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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry

  Text-only
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  FEATURES
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Campus of the Big Ideas
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You Go Girl!


 


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
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The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.


9
In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

 

The goal, said James Chandler, AM'72, PhD'78, the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke professor in English and director of Chicago's Franke Institute for the Humanities, was to "try to make sense of the senses." To that end, four scholars tackled sound, smell, touch, and sight. (Taste, Chandler joked, would have to wait for the post-symposia reception.)

IMAGE:  Martha McClintock discusses chemosignals and pheromones:  smell.
Martha McClintock discusses chemosignals and pheromones: smell.

We are what we sense, suggested William Wimsatt, professor in philosophy. Or are we? In the 1974 paper, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that a bat's conscious experience-a world perceived through echoes of high-frequency sound signals-is so different from the conscious experience of humans that we can never fully imagine it. Yet, Wimsatt noted, human technology and instrumentation "is very productively seen as an extension of our senses," allowing us to experience the world in ways that our physiology doesn't-in ways, for example, that mimic a bat's sense of things.

Are we culturally biased against certain senses? Take smell. "I want to champion the causes of odor and communication," said Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw distinguished service professor in psychology and director of the Institute for Mind and Biology. In her research on chemosignals and pheromones, McClintock said, she has tried to show how smell can "influence humans positively." Most recently her team has demonstrated that women prefer the odor of males to whom they are genetically similar-but not identical-over those who are either nearly identical or completely unfamiliar, work that may help explain how certain genes influence mating choice.

Moving from 21st-century experiments to 19th-century medical history, Alison Winter, AB'87, associate professor in history, began with a paradox: although nitrous oxide or "laughing gas" was well known by the 1790s it wasn't until the mid-1840s that the anesthesia began to be widely used to blunt the pain of the surgeon's knife. Winter's tale of mesmerists and medicine argued that anesthesia's adoption "was not a medical watershed as much as a sea change in sensibility," the result of a change in how humans felt about pain, "a different set of expectations of what the senses could do and what we could do to the senses."

A changing perception of the power of the senses was also the theme limned by Tom Gunning, professor in art history and the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies. The infancy of American cinema, he said, coincided with a "deep-rooted suspicion of the visual senses," a suspicion that prompted a 1915 Supreme Court censorship ruling to inveigh against film as "capable of evil," especially where "susceptible publics"-women, children, and the poor-were concerned. The Supreme Court's argument, Gunning noted, implied that the new medium was exempt from the First Amendment because it was more powerful than print and "the visual might somehow overwhelm the verbal."

That story from moving-picture days may seem quaint, but Gunning pointed to a contemporary moral, arguing that "training the senses, realizing their unique forms of knowledge," remains an important task in the 21st century.
-M.R.Y.


1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?

CHICAGO INITIATIVE GOALS



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