The Senses

The next layer in the body's homeostatic self-defensive response system are the delicately built sense organs, hard-wired into our psyche: the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin—sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. This is where the psychology of cleansing comes in. The sense organs are the brain's external antennae, connecting the body to the outside world, and it is they that detect all foreign or alterior bodies approaching or entering the organism, and ruthlessly guide our responses. The brain supports one particularly formidable physiological safety net: the nervous reflex of disgust and repulsion. Disgust is certainly a primary reaction. Most mammals show their nervous reactions of distaste or disgust by turning away, averting the eyes, shaking the paws, or wrinkling the nose—though with less of the more extreme reactions of disgust such as a spitting or vomiting. In humans actual loathing is nervous and immediate, triggered by any or all of the senses. Odours, for example, send their message directly to the 5 million receptor cells in the nasal mucus and down into the olfactory regions that 'are yellow, richly moist, and full of fatty substances . . . the deeper the shade, the keener and more acute the sense of smell . . . The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.' (Or as one fourteenth-century scientific encyclopedia put it: 'And the air with the likeness and quality of fumiosity comes suddenly unto the sinew of smelling and presenteth thereto the likeness of the vapour of the fumiosity that is printed in that air.')4 In one famous experiment, a group of volunteers were given a full-face blast of animal excrement (skatole) and paid good money to withstand it as long as they could. None lasted more than five minutes. The nostrils flared, the face turned away and went pale, the heart rate went down, blood pressure up, sweat poured onto the skin, and finally the stomach started to convulse. It was the pure disgust response in action, located deep in the insula, the area of the brain that malfunctions in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which causes them to wash and clean things endlessly, or vacuum endlessly, most of the day. It is the total opposite of the gross self-neglect that is often a sign of clinical depression.5

Biologically speaking, the neurology and chemistry of 'delight' plays a crucial part in animal grooming and nurture. The opposite of sensuous disgust is sensuous 'delight'—all those things 'that pleaseth and comforteth the brain wonderfully'. Delight is a psychology—we crave our delights. True delight, according to the poets and philosophers, consists of things that pleasure all the senses: good food, fine music, sweet smells, soft caresses, sheer beauty. The effects of cleansing and cleanliness can genuinely be counted as one of life's great pleasures—gladdening the eye, sweetening the taste, inviting the touch, and delighting the nose. Delight has not yet been as much studied as disgust;but the 'attractive' sense chemistry and sense neurology is apparently just as necessary to the body as the more negative feelings of repulsion or fear.

We display the release of the body's pleasure-giving chemical opiates, the endorphins, through broad smiles, a lowered heart rate, relaxed muscles, widened eyes, increased eloquence, or speechless laughter. The welcoming smile is as universal as the repulsing frown, and babies have the smile very quickly after birth. Most of the early delights we feel as babies are directly related to the sense of touch, and are all to do with being fed, nuzzled, handled, and enveloped in adult arms in that close tactility we call 'love'—and much of that is parental grooming; later on, we also take delight in touching and grooming our sexual partners. Zoologists have artificially stimulated grooming bouts by using hormones and peptides; but a soft caressing touch is all that is needed to stimulate the production of the opiate endorphins and damp down the pathways in the nervous system: the heart rate goes down significantly. In other words, being groomed produces mildly narcotic effects; and the longer it carries on, the more swooning or relaxing effects it achieves.6 These periods of relaxed 'de-arousal' are carefully timed. Generally speaking, animal grooming occurs in gaps between energetic primary activities: i.e. before or after social contact, sexual activity, or eating, after exploratory or defensive behaviour or gaps in work, and before or after sleeping. During these resting periods peace is restored, and ruffled fur or feathers can be rearranged, repaired, and brought to their normal state of readiness. Grooming thus helps animals relieve stress: it is a useful way of going off duty, of taking a break. Grooming therefore does double duty as work and play (and a surprising amount is play).

The sense of smell is, again, right at the forefront of attraction. Good or 'fresh' smells, in particular sweet floral smells, have always been a crucial indicator of wholesome, welcoming cleanliness;to be 'as fresh as a daisy' or 'as sweet as a rose' is high praise. Attractive smells, lavishly applied, can become an important part of one's own self-identity: people often choose perfumes, or perfumed toilet soaps, for life. Our body involuntarily produces its own strong and attractive natural odours. Pheromones, discovered with delight in the 1970s, are human sexual scent-markers belonging to the odoriferous glandular system that serves as a mammalian communicator (stink glands, recognition glands, rutting glands, marking glands), which are contained within the apocrine glands under the armpits in particular, coating the long underarm hairs with their oils. Odourless in themselves, their scent is triggered through bacterial decomposition, which produces the sweet or musky smell. The pheromonal sweat of other animals has long been a constituent of musk-based perfume, bringing a feeling of delight that is clearly deeply ingrained in the mammalian psyche. Animal researchers trying to encourage endangered wild cats to breed 'stumbled on the secret powers of [Calvin Klein's perfume Obsession] during experiments with ocelots... In captivity the cats are hard to mate, but a little dab of ''Obsession'' sent the cats into a sexual frenzy.'7

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment