Sunday, April 25, 2010

Brief Thoughts on a Sensory Experience

Earlier this year, I went to Dr. McGuire to have my wisdom teeth pulled. After taking one look at the x-ray, McGuire let out a quiet, “Ooh.” This is never a good sign. Ever. In this case, I had a cyst growing around one of my teeth, thus explaining the nearly excruciating pain I’d been in for the past few days. Fortunately, he could operate and fix the issue that day. The only real side effect (other than obtaining a few dreamy days’ worth of Percocet) was a numbing of a nerve that went across the left side of my chin. McGuire assured me this was normal, and that the feeling would return, even if it took a few months.

The doc was right. After about a month, feeling began to return – but in the form of pins and needles. Then something very odd happened. Every time I drank something, especially if it was cold, it felt as if a little was spilling out of my mouth. I was constantly wiping my chin. My beard made my discovery that nothing in fact was spilling out take a few days. Finally I realized this. It’s sort of hard to explain, but let me try:

Whenever any cold liquid touched the inside of my bottom lip and chin, it ran across the nerve that was regaining sense – and this experience made it feel exactly as if there was something cold pouring on the outside of my lip and chin. Exactly. I kept experimenting with this, because it was so odd. I could recognize that nothing was on the outside of my lip and chin, but still feel like it was.

Although this is odd, and I could dive into a Cartesian doubting of all sensory experience on account of this, I am more interested in what happened after this. Our minds are powerful things, and mine did something truly wonderful.

After I recognized that there was nothing on the outside of my lip and chin even though it felt as if there was, my mind’s interpretation of the sensory data changed. The actual sensory data did not change; and it still hasn’t – but how my mind chose to relay this data was transformed. No longer did the feeling convey the conclusion that liquid was spilling out of my mouth. At first I thought perhaps that the nerve in my mouth was healing or “normalizing.” But when I consciously thought about the feelings occurring, I came to the conclusion that no sensory data had changed. However, since my mind recognized (through the use of my eyes, different sensory data) that my initial interpretation was not valid, it was modifying itself.

Now when I drink, technically the same feelings occur; but I now recognize this sensory experience as feeling inside of my mouth. Two conclusions/questions for me stem from this: 1) Sensory experience is not first-level type of experience. What do I mean by this? I’m not positive, but it’s something like this: When I feel something, I don’t actually feel that thing. My nerve endings experience something and translate the data into workable conclusions. 2) Our mind, using new data, can reinterpret what the nerve endings tell us. I’m not sure if proves the existence of a “mind” completely separate from “the senses,” (I’m not sure I believe that) – but I think it points to the idea that we have a “mind” that works independently from, even if constantly connected to, our senses. I take a Thomist/Aristotelian approach to this discussion; and I feel like this experience reinforces it.


  1. I quite agree, old bean. I believe child psych also points to this, as children learn to interpret stimuli and learn that they have control over their limbs, fingers, etc. Also, that our eye lenses turn the image upside down on our retina's, yet we interpret a right-side-up world. This guy wore prism glasses which flipped everything upside down, and after a week or two, his brain fixed the flip back to normal.

  2. I've heard of that same experiment. Pretty darn cool. What was really interesting for me was experiencing my brain changing how it interpreted the stimuli. Slightly disconcerting, but mainly cool.