Join CMSS for our 2024 Fall Benefit

Thursday, September 12, 2024

Which of Your Senses Could You Live Without?

Did you ever contemplate losing one of your senses?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite questions to ask people was, “If you had to go without one of your senses, which would it be – touch, sight, smell, taste, or hearing?”

I remember I would close my eyes and try to imagine life without my senses, one at a time. I would think about famous folks like Stevie Wonder and Helen Keller. I would ponder victims of horrible tragedies who seemed to be living life happily despite the loss of one of their senses. At least they were still able to communicate, I would tell myself. I couldn’t imagine not being able to taste my grandmother’s pie or smell the gloriousness of rain, but those two senses always seemed to be interrelated – one affecting the other. Could you taste the pie if you couldn’t smell it? Could you smell the pie if you couldn’t taste it? Plugged-nose eating contests would try to settle this question, but regardless, communication without smell or taste is still possible and life could resume relatively normal, so those were the first senses to get crossed off my list in the priority of importance.

In an attempt to imagine how isolating life would be without my hearing, I would plug my ears with all the pressure my fingers could muster while riding the school bus. Watching everyone laugh yet not knowing what was so funny would be frustrating, and not being able to detect someone sneaking up behind you would be startling, especially in the dark. Nevertheless, you could still communicate via signing. Sure, it would be cumbersome at times, but certainly possible. So hearing was the next to be eliminated from my list.

Touch was frightening to me on a level of danger and with regards to extremes. For example, there was always that moment before jumping in the bath when your entire body would tense up as steam rolled up your foot while your toe slowly crept into the water, afraid of any ensuing sting. The thought of not feeling your flesh melting away in the tub or over the stove was almost enough to give me nightmares; however, I could rationalize electronic sensors to detect extreme temperatures and for that reason, I would conclude that it would be manageable to live without touch.

Sight was ultimately the sense I decided I couldn’t live without because it invoked a feeling of being buried alive – just constant darkness. Never knowing what my dog looked like or needing help to navigate through my own home horrified me. Sure, I could express my thoughts verbally, but I wouldn’t be able to watch TV or play basketball. Simply not acceptable! It was the most important sense in my world. Consequently, I couldn’t imagine life without it.

What never crossed my mind was the loss of communication one might suffer without touch. Feeling comforted with a hug, fireworks with a kiss, appreciated with a pat on the back, loved with an embrace. Maybe those things seemed insignificant compared to sight or maybe my childish mind could not comprehend the complexity of touches that would transpire as time passed into adulthood. It is easy to think of all the things you wouldn’t miss with touch:  a paper cut, cold weather, or the prick of a needle. On the other hand, I was reminded of all the things I would miss when reading Speaking Into The Air by John Durham Peters, I came across a thought-provoking section in relation to touch:

“Touch, being the most archaic of all our senses and perhaps the hardest to fake, means that all things being equal, people who care for each other will seek each other’s presence….There is nothing more electric or unmanageable as touch: we feast our eyes on each other, kiss, shake hands, and embrace. Whether any of these gestures is a token of affection or constitutes harassment is a matter of interpretation subject to all the same problems as any other signifying act…..Touch and time, the two nonreproducible things we can share, are our only guarantees of sincerity.”

Is touch the only true way we can show we really care? Does touch mean more than words or actions? From basketball players to caregivers, more and more studies have emerged around the power and science of touch in communicating compassion. Next week, I’ll dive into this so called science of touch and explain why we should be doing more of it!                                     

Peters, J. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: The University of ChicagoPress

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Chicago Skilled Nursing
Chicago Senior Living

Recent Posts