Cultural influences and the senses

I’m re-posting here an email that was sent to the Yasmin discussion list by Herve Pierre Lambert which reviews an article by Sergio Roclaw Basbaum.  It explains the idea that consciousness is a culturally shaped phenomenon and gives some interesting examples of how different senses are emphasised in different cultures and therefore give rise to different understandings of the world.

herve pierre lambert
Date: 9 February 2009 11:24:49 PM
On the internet, there is an interesting article easy to encounter, written by Sergio Roclaw Basbaum, “Consciousness and Perception: The Point of Experience and the Meaning of the World We Inhabit”. He claims that “ consciousness is aculturally shaped phenomena, and that any conception that may emerge about it from a traditional Western scientific approach cannot go further than suggest a model of consciousness that, at best, can correspond to the experience of consciousness in the culture in which this very specific way of dealing with reality is embedded.”
The anthropological dimension of synesthesia – as a metaphor or as neurological phenomenon- is usually avoided or forgotten. Van Campen alluded to this reality in “Synthetic Indians” with a commentary on the book World of sense by Constance Classen. Basbaum developed this idea of a synesthesia phenomenon conditioned by culture in a philosophical reflexion using references to Classen and Flusser. The last year I had told that we needed informations on synesthesia in the different cultures of the multicultural Mediterranean world. The emergency of an anthropology focused in the sensory worlds of different cultures enabled to put into perspective the western association between seeing and meaning.-
Quotation from the same article by Basbaum:
“Different cultures emphasis in other senses gives birth to cosmologies based, for example:-
  • in thermal sensations, like the Tzotzil’s of Chiapas, Mexico;
  • in olfactory sensations, like the Ongee’s of Little Andaman Island, in Bengal Bay;
  • in a highly synesthetic cosmology, like the Desana’s of Amazon, which make meaning of their world based on multisensory correspondences experimented under hallucinogenic plants trance; (Classen, 1993: Chapter 6)
  • in such an emphasis on aural experience, like the Kaluli people of Bosavi, as to “reckon time and space by reference to auditory cues and entertain a fundamentally acoustic view of the structure of their physical and social universe.” (Howes, 2003:xvii)
These radically different sensorial arrangements (and there are many more), the meanings they ascribe to the world and the ways of dealing with life that emerge from them, make reasonable for us to talk not anymore about a “point of view”, typical of Western culture, but of a “point of experience”, the kind of hierarchy of the sensorium that structures experiences and cosmologies in different cultures.” – Hervé-Pierre Lambert

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