by Cheryl Brewster, OLLI member

Katherine Galloway Young, a visiting lecturer at UC Berkeley, comes to OLLI for the first time as the instructor for the course, Philosophy of the Senses. She received her A.B. philosophy from UC Berkeley, followed by post-graduate study in aesthetics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include several books and numerous articles. 

Persons taking this course are promised a fascinating journey into a new realm of the senses, which we have been schooled to understand primarily in terms of their neuroscience-based attributes. Young seeks to provide another perspective from the philosophical field of phenomenology, or the study of how we experience everyday life.   Indeed, the dual methods of cognition, acquiring knowledge both through the third-person scientific perspective of the brain and through the first-person perspective of inquiry into how things appear in our consciousness, leads to a richer understanding of how the senses contribute to how we, as social beings, perceive, relate, and act.   

How are the senses influenced by the languages we speak, the cultures we inhabit? To what extent is the encoding of perceptual experiences a matter of how the mind/brain is "wired" and to what extent is it a question of personal experience? Young states that she hopes she can challenge us to "defamiliarize the familiar" and challenge our assessment that we always know what we are sensing.

Young’s comments brought to mind observations from the Dalai Lama. The true nature of the mind, he said, is beyond any concept or physical form, and therefore it cannot be studied solely by third-person, scientific methods. The mind must also be studied through a rigorous observation of our own subjective experience. No scientific description of the neural mechanisms of color discrimination can make one understand what it feels like to perceive the color red. "It seems very evident that due to changes in the chemical processes of the brain, many of our subjective experiences like perception and sensation occur. Can one envision the reversal of this causal process? Can one postulate that pure thought itself could affect a change in the chemical processes of the brain?"

Young indicates that the world of the senses is a gestalt, prompting anticipation, provoking imagination, conjuring memories, memorializing events, and providing richness to the meaning of our lives. Thus, sensing is a perceptual act contributing to multiple realities unique to each individual.

Adding to this new awareness, Young indicates that she will introduce the cultural and historical perspectives on the senses, including cultures where there is an emphasis on only two or three senses versus the five that we accept today. Additionally, she hopes to introduce a dialogue on the importance of the senses for understanding the way people interact with others and their surroundings. As usual, OLLI members will leave these short six weeks with Young with new awareness and understandings and an introduction to a fascinating subject that may lead to further personal inquiry.