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Sensing a new era in mind/body research

Senses Cluster, Medical Humanities Research Strand launch event

Cleo Hanaway-Oakley

Emotional baggage - Sense Cluster, Medical Humanities Strand

Ellie Harrison's Grief Series exhibition Abby Ashley

Five people, each exercising one of the five senses. Coloured lithograph after L.-L. Boilly. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Five people, each exercising one of the five senses. Coloured lithograph after L.-L. Boilly. Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

20 February 2019

On 31 January 2019, just before a heavy snow fall forced the University to close, a group of 40 researchers (from disciplines such as literary studies, philosophy, history, and medicine) and practitioners (including play workers, artists, and musicians) met at the charming Clifton Hill House for the initial event of the newly established Senses Cluster. Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley, who leads this research, and workshop participant, Imola Nagy-Seres, PhD student at the University of Exeter, reflect on a new era in mind/body research following this sensory event.

On 31 January 2019, just before a heavy snow fall forced the University to close, a group of 40 researchers (from disciplines such as literary studies, philosophy, history, and medicine) and practitioners (including play workers, artists, and musicians) met at the charming Clifton Hill House, Bristol for the initial event of the newly established Senses Cluster.

The Senses Cluster is a Medical Humanities Research Strand Cluster based in the University of Bristol's Centre for Health, Humanities and Science, supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute. Its primary purpose is to bring together a diverse group of people interested in what can be loosely termed ‘the sensory’. The Cluster examines both historical and contemporary senses and sensing. It is outward, as well as inward, looking. It engages with industry and the public, as well as academics across different disciplines.

Our first workshop provided an opportunity for Cluster members to come together and learn more about each other's research and activities. There were group activities as well as two 'show and tell' sessions in which people shared their interests through presenting a poster, showing an object, or sharing something else related to their work. By the end of the day we had identified a number of shared interests – including sensory augmentation/post-humanism, diversity of sensory experience (impairments and overload), sensory metaphors, the relationship between senses and space, the medicalization (or not) of the senses, and intersensoriality – which we intend to explore further in future sessions later in the year.

Workshop participant, Imola Nagy-Seres, a recently-submitted PhD student at the University of Exeter, gives her thoughts following the event:

In 1990, the president of the United States claimed: "Now, Therefore, I, George Bush, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim the decade beginning January 1, 1990, as the Decade of the Brain. I call upon all public officials and the people of the United States to observe that decade with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities." (See Project on the Decade of the Brain for more on this). Indeed, brain research has proliferated in the last few decades, when scientists have provided neuroscientific explanations for a large variety of phenomena, from empathy to memory. At the same time, many scholars in the humanities have started to question, or at least nuance the omnipotence of the brain in our experience of space and time and importantly, in our interactions with other human (and non-human) entities. Though not denying the brain’s importance, these researchers also draw attention to an unfairly neglected concept in the academic discourse of the late twentieth century, namely the body.

Though the academics and artists attending the Senses Cluster Workshop in Bristol did not reach a consensus regarding the definition of the term ‘body’, they agreed that the body in which they are interested is not a biological machine controlled by the brain but living, sensing and breathing flesh exposed to, while also actively shaping the surrounding world. The one-day event was organised by Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley, lecturer in Liberal Arts and English at the University of Bristol. The first workshop (to be followed by three other sessions in 2019) aimed at bringing together people from academic and creative backgrounds whose work focuses on the senses. The day was divided between group sessions (in which we discussed our individual research interests and came up with shared preoccupations and ideas for future projects) and ‘Show and Tell’ sessions. The latter represented the most exciting part of the workshop. These sessions were actually mini exhibitions in which certain participants displayed objects related to their work (from an early twentieth-century telephone to a bottle of fabric softener), and besides giving a short presentation on their research, they also encouraged people to immerse in a sensorial engagement with objects.

One of the most striking mini exhibitions (at least for the writer of this text) was Dr Alice Malpass’s session entitled ‘Tibetan Singing Bowls’. Malpass’s work focuses, among other things, on the use of mindfulness based cognitive therapy as an intervention for respiratory patients with anxiety and/or depression. She explained how breathing is not simply a biological phenomenon that we should take for granted but something that connects us to, or indeed in the case of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, separates us from the world. The reader might ask at this point: what does all this to do to with singing bowls? Malpass ‘played’ a singing bowl and let us draw our own conclusion. These bowls are used in Buddhist and mindfulness based meditation to create harmony of mind and body. What struck me though was not only the sound but the strange fluctuation the ‘music’ created in my body. It was a visceral feeling that transcended auditory experience.

Malpass’s session encapsulated some of the most important points discussed in the workshop. Senses are not limited to five and they cannot be linked to one specific body part or organ. We feel with the whole body – a body entangled with the universe, with people, objects, nature, architecture, and the list could go on. At the same time, if we agree that the body is not a mere biological automaton but an entity living in a certain historical period, embedded in a social and cultural milieu, we can better understand our mysteriously multi- or intersensorial existence. And who knows, perhaps the third decade of the twenty-first century will be proclaimed the Decade of the Senses.

Further information

If you are interested in finding out more about the Senses Cluster, please email Dr Cleo Hanaway-Oakley to be added to the mailing list.

Get a sense of what the Senses Cluster launch event was like: Twitter Moments.

Save the date - join the Medical Humanities Strand for the next Senses Cluster event on 5 June at 3.15pm in Cotham House, featuring guest speakers from the Science Museum, London.

Interested in Brain research? Elizabeth Blackwell Institute also supports the Neuroscience Network at the University of Bristol

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