Oliver Sacks helps me explain hypersensitivity

Got a tweet and a link to an article from   that informed me that:

Humans can discriminate between similar odors and detect many substances, sometimes more than rodents and dogs. — The Myth That Humans Have Poor Smell Is Nonscents – The Atlantic

I answered with something similar to the below. I’ve edited and expanded for this post:

We can also know which herbs will heal us and when it’s appropriate to take them (a delightful thing I’ve learned as an amateur herbalist as I heal my brain) we are insanely out of touch with our animal selves. We have instinct and intuition like all animals…we can relearn and remember these skills… (more on herbs here)

more on topic Neil, also on twitter as  shared a paragraph from Oliver Sacks, knowing it would be fascinating to me.

And so yes, Oliver Sacks helps me explain hypersensitivity! In the below passage he writes about an altered state in which the capacity of the sense smell opens up:

Vivid dream one night, dreamt he was a dog, in a world unimaginably rich and significant in smell. Waking, he found himself in just such a world. “As if I had been totally colour-blind before, and suddenly found myself in a world full of colour.” He did, in fact, have an enhancement of colour vision (” I could distinguish dozens of brown where I’d just seen brown before. my leather bound books, which looked similar before, now all had quite distinct and distinguishable hues”) and a dramatic enhancement of eidetic visual perception and memory (” I could never draw before, I couldn’t “see” things in my mind, but now it was like having a camera lucida in my mind – I “saw” everything as if projected on paper, and just drew the outlines I “saw”. Suddenly I could do the most accurate anatomical drawings.”) But it was the exaltation of smell which really transformed his world: “I had dreamt I was a dog – it was an olfactory dream – and now I awoke to an infinitely redolent world – a world in which all other sensations, enhanced as they were, paled before smell.” And with all this there went a sort of trembling, eager emotion, and a strange nostalgia, as of a lost world, half-forgotten, half recalled.

“I went into a scent shop”, he continued “I had never had much of a nose for smells before, but now I distinguished each one instantly – and I found each one unique, evocative, a whole world.” He found he could distinguish all his friends – and patients – by smell: “I went into the clinic, I sniffed like a dog, and in that sniff recognised, before seeing them, the twenty patients who were there. Each had his own olfactory physiognomy, a smell-face, far more vivid and evocative, more redolent, of any sight face”. He could smell their emotions – fear, contentment, sexuality – like a dog. He could recognise every street, every shop, by smell – he could find his way around New York, infallibly, by smell.

“It was a world overwhelmingly concrete, of particulars,” he said “a world overwhelming in immediacy, in immediate significance”

Rather suddenly, after three weeks, this strange transformations ceased – his sense of smell, all his senses, returned to normal; he found himself back, with a sense of mingled loss and relief, in his old world of pallor, sensory faintness, non-concreteness and abstraction. “I’m glad to be back,” he said, “but it’s a tremendous loss too. I see now what we give up in being civilised and human. We need the other – the “primitive” – as well”.

From The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks

That is what it’s like for me all the time – hypersensitivity: I have this sort of acute capacity with all my senses all the time…it’s overwhelming and it’s also the source of all my healing…

for a long time the hypersensitivity was all jumbled up nightmarish chaos…as it heals, it is becoming simply a heightened state of awareness.

I shared all the above info with my husband, Paul. He commented:

All the way back to Huxley’s use of Blake’s phrase, the doors of perception, there’s been some understanding that there is some kind of neurological switch that can open the floodgates for sensory perception.

The question is, can that switch be left in the on position without overtaxing the nervous system.

Perhaps the key is contained in sleep. Maybe you can sustainably be fully on if you can balance that with sufficiently frequent periods of being fully off.

and from Blake:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. (see context here)

Indeed, sleep resets me and helps me regain balance…even after a short nap things become, once again, much more clear with less overwhelm. On the other hand, when I’m tired I can devolve into total chaos quite quickly and therefore need to make sure I have safe places to be pretty much at all times…this is why travel remains difficult and making plans and commitments, too is a challenge. This healing trip is not easy, but it’s fascinating in ways I cannot even begin to express! I try, and I fail. I will continue to do it anyway.


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2 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks helps me explain hypersensitivity

  1. Dog owners may enjoy an old dog book called How to be your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete. They used Rilke’s poetic idea of “inseeing,” much similar, not the same as “empathy,” but actually being the dog for a while, to see what the dog’s world is like. Also reading Temple Grandin’s book I think it is called “Thinking in Pictures,” where she explains how she sees through the viewpoint of cattle, which is the same principle, and is able to understand that the cattle want to feel hugged.

    I have issues myself being bothered by noises, especially television noise. I had to decide, first of all, what to name it. “Oversensitivity” puts the blame on me. I don’t want any more finger-pointing and I sure do not want harmful “treatment done to me!

    It is my choice to make an issue of it, to blame others who turn the TV on, or to quietly move away from it, OR, I can laugh at my own annoyance at it, or marvel at my ability to hear such things and distinguish musical intervals much as I could when I was a music composer, years ago. I can even choose to turn it into a game, just like I did when I babysat for little kids.

    It’s my choice. I can act like a brat over it, as I certainly did for years (and drove folks up a tree) or just laugh at how annoying it is (and silly really) instead.

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