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Exploring Senses | #7
Birdsong, Amusia, Aphantasia, and our Sensory Capacities
Good morning from New England. This is the Renewal Rundown. Each month, I share a few updates, ideas, and sources of inspiration on applying self-renewal to ourselves and the world around us.
A few days ago, I was out on my morning walk and noticed that my mind felt unusually calm while my body buzzed with energy. I always love this time outdoors yet something about this morning was different. I slowed my pace, felt the squish of the thawing ground, and looked around. I saw nothing notable yet the scene was exploding with life.
The birds were back.
I had been unconsciously listening to their chirps and chatter. As I brought my attention to their beautiful racket, I noticed my mood and energy heighten even more. The connection was undeniable.
This notion that these natural melodies have a positive impact may not surprise anyone who has experience with music. Yet, the world of auditory sensations doesn’t come instinctively to me.
I have Amusia, a more extreme version of tone-deafness, where you not only don’t hear pitch but also struggle with musical memory and recognition. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve never had a song stuck in my head. And, I’m not joking when I share that I can’t sing “Happy Birthday” or “Row Row Row Your Boat” to tune.
For most of my life, I’ve ignored these difficulties. They felt isolated to my challenges learning an instrument, my difficulties dancing to a beat, and my poor contributions to celebratory songs.
But now I wonder if there’s not a broader and more persistent way in which these auditory limitations impact my day-to-day experience. Is there an entire depth of sensory terrain that I’m not experiencing? Are there ways that I can’t even imagine that this dulls my life?
It’s interesting to compare this condition to other abnormalities like color blindness, and lack of smell (anosmia). If I lost my capacity to see a range of colors, I’d surely mourn the new narrowness of my visual experience. Just as those who lost their smell from Covid, complained about the way it muted their daily life.
It’s easy to assume that others experience and process sensations in a similar way to us. In reality, there’s a vast range across people. I was chatting with a few friends the other day who mentioned that they have Aphantasia and have no ability to visualize images in their minds.
Close your eyes and imagine an apple. What do you see?
People with Aphantasia see nothing while others might see a colorful and photorealistic apple. Here’s a popular chart that highlights the spectrum of what people see in response to this prompt:
The range of different experiences is striking. It makes me curious about where else our sensory capacities differ and in what ways they are capable of changing.
I used to be a four on the apple aphantasia scale. Now I’m a two. The increase in my capacity for visual imagination has been dramatic and I attribute it to practicing Unified Mindfulness.
Unlike approaches focused solely on concentration, Unified Mindfulness stresses the importance of also developing sensory clarity:
“the ability to track and explore your moment-by-moment experience in real-time” and “determine what sights, sounds, and/or feelings constitute your experience of life.”1
Instead of just focusing on a single object like our breath, Unified Mindfulness encourages us to explore sensations across what they call See, Hear, and Feel domains. They even further break this down into sensations from outside of us (e.g. physical sights) and within us (e.g. mental images). Here’s a nice visual of the different types of sensations they highlight in this framework:
Through this practice, I’ve increased my sensory clarity of mental images, physical sounds, body sensations, and more. These changes have bled into the rest of my life where my day-to-day experience now feels brighter and richer. Almost as if the resolution of daily life has been turned slightly up.
Sensory Altered States
Unfortunately, Unified Mindfulness has not cured my amusia. While I have greater awareness of auditory sensations, I still struggle with melody, harmony, and rhythm. But I now believe that I’m capable of overcoming this condition despite not yet knowing exactly how.
This sense of possibility comes from my experiences with psychedelics. My sensory experience of listening to music during a psychedelic-induced state was profoundly different. I can’t say if it matches how others normally experience music but it felt like I could finally hear the variety, depth, and beauty within the sound.
This hasn’t transformed my experience of music without psychedelics yet it gives me hope. Studies highlight how psychedelics alter brain activity and connectivity to music.
In fortuitous timing,just published a post yesterday on how he cured his Aphantasia. It’s a fascinating read. He shares examples of exercises he practiced, emotional connections to his imagination, and experiments with micro-dosing. The fact that he saw a dramatic improvement in just two weeks gives me even more confidence that we can overcome many sensory abnormalities.
Perhaps with further exploration within the auditory terrain, I can rewire my brain to fully experience the sensations of music. I can harness the power of neuroplasticity to increase my sensory capacities far more than I used to think was possible.2
In my explorations of our senses, I recently discovered an older book by Diane Ackerman called A Natural History of the Senses. It perfectly captures the beauty, power, and stories of each of the senses:
“The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern… The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Ackerman brings to life each of the five core senses in exquisite detail, like this introduction to smell:
“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel.”
She highlights the way our senses shape how we understand the world:
We may neutralize one or more of the senses temporarily— by floating in body-temperature water, for instance— but that only heights the others. There is no way which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.
This reality that our senses provide the raw material for our experience of life is always present yet so often ignored. It’s easy to go through life without thinking about how our smell, hearing, vision, taste, and touch are shaping our reality.
There’s immense potential to bring more awareness to these sensory domains and explore how we can enhance these sensory capacities. Doing so can bring us more deeply into the present moment, connect us more strongly to our memories, and enhance the clarity of our imaginations.
By changing how we experience the senses, we can change how we understand our world and ourselves. We renew and evolve in ways that we didn’t know were possible.
Thanks for Reading!
This description of sensory clarity comes from this introduction to three fundamental skills of Unified Mindfulness.
I’d love to hear recommendations if you have any ideas on how I can address my Amusia and enhance my musical capabilities. My family would be deeply appreciative if someone could help me learn to sing “Happy Birthday” to tune.