Sense and Sensibility

For the longest time we’ve been misled by Descartes. We’ve been told time and again that our mind is the seat of the highest reason and emotions are a separate zone that has little to do with our critical faculties. In view of recent developments in neurosciences, we should rewire our understanding about what truly makes sense and how our sensibility is formed.

For centuries, the mystics, Deepak Chopra no less in modern conundrum, have tried to convince us that I’m therefore I think. We’ve always been annoyed by the fact that people who make the least sense are often ones who make the most sense. Antonio Damasio’s seminal book, The Feeling of What Happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness, sheds more light on how our actions are truly arrived at through information sent from our somatic markers. One example cited in this enlightening book is that in a critical situation, such as heading toward a collision, the somatic markers throughout our body alert us and dictate our action long before our brain has adequate time to process the information. Malcom Gladwell in Blink brings up another example that we’ve known all along to be true but couldn’t really put a finger to it. Gladwell’s research shows that an art investigator has an inkling about whether an artefact is forgery or genuine within seconds of looking at it.

If we were to take these findings seriously, we must re-think the way we often categorize people as if they belong to separate types. Pragmatic people are often dubbed as being dull and efficient and they’re as far removed from intelligence as tofutti and Parmesan, whereas sensitive people are more likely to be considered sensible, wacky and yes so damn smart. As it turns out, it has nothing to do with intelligence at all. It has more to do with how tuned in the sensory systems in each of us are. It appears that the more attention we pay to our surrounds, the better our sensory systems will be honed. Those people that are waywardly pragmatic or dogmatic are then people who won’t break out of their molds. And those most endowed with sensibility (I believe the matter of taste must in some way come from hereabout) are often known to be undisciplined and adventurous.

If we were to take everything that’s said above into account and bear it out against what we’ve been hammered consistently to believe about discipline, we must conclude that discipline plays a very minor role in the totality of learning. The concept of No Pain No Gain as an equation for learning should be eradicated. For whatever that most appeals to a person’s sensibility in the end will out his or her proclivity in learning. To see how much damage has been caused by parents by meddling with their children’s careers, all you have to do is to interview those engineering, economics, law graduates who turn out in the end to be interior designers, film directors and literary critics. It seems that interest should always come first before perseverance or discipline can take effect. A person driven by the passion of his interest will in the long run make something out of their life rather than those forced into things they detest.

The fear of emotions, the belief that they often lead one to silly blunders or calamitous errors of judgment, has always been touted against overly emphasis on whatever that appeals to our senses. This is of course a paradox inherited from the Victorian age. Because how can a person do wrong if he or she follows whatever his or her instinct tells her to do? Those that are confused are certainly people who have problems believing in their own emotions. Those that are so out of touch with personal relations are again people who restrain from truly feeling the emanations of each situation they are in. Just as those art investigators who know within seconds of looking at an artefact, we should be able to sense the conditions of a situation we find ourselves in.

The proponents of Think!, a book that refutes Blink!, would like us to think that we can’t trust our emotions. It shows how certain people who repeatedly make the same mistakes because they trust their instinct over their reason. These advocates seem to me quite facetious about the idea of right and wrong, as if every situation is a decision in the nick of time that spells success or doom. As if when one’s in a millisecond situation, the pressing of the wrong button will blow one away forever. Think what happens if you don’t press that button at the millisecond. You’ll still be blown away for sure. There is always that fifty-fifty chance in every critical situation in our life. The question should be more about how well-accumulated our experiences are up to that point or what have brought us to that situation rather than about the right or wrong button to press. I’m inclined to think that those with a wealth of experiences, thus with more seasoned sensibility, will likely survive any such critical point: they would likely have scooted out of the situation at a mere glance rather than waited for that millisecond point to explode in their faces! And we should therefore speculate that those who repeatedly make the same mistakes in their lives must not be very perceptive people, or they would not be so numbed as not instinctually to learn from their past mistakes; we’ve been often told by psychotherapists that traumatic experiences tend to cause us to refrain from repeating certain acts.

To have good sense then means to exercise our senses to the fullest, which naturally involves some kind of shenanigans as they’re part and parcel of what make up for our natural learning curves.

A version of this essay was published in Now! Jakarta, March 2010

2 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility

  1. david s.

    Richard,

    I am truly at awe, yet perplexed and bemused as well upon reading every piece of your articles, including this one. You truly are the master of deep thinking and how you used certain words to create certain effects is really remarkable. I wish I could learn from you, no matter how little I could get. Thank you……

  2. litchap Post author

    Thank you so much for your kind comment. It makes me feel some what vindicated that my writing connects with some readers like you.

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