Calibrating your Meat Suit
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Or a practical approach to improving your senses
In school, we were all taught that people have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. This is, like many of the things we are taught in school-level science class, both a) a useful way to explain a complex cluster of concepts to children as their understanding of the world around them develops, and b) completely and totally false. 100% wrong.
Humans actually have at least nine senses, while some put the number closer to 21, or even up to 53 (or more) depending on how you chunk together some of the sensory data we need to function. Like numbering the muscles we have, there’s not one “capital-T” Truth, only a lot of arguments around line calls. Many of those you’re aware of, including senses of balance, pain, hunger. Others not so much, like the senses of blood pressure, or levels of salt in the blood, that prompt your body to self-regulate.
Buy why is this relevant in a blog post about parkour or movement training? Well, I’m glad you asked! There is a wide, arguably infinite, spectrum of activities that can contribute to improving your movement. When training to improve our skills, we can sometimes focus too much on muscles, and action. On one side of the equation, if you will. And that’s super important - without improving muscular strength and endurance, and without drilling good movement patterns, training ain’t worth a damn. But, the ‘other side’ of that equation (in this admittedly laboured metaphor) is sensory input. Sensory input is vital to improving all movement.
We are embodied, and our knowledge is embodied. We do everything that we do through our own ‘meat suit’, this skin bag of muscle, bone, blood, receptors and synapses. And everything “output” of that meat suit, every cat pass or jump, every sprint, every weighted squat, follows from an “input” through our senses. Maybe that’s visual: spotting where the landing and takeoff of a jump will be. Maybe it is proprioceptive, or vestibular, as the body seemingly course-corrects itself while balancing along or moving around a rail or weight. And while we all know that to develop muscles you train those muscles, and to improve skills you practice them, for some reason the senses are often thought of as fixed, or just-as-they-are. Not true. I’m not going to get into the weeds about if you can improve the physical apparatus of the senses or not (see postscript), but you can improve the conceptual apparatus around it, or what you do with the information.
We can’t always improve the physical conditions and resolution of the sense itself (I wear glasses. No matter how much I stare at fuzzy looking things a long way away, that ain’t going to change), we can calibrate how we understand that sense, and so make the most of every input. In fact, oyur brain is doing a lot a work to filter information out of the sensory data you experience already. A simple example: you can always see your nose, but your brain filters that out of your normal field of vision. So, your sensors have already been calibrated through your life experiences to date. And with a bit of attention, you can re-calibrate them to better suit what you want to in the future.
If you’ve ever done any coaching, you’ll have come across a student who won’t follow a particular cue, no matter how you phrase it. (And you can probably remember a time when you were that student.) In all likelihood, the problem wasn’t that they just weren’t listening. The problem could be that they didn’t have a sensory understanding of what you were telling them. If you can understand words from your coach in your head, but not in your bones, figuratively speaking, it can be difficult to put that advice into practice. That is, you might intellectually understand “Get your hips up” or “fast elbows”, but if your proprioception lags behind that intellectually understanding, it won’t translate into action. Another example is if you’ve ever learnt a new language, you’ve probably had a native speaker say to you, “It’s not pronounced x, it’s pronounced x”, where the two comparative words they said to you sounded exactly the same. It wasn’t that your hearing was any different from theirs, it was that you did not yet understand what to listen for. You didn’t have an appropriate conceptual framework around the sense of hearing to understand the difference in that language. And when you do finally become able to hear the difference, it wasn’t because the physical machine of your ear changed in any way, it was because your hearing and your thinking coalesced into understanding because of your hard work in learning the language.
This series of short blog posts will focus on our senses, one by one, from the familiar Big Five, through the less well known radiation, feeling, chemical and mental senses, to some that are more poetic uses of the word ‘sense’, but important nonetheless. (So yes, some of them aren’t senses, but are post-sensory cognitive activities. I’m not a neuroscientist, so don’t @ me) Under each heading, I’ll list some simple drills, games, questions and practices that can help you to dial them in.
You’ve only got one meat suit- you might as well get the most out of it.
If you don’t have one or more of the senses, or if your senses are either underdeveloped or genetically less sensitive, or if the thought of spending time probing the nature of any particular sense gives you the heebie-jeebies, this blog is still for you. It’s worth clarifying and even YELLING: you don’t need all of these senses to be complete and awesome and amazing.
For one, every experience is a combination of several/ all of your senses, so the other ones in combination will fill in the gaps. And two, you don’t always need to improve the senses themselves, but the way that information is interpreted through your noggin.
An example: I have a below-average sense of smell. I know that for a fact, after trying to get a strange-but-surprisingly-well-paying casual job as a ‘smeller’ for an air-pollution study. Basically, while they could measure parts-per-million of a given gas in any environment with machines, they needed actual sniffing people to find out how noxious or annoying that amount. So I did some I was average enough. I was not, and I had/have significantly less olfactory abilities than most humans, it turns out. Now, that doesn’t affect my parkour training (or my life) that much, admittedly, but I did work for years as a barista.
While I did notice that my smelling sense left a lot to be desired in coffee tasting and espresso slinging, I soon figured out that it wasn’t an entirely genetic failing on my part. What helped me a lot was improving my vocabulary around smells. The problem wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’t smell things others could (although if I had ever wanted to be a Q grader, or other real-fancy-pants-coffee person, if may have become a problem then). The problem was that I couldn’t attach words to those smells easily. (If you don’t know what I mean, read the description on the back of a bag of good coffee beans. Earthy? Apricot notes? Leather? Some of it seems like nonsense. But once you start understanding what that vocabulary refers to, it opens up a whole new experience. And yes, some of it is still nonsense.) Once I trained myself to hook words onto smells, I could do it all so much better. Most of the exercises suggested for each sense in the blog posts to come don’t necessarily refer to improving the sense itself, but to improving the conceptual apparatus around the sense, so you can better understand the sensory input.
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