Oct. 25th, 2012

gusl: (Default)
Perhaps one of the defining traits of "nerds" is a low level of body awareness, which comes with "spending too much time in the head". This may explain why yoga has been so revealing for me. I have been learning which sensations correspond to stretch, strain, and pain; and how to move muscles independently of other muscles (often my brain used to think of them as just one thing). Sometimes I need visual feedback to learn to control my muscles. I am lucky to have a teacher who understands how unintuitive this is for me.

I wish we had a standard language for naming specific sensations. I would like to convey precisely the twinge on my lower back, which might be a pinched nerve, but might just be soreness. If my teacher could feel what I feel, he would know what it was, but instead his judgement has to rely on my imperfect attempts at describing it.

When it comes to bodily sensations, we don't know how much subjectivity there is. Psychologists (psychophysicists) can often quantify the subjectivity of senses (say color), because even when words fail, they can do experiments to test whether subjects are able to detect tiny differences in stimuli (perhaps defining a metric on perceptual space, or more!), and then quantify how much people differ in this ability, in different regions of stimulus space. But when it comes to your body, it is much harder to stimulate a sensation to a precision worthy of being called "reproducible". And then there's habituation (which is also a problem for scientists trying to study smell).

Right now you could start a philosophical food fight by bringing up the label-switching problem (namely that, just because you and your teacher are in verbal agreement doesn't mean that your experiences agree), but I just want to be practical here: how can we develop a shared vocabulary that would allow me to better convey my sensation to my teacher, so that he may make a better guess about what is wrong with my back? Are there existing human cultures in which people can easily convey their bodily sensations to each other?

I think that the biggest obstacle here is establishing joint attention. It is easy to teach the names of visual stimuli to a seeing person. But when it comes to coining words to describe types of pain in the back, this becomes like two blind people trying to come up with words for categorizing shapes (they can experience shapes by touch, but without joint attention, i.e. let's say they are not allowed to pass shapes to each other).

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Why are "the arts" traditionally visual and/or auditory? Because out of all our senses, vision and hearing are the only senses whose stimulus-response mapping is reliable enough. With the other senses, there is too much variation within and across people to have any control over their experience (which also explains why we have so few olfactory words/concepts). Smell and taste have very little spatiotemporal resolution. Touch may actually be a good candidate.

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