Monday, November 5, 2007

Senses, Envy, and Sentience

I just recently found out that one of my internet friends, who does not identify as being on the autistic spectrum, has autistic-like sharp senses. She may have what they call "sensory integration dysfunction," or just be a "highly sensitive person." She may also be on the fringes of the autistic spectrum. I never knew that the numbers in the same column on a touchtone phone did NOT make the same sound until she gave me a link to a touchtone simulator applet to play with. 3, 6, 9, and # all sounded the same to me, and still do on an actual phone, but on the applet, playing adjacent numbers within split seconds of other, I heard the differences between the 9 and #, the 4 and 7, and other adjacent numbers in the same column for the first time.

I immediately envied her as she reported her sensory abilities. I imagine people with sharper senses to have richer and fuller inner lives than I do, assuming all else is effectively equal. What's not to envy about people being able to experience a mountain range in a piece of cloth, and a fireworks display in a flower? Obvious answer: only being able to find one shirt in the world that does not feel like a bed of nails. Still, though, I feel like I'd be willing to trade the ease of finding comfort for a world of richer sensory experience. Rich senses are not in themselves a curse. The predominance of sensory dullards like me, and our assumption that other people's senses are as dull as our own, is what makes rich senses a curse. It's society, not the sensitive person's nervous system, that's the problem.

Intellectually, I know that there's no basis to assume that either richer or poorer senses are correlated with richer or poorer consciousness, any more than there's a basis to assume that higher or lower IQ scores are correlated with richer or poorer consciousness. If sharp senses were a true measure of sentience, then sensory-typical humans would actually be less sentient than most other animals, and it would thus be unethical to perform experiments on rats and ethical to perform experiments on humans. Yet, very few sensory-typical humans with normal self-esteem would doubt their own sentience, or that of others neurologiclaly like themselves.

However, the sentience of those humans who score low on IQ tests or have severe communication problems seems to be doubted all the time, on the basis that they can't perform specific tricks that neuro-typical humans of a certain culture view as measures of a complex mind. But...couldn't they make up in inner worlds of sensory information what they lack in the ability to demonstrate math and logic? Couldn't their simple and repetitive outward behaviors be coupled with an unimaginably complex inner experience? Isn't assuming that people who can't perform certain cognitive tasks are empty inside as unfair and intellectually unfounded as my low-self-esteem-driven assumption that I am emptier inside than my HSP and neuro-atypical friends who have heightened senses?

Perhaps if the world were ruled by technologically adept dogs, sensory acuity would indeed be seen as a chief measure of sentience, and the sensory-typical human would be seen as having a dimmer sentience than a dog and treated almost as an inanimate object. All this neocortex of ours, which we see as having something to do with our sentience, may be viewed by the dogs as redundant brain material, possibly a cooling organ.

I would doubt that, say, a rock has consciousness, but anything with a central nervous system easily could.

No comments: