of other times. Then stories were told, not written; and listened to, not read. To say nothing of the training it gave the memory, was there not something more humanistic in the social company of story-tellers and eager listeners than in the modern writing and reading of novels? Now, the novelist alone in his study tediously composing and the reader alone in his room mentally devouring the printed page present phases of life that are unsocial, if not unheal thful and unnatural.

In the "good old times" men depended for their knowledge upon what they had either learned for themselves or heard and remembered. Now we depend, to a great extent, upon our libraries and books of reference. We quote the writings now, not the sayings, of great men, and do not come directly under their personal influence. In this respect there has been a great change even within a century, as books have multiplied and students are gathered less in the literary centers. As an example of our dependence on written authorities, may be mentioned the popular apotheosis of Webster's and Worcester's dictionaries. The old worship of the Bible seems to have been weakly transferred to the dictionary. In buying one of these books a person congratulates himself if, by paying a trifle more, he gets a supplement with a universal pronouncing biographical dictionary or gazetteer, forgetting that it is better to become acquainted with the works of one great man than to know when five hundred great men were born and how their names were accented; and that it is better to go and visit one range of mountains or large city than to learn by staring at a map where all the cities and mountains are.

Our prevailing eye-mindedness is further shown by the readiness with which the mind is impressed through the eye, and the ease with which visual images are retained. A teacher, wishing to impress some essential point, illustrates or even writes the same upon the blackboard. A child who has been told a hundred times, without result, to correct some fault, finally learns the new way at once when presented to him by sight or touch. In physics, mechanics, and mathematics the so-called "graphic method" is used more and more. When other forms of illustration fail, we fall back upon the visible curve. The sociologist lays down his abscissas and ordinates and illustrates to the eye by curves the relation of the increase of crime to the scarcity of corn. Many teachers believe that the pedagogical discovery of our age is that it is easier to impress the mind through the eye than through the ear. This is undoubtedly true, and such teaching is successful, if by success is meant the mere imparting of instruction, so that it is understood and retained. In every subject the blackboard is freely used, and in many has become indispensable. The old-fashioned mental arithmetic has given place to the so-called "practical" arithmetic, a name which seems to be a misnomer, since the student of it is, for the rest of his life, committed to the use of pencil and paper for any mathematical computation higher than the multiplication table. Grammar even is taught by diagrams, and logic by circles. Blackboards, maps, and charts cover the walls of our school-rooms; globes, figures, models, chemical and physical apparatus, cover the tables. This constant appeal to the eye, prevails not only in our intermediate schools but also in our Kindergartens and in our colleges. In the former, instruction is by object-lessons. Excepting some exercise in singing, all the instruction is in form and color and in manual training. The student thus trained with respect to his eye and hand from the primary to the high school, selects, when he enters college, subjects for which he is best prepared. These are the material sciences and arts with their experimental laboratories, and their visible and tangible material and apparatus. In our colleges and universities, therefore, we notice the yearly increasing prominence given to the material sciences and to branches of technology, and the crowding out of the time-honored humanistic studies. These so-called "liberal arts," studied for subjective culture rather than for objective utilities, have, during the whole history of education, figured as the central and principal group of studies in higher education, and still do so to a large extent in our older colleges and in European universities. Among the subjects thus contracted by the pressure of the material arts and sciences may be mentioned mathematics, studied as an end, not as a means; logic, the science of thought; ethics, the science of conduct; classical literature; music, the most cultivating of the fine arts; and, to some extent, history and politics. Language is much studied, but more for utility than for culture. Hence Greek and Latin give way to the modern languages. But even language does not check our eye-mindedness. Here, if anywhere, one would suppose that the ear and tongue would be trained. Curiously enough, it is again the eye and hand. Greek and Latin are usually studied by sight. We learn to read them and possibly to write them, but not to understand or speak them. This is to some extent true also of modern languages. The French and German learned in our schools and colleges are the written rather than the spoken languages. Strange though it is, since language is the rightful inheritance of the ear and tongue, and is the very groundwork of our social life, that our young people should be found studying it silently in their several places, thumbing their pens and their printed dictionaries, yet the explanation is not far to seek. We are a reading rather than a speaking people, and the written language is of more use to us than the spoken. We care more to be able to consult French and German books than to converse with French and German people. To be sure, there is at present a wide-spread movement among language teachers to correct this evil; but, as a fact, language is studied in the same old way, and few students seem to understand that a language is not known unless it is known to the ear and tongue.

If now we seek the causes of our prevailing and increasing eye-mindedness, we shall find them chiefly in the invention and rapid extension of printing, engraving, and photography. These are the arts that have drawn so heavily upon our visual resources and made it so easy to dispense with the ear and the memory. The yearly increasing time given to reading and writing, compared with the time given to listening and speaking, is apparent to everybody. The present generation is a book-and-newspaper-reading generation. We get our politics from the daily paper, our art from the magazine, our science from the text-book, our amusement from the novel, our gossip from the biography, our facts from the cyclopædia. We speak of the man of education as the "well-read" man. He reads, of course, extensively in some special subject connected with his work or profession. As a foundation for this, however, he has read some standard works in mathematics, or philosophy, or physical science, or history, or philology. Of the classical writers he has, of course, read a few, such for instance as Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Wordsworth, Burns, Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow, Bryant, Poe, Dante, Virgil, Horace, Homer, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Motley, Prescott, Bancroft, Livy, Herodotus, Cicero, Carlyle, Webster, Irving, Emerson, Pascal, Voltaire, Ruskin, Plato, Kant, Mill, Darwin, Spencer, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Cervantes, Hugo, George Eliot, Bulwer, Kingsley, Hawthorne, Bronte", Black, Collins, Dumas. Besides these, or many like them, he has read a great number of contemporary writings, including novels, travels, biographies, essays, philosophy, science, and art. New books, reviews, and articles, relating to his profession or specialty he must, of course, be constantly reading. Besides these he must at least glance over some of the leading articles in the best of the hundreds of weekly, monthly, and quarterly periodicals, magazines, and reviews. Then there is his private correspondence with daily letters to read and write. With all this mass of reading, however, he might not become quite a reading machine, and might find a little time for the use and cultivation of other bodily organs than the eye, were it not for the daily paper. The tireless steam press ruthlessly grinding out some thousand large pages per hour has become a kind of tyrant rather than a servant of man. By what curious perversion of modern conscience have we learned to believe it our daily duty to read that A. B. robbed a bank in New York and that C. D. wrote a book in Boston, that E. F. married a wife in Maine and that G. H. killed one in Missouri, that the weather is colder in California and warmer in France? But if we have learned to skip the crimes and casualties, we consider it our bounden duty daily to scan at least the field of politics. What one reads others must write and print. Day and night, therefore, editors, reporters, correspondents, and printers are busy with eye and hand.

As a result partly of our eye-mindedness, partly of our conditions of life, a number of arts both æsthetic and useful have sprung into being or into new life, which promise still further to increase the use of the eye. Among these we may mention the art of decoration exhibited in architecture; in the internal embellishment of dwellings, churches, and public buildings; in dress, unless we rank this as a separate fine art; in stage decoration, in floriculture, and in many other ways. There is next the art of illustration, which has enormously increased the circulation of certain classes of books, magazines, weekly and even daily papers. Then there is photography, an art which has lately received a wonderful expansion, made popular on the one hand by cheap and rapid processes, on the other hand applied to the highest scientific purposes. No less have drawing and designing extended their fields in every direction. Type-writing as a brand-new art has sprung into existence; and, finally, the art of advertising has gained a distinctive place, scores of pages in a single magazine being covered with these silent but fascinating appeals to the eye. In all these and in many other ways the eye and the hand are called into ceaseless and intelligent use, while the ear and the tongue are idle.

There are, or at least there were, three good old arts involving the use of the ear and the tongue—namely, music, oratory, and conversation. If, as the Greeks believed, the highest good be the harmonious exercise of all our powers, there are no other arts whose loss or deterioration at the present time society could so ill afford. Of these, music is the first in worth and fortunately has suffered least thus far from the decline of the organs upon which it depends. But music, although carried to a high degree of perfection by specialists, has no longer its former place in the home and in the life of the people. Musical instruments are many, and a kind of solitary, eye-and-hand music is common enough. Contrast also the influence of the opera and theatre. The people prefer to go to the latter to see rather than to the former to hear. Notice, too, the tendency to make both the theatre and the opera spectacular to meet the popular demand for something to please the eye, so that we go even to the opera to see rather than to hear. When Richard Wagner substituted the "musical drama" for the opera, it was not merely an innovation in music nor a union of all the arts of the stage, but rather a surrender of the language of sound to the language of form.

In its three most distinctive fields, oratory is suffering a considerable deterioration. These are the pulpit, the bar, and the legislative hall. The preacher no longer tells his hearers what he knows, but reads to them what he himself has read from the commentary or the review. The widely bemoaned decadence of the pulpit is not alone due to the decay of theologies, but also to the loss of that on which its vitality depends—power to speak and to listen. Listening, too, is a lost art. At church we are often engaged in an intent review of our own mental images; in conversation we are not so busied apprehending what is said as considering what we shall say. When we wish, therefore, to attend to and remember an address or lecture, we find both difficult. In the practice of law oral pleading has been superseded to a considerable extent by the type-written brief. In our legislative assemblies the machinery of the caucus and committee-room has taken the place of the direct oral appeal.

The last of our voice arts is conversation. A recent writer in The New Review, in an article on Talk and Talkers of To-day, calls in question the "commonplace of social criticism" that conversation is a lost art, and instances Mr. Charles Villiers, Mr. Gladstone, Lord Granville, Mr. Morley, and Lord Salisbury as talkers who may be compared with Sydney Smith, Macaulay, Lord Derby, and Bishop Wilberforce. But one might well ask whether these are talkers of to-day or yesterday. Good talkers no doubt there are even in the younger generation, but in comparison with the number of scholars of the day the number of good talkers is pitifully small. What men know they have acquired for the most part through the eye, and such knowledge is not in form to be brought out readily through the mouth. This is a generation of readers, writers, thinkers, experimenters, inventors, but not of talkers. Under our present conditions of life we may expect conversational power to decline still more than it has done.

In conclusion, it may be asked what the effect of our eye-mindedness is and will be upon the memory. Psychologists no longer speak so much of the memory as the memories. With the greater use of the eye, the eye-memory will gain; with the lesser use of the ear the ear-memory will lose. Practically, however, our present mental habits are destructive of our retentive powers generally. To the vast number of visual impressions made upon the mind daily, it is impossible to apply the two principal conditions of good memory—attention and repetition. Newspaper reading may be taken as a good illustration of our memory-destroying habits. In a half-hour devoted to "glancing over" a bulky newspaper, many thousand visual impressions may be received. To the sensations themselves we pay no attention, and usually but little to the words or to the thoughts represented. The matter we read is not worth careful attention nor any repetition. We retain little or none of it and do not care to. An item that we may wish to retain for future use is perhaps cut out and pasted in a scrap-book, and, lest we fail even to remember where it is, our scrap-book has an index. The eye-educated man is found to be well posted in a subject, provided he has a day's notice in which to "cram" from his note-books and library. Nothing suffers so much by disuse as memory. The memory age is past. The merchant has found a better way of keeping his accounts than in his head. Everywhere a man's necessary knowledge far surpasses his retentive capacity. Some will say that this is merely an incidental change in the direction of our mental activity due to our changed conditions of life, and indeed an economical change. Any real deterioration of memory, however, would be a loss of mental symmetry for which there could be no compensation.

In our present enthusiastic devotion to the eye it is not alone the symmetry of the mind that is threatened nor the voice arts alone that will suffer. It may be that we are neglecting that which is in itself one of the richest sources of good. It has not yet been shown that the world of form is more worthy of our cultivation than the world of sound. "There is something as yet unanalyzed about sound," says Mr. Haweis, "which doubles and intensifies at all points the sense of living: when we hear we are somehow more alive than when we see. Apart from sound, the outward world has a dream-like and unreal look—we only half believe in it; we miss at each moment what it contains. It presents, indeed, innumerable pictures of still life; but these refuse to yield up half their secrets."

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  1. See Hystéro-épilepsie masculine: Suggestion, Inhibition, Transposition des Sens. By Prof. Fontan. Revue Philosophique, August, 1887.