Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch. These were the five senses outlined by Aristotle, some two thousand years ago, in his immortal treatise on what he considered the biological and psychological foundations of the human body. These senses combine to create our perception of what is real and what is not, what to attend to and what to ignore. And, of course, they haven’t changed. They are as real to us today as they were to him then.
Today our experience of reality, however, is more complicated than it was then. If not for external complexity in our physical environment alone, then at least for internal complexity. We have more knowledge today. We have more words today. This means many things, but it particularly means that we can break down the existing compartments into further divisions to add new details to how we perceive, how we experience. We can now argue that our capacity to balance (or equilibrioception) is a sense. Temperature (or thermoception), too, qualifies. And how about proprioception, a kinesthetic sense? Can’t we argue that a different aspect of our body keeps track of its various parts in relation to one another as well?
We can argue all of these things, and many people do. The core idea, regardless, is the same: The human body is an instrument that perceives what goes on in the broader system around it so that it can respond to things as needed. If we simplify what the senses do, from an evolutionary point of view, we can say that they monitor threats and opportunities. A lion is nearby. I hear a familiar sound that sends a shiver up my spine. From the corner of my eye, I form a visual that raises my heart rate. The rest, I don’t even need to compartmentalize. All I need to know is that I need to get out of there.
The combination of the sense data that we collect from our surroundings creates what neuroscientists call an experience of affect. Affect is the emotional experience we have in response to a variety of information signals. Sadness, anger, joy, excitement are experiences of affect. They are condensed information points that tell us that something is wrong or that something is right, and we should act accordingly. Now, these particular emotions are complex interpretations of sense data, but generally speaking, as in the case of the lion, for example, our sense data aims to generate a response by creating an affective state somewhere along the pleasure-pain axis. See food, experience good affect, get that food, gratify desire. See lion, experience negative affect, get away from potential pain, gratify desire.
All of this is extremely simplified, but in an ancient world of scarcity — before cities, supermarkets, and predictable life routines — our whole life was essentially an uncertain gamble dictated by our environment. You likely didn’t think about being happy or satisfied. You just were. You took rest when you could. If you felt sad, the cause and effect were generally clear, and you took action right away. If you felt scared, you got the hell out of there. If you felt angry or excited, you got ready to protect yourself or to dominate.
But something changed as we became settlers; something changed when we started to take control of our environment so we could start building the civilization that we know today. And that something was the decoupling of the uncertainty of life with the present. Suddenly, you didn’t have to worry about a lion coming for you right now, or ten minutes from now, but instead, you had to worry about maintaining your property for the next few months or years. You didn’t need to collect plants or hunt game tomorrow, but rather, you had to create an abundant supply of grains for, perhaps, a village. The uncertainty that was once tied to the present slowly started to become attached to the far future.
When uncertainty is tied to the present, we have no choice but to act. We live in the present. But what happens when uncertainty gets tangled with the far future? Well, for one, we have more time to make decisions. And what does that do? Well, that gives us time to think. And so, thinking begins to consume far more mental space than it did in the past, and perhaps just as importantly, it begins to do so freely, without any constraints because the future is now full of possibilities. This is both a responsibility and a burden. Our actions in the here and now are no longer the chief source of our life’s purpose, but instead, our thoughts about the future start to play an increasingly large role.
The burden of such a massive shift is this: Instead of negative experiences of affect lasting in the now to encourage action, they last longer because problems themselves have longer horizons. This means that experiences like anxiety or sadness aren’t just quick information points about the immediate environment, but they are also moods that extend over long stretches of time. And this, I’d argue, has created a world where far more people are miserable than they likely would have been in, say, most hunter and gatherer tribes.
A little more than 2,000 years ago, roughly around the same time that Aristotle began writing about the bodily senses and how they work, another sage began wandering. But Gautama Buddha had a different philosophy. He saw what civilization had done to people, this concern with thinking, the comings and goings of desire and emotion, people’s occupation with being anything but present. He saw the misery of such an existence. And he devised a solution: With a meditative technique, focused on the presence of the body and its senses, he claimed that these miseries could be wiped out. By bringing it all back to the lower form of complexity that we had lost when we began to settle, happiness — or at least the lack of suffering — was possible.
In Buddhism, in fact, there is an interesting addition to the Aristotelian notion of the five senses. Along with sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, practitioners argue that thought (or mind) itself is a sense — the sixth sense. And by watching all of these senses together, instead of identifying with any of them, a person can learn to overcome whatever affliction it is that bothers them.
I’m personally a big fan of the Buddha’s teaching, and I’m fairly convinced that very few (if any) philosophers in the West have come to a deeper, simpler, and more compassionate understanding of human nature than he and his disciples did. But there is something that has increasingly bothered me about this categorization of thought as a sense, framed as a thing to be overcome, a thing that causes misery but not much else. And it’s roughly this: Whereas the five Aristotelian senses simply respond to novelty, thought is the only thing capable of actually producing novelty, and this is incredibly important if we consider what it takes to be satisfied as a human being.
If living in the present as, say, hunters and gatherers did meant experiencing the reality of a particular environment right then and there and responding to it accordingly, then the thing that gives the present meaning and purpose is creative action, or a response to enforced novelty. Change is the only constant, and learning to dance with it brings with it a sense of aliveness. Now, settling into the comforts of civilization stopped us from experiencing this constant change and the novelty of uncontrolled physical environments in our day to day life. And so, this put the burden on thought and the future.
(At this point, it might be useful to define what I mean by novelty, and I’ll start by clarifying what I don’t mean: By novelty, I don’t mean the easy, sensory pleasures of excess, like constantly eating tastier food, or having sex with a greater variety of people, or even experiencing more sights and sounds. All of these things, we adapt to. New food, or a new partner, or a new location may teach you something in the beginning, but they all have diminishing returns, and once the novelty of variety itself wears off, there’s far more novelty in tasting the same food in a new light, or engaging with the same neighborhood in a new role, or appreciating the same partner with a different routine. True novelty is about creativity, about responding to something in a new and interesting way — a temporary exposure to a form of death, whether physical or psychological, and the renewal that stems from that.)
With the growth of civilization, as we settled, we eliminated the danger in our physical environment that brought us to the edge of true novelty. At this point, we moved away from the uncertainty of the immediate environment to experiencing uncertainty about the future in our thoughts and that burdened us with greater anxiety and sadness and other complex moods of affect that persist with the luxury of time. But as with any burden, on the other side of the coin, we were also given a responsibility.
Our senses may allow us to respond to enforced novelty, but thought allows us to create novelty ourselves, and it allows us to do so in far more intricate and interesting ways than the slings of sensory pleasure or pain. Language allows us to think infinite things, in infinite ways, and it gives us the imagination to foresee a future of infinite possibility that we have the potential to bring into reality with our creative action according to our agency.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once argued that human life oscillates between pain and boredom. He talked about pain, naturally, because he knew that we are living systems that have basic needs like food and shelter and companionship. The point about boredom, however, is more subtle. Rather than the opposite of pain being pleasure, he understood that we acclimatize to simple pleasures, so what we end up left with is boredom, and that is its own form of torture because it then becomes its own loop of suffering.
But as the Buddha knew — and as many long-term meditators know — boredom, too, can be an opportunity for deeper inquiry; it, too, has shades of detail that can be experienced as new forms of novelty if the right kind of attention is given to them. But what the Buddha overlooked — or at least focused less on — was that thought can be just as profound and complex and contradictory as direct, focused experience in dealing with boredom. And though identifying with it may entail dealing with greater misery than just sitting in a room in plain stillness, it’s the creative source that built the things that we value in modern civilization, and it’s also what narrates the self that allows us to relate to society.
After writing more than a million words recollecting his life in the literary masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust went around in one big circle and came to a relatively simple conclusion: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
Without thought, our eyes are half-closed. Without thought, differences are secondary. Without thought, there is no sustained creativity. At the core of our existence, there is something that draws us beyond the known. Human existence is a dance between certainty and uncertainty, between aliveness and deadness. And right at the intersection of this tension, at this burden of agency and responsibility, lies the novelty we are looking for — the novelty of a changing question with a changing answer.
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: