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See What I’m Saying – Lawrence Rosenblum ****

Did you know that human hearing is so sophisticated that we have the ability to play sports like baseball and basketball without the aid of sight, and can get around remarkably well by using only echolocation? Or that human touch is so sensitive that, if we were both blind and deaf, we could still understand what our friends were saying to us merely by touching their faces? I didn’t before reading this book, which explains how surprisingly powerful our senses are, and have the potential to be.
OK, I don’t want to mislead you too much. The examples above would take an awful lot of practise, and the people we meet in See What I’m Saying who have developed exceptional sensory skills like these have done so predominantly because they were born without the use of a particular sense – Daniel Kish, for instance, who leads groups of blind and partially-sighted people on mountain-bike rides by using echolocation, was born blind and learned to echolocate over many years as a result of being strongly encouraged from a young age to be as independent as possible.
Still, as author Lawrence D. Rosenblum explains, every one of us possesses incredible perceptual abilities that we use all the time, even if we are not consciously aware of these abilities. We too use echolocation as well as sight to travel from place to place; we use smell to determine other people’s moods and emotions, and to judge others’ reproductive potential; and along with hearing, we use our sight to a surprisingly large extent to ‘listen’ to what someone is saying to us. And as these examples show, our senses combine more often than we might think to build a picture of the world and to help us navigate it, and our brains appear to be designed to deal with multisensory perception and can, for instance, interpret auditory ‘inputs’ as visual information.
The book combines well fascinating stories of individuals who possess highly developed sensory skills with the research that has revealed just how powerful our senses are and how they work together. The fact that Rosenblum has carried out a lot of the research himself makes him a good guide to it, and his writing is always engaging. Finally, on the good points, there are numerous enlightening exercises the reader is encouraged to try out that get across the unexpected abilities of our senses. I tried out a few of these exercises with others (which had to do with how what you see influences what you hear, and how touch can affect what you taste) and this added to my enjoyment of the book.
One small drawback is the length of the book. I wondered at times whether the material could have been covered just as well in a volume about two thirds as long. The last chapters, which bring everything together and emphasise the role of multisensory perception, should have come a little sooner. But that should not put you off reading what is still a fascinating and illuminating look at how we perceive the world and how remarkable our senses are. I would highly recommend this.

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Review by Matt Chorley

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