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The Perfect Experience

Perfection only exists through the interplay of all our senses

Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch: Our senses guide us along our path through the labyrinth of life. Each one of them is wonderful and indispensable in its own way. But it is only through their perfect interaction that their true strength becomes apparent: If we experience something with all our senses, our emotions are deeper, what we have experienced makes a bigger impression and remains in our memory longer.

Even as children, we learn that we have five senses to help us perceive our surroundings: Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Or to put it very scientifically, visual perception, auditory perception, olfactory perception, gustatory perception, and tactile perception. These five senses form the interface between our internal world - our minds, our thoughts - and the outside, real world.

More than just five senses

But watch out! Do we really only use five senses to navigate our way through life? What about the sense of balance? Or what sense do we use when our eyes are closed to tell where our hands or our legs are at that moment? (Experts call this self-perception ‘proprioception’).

In actual fact, alongside our sense of balance (vestibular receptors in the inner ear), modern psychology recognizes other human senses: The ability to feel temperature (thermoreceptors, e.g. in the skin), the ability to feel pain and the “personal perception of our body”.

Added to this are a series of other human senses, the existence of which is difficult or impossible to prove, but which many people swear do exist. The “sense” we feel, for example, when we think someone behind us is staring at us. How can it be that we perceive the gaze of another person that we cannot even see at that moment?

Is there a “sixth sense”?

This is where the great mystery - known as the “sixth sense” - comes in. Whereas this used to be referred to as supernatural ability, scientists now agree that the “sixth sense” describes the ability to sense or anticipate the approach of a dangerous situation from several - largely non-specific - perceptions. This can be observed, for example, in experienced drivers in road traffic: “Look, the guy in front is turning without using his indicator.”

The sixth sense, however, has a definite place in the animal world. Electrical perception, for example, using electro-receptors (the ampullae of Lorenzini) in cartilaginous fish. With these receptors, sharks are able to recognize the electric fields generated by the muscle activity of their prey, and thereby locate them more easily. The electroreceptors also help them to detect underwater currents. Migratory birds are also able to “sense” the earth's magnetic field, helping them to navigate on their long flights.

A symphony of the senses

The fact is that, through the combination of several senses, we are able to perceive much more about a situation or an object than would be the case with just one sense. If we experience something with all our senses, the world around us becomes accessible in a highly intensive, memorable way. The experience is deeper, makes a bigger impression, and stays with us longer.

We can even take this further. A perfect moment, a perfect experience, is always a symphony in miniature of all the senses:

The cozy crackling of a sweet-smelling fire in the hearth, a comfy sofa and a wonderful wine that develops slowly on the palate: moments like these have the potential to be a perfect experience.

Countless other compositions of the senses have a comparable or even more powerful effect. Experiences in the natural world, for example, by a wild stream in the mountains or on a summer's night on the beach. And of course “the perfect experience” for us modern people has long since ceased to be one that can only be had in the natural world. A fantastic party with friends, or a trip on a motorbike, can give us similarly all-consuming and satisfying sensory thrills.

This is because whatever fits the present situation most is pleasant. This might be the sound of voices in a local hang-out, contrasting with the characteristic smell of a restaurant, combined with culinary delights and the sight of people in a good mood. Or maybe it's the roaring and screeching of a motorbike engine, the feel of acceleration, the smell of oil and petrol and the first hearty swig of beer after a long journey.

During sex, the senses merge

Sensuality, or sex, is in a league of its own when it comes to the senses. There are only a few aspects of life that are as exclusively focused on all of the senses as sexuality. When we are in love, during passionate encounters and during sex, the perception of all the senses merges to create a single, overall work of art: From visual stimulus and feel, to smell and taste - such as kissing or oral practices - right through to the many stimulations of our sense of hearing. Music, whispering in the ear, passionate talk and moans from your lover.

This sensual principle is also used with various types of therapy, such as in Ayurvedic massages, where pleasant aromas and sounds are added to the feel of the massage movements.

However this mechanism can unfortunately also work in reverse and create negative experiences. So if a traumatizing event is accompanied by certain smells or sounds, the person affected can associate these with the awful event for the rest of their lives and evoke negative emotions, and even anxiety states.

Stimulation of the senses to promote sales

Knowledge of the power of complex sensory experiences has long since been used in marketing, and is used assiduously to encourage us to buy. The formula is simple: The more our senses are exposed to enjoyable stimulation, the better we feel. And that’s why we are more likely to buy. And so it is no coincidence that products in modern stores are not only presented in their best light, but they are also underpinned by relaxing music and discreetly scented with a suitable aroma. And it is not uncommon for there to be an espresso provided in more expensive shops, either. Studies have clearly shown that it works.

Combined senses = better learning

The combination of the senses is important not just for the creation of intensive sensory experiences, but it is also proven to improve our learning success. According to a widely disseminated rule of thumb from teaching, we retain:Perfect Sound Experience

10% from what we read,

20% from what we hear,

30% from what we see,

50% from what we hear AND see

70% from what we pass on in our own words,

90% from what we do ourselves.

Every student knows that new words in a foreign language can be remembered more easily if they are written down and spoken out loud over and over again. The words stick in our minds even better, however, if we visualize them with an image and describe them with a suitable gesture when we say them out loud.

This is also the reason why we learn foreign languages best while we are actually abroad. New concepts are learned faster and more easily if they are absorbed in an intensive emotional context.

The Proust effect: Aromas evoke memories

We all know that certain smells, sometimes even unpleasant ones, can be firmly associated with very specific memories. In other words, when we smell a certain scent, our memories are immediately - and often very intensively - evoked. A perfume may remind us of a previous lover, or the smell of mothballs might recall the home of a long-dead great-aunt.

The reason is that, unlike all the other senses, the signals from which must first be processed in the cerebral cortex, smells have a direct on the limbic system in the brain, where emotions are processed and impulses are directed. Consequently, it is the sense of smell which - usually unconsciously - creates our very first impression when we enter a room or meet someone for the first time.

This phenomenon, whereby a scent can evoke memories from the distant past and make them appear so vividly in our minds as though it was only yesterday, is called the “Proust effect”. It is named after the French author and poet Marcel Proust (1871 - 1922). In his book entitled, “In Search of Lost Time”, the smell of freshly baked Madeleines (small, shell-shaped cakes) suddenly evokes childhood memories in the main character that he thought he had lost. The obvious assumption is that Proust was transferring his own experience to the figure in his story.

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