Sensory Anthropology Meets Neuroanthropology

By Alexis Winter


“Rub them only when the movie flashes the respective number.” A scratch-and-sniff card from the German theatrical release of John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester. Source: Wikimedia.

Greg Downey, in his recent post on language and smell, opened a carton of expiring milk and poured himself into an exploration of cross-cultural variation in sensory experience.

While humans have evolved into primarily visual beings, he explained, we still have an impressive capacity for detecting (if not identifying) other sensory stimuli, and around the world other senses may take on more dominant roles than they do in sanitized “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies. Relative attention to tastes, smells, sounds, and more is shaped by the descriptive toolkit our native language offers us, as well as other cultural and environmental factors in our socialization.

In similar work, Kathryn Linn Geurts writes of the sensory order or “sensorium” of a given culture, which she defines as “a pattern of relative importance and differential elaboration of the various senses, through which children learn to perceive and to experience the world and in which pattern they develop their abilities” (2002: 5). Interestingly, this actually sounds a bit like language, a key tool we use in navigating and making sense of our surroundings. We know that language shapes experience, including sensory experience, but it does not entirely determine how we understand the world around us. It seems that the way our sensorium mediates the world is fairly significant too.

Of course, what is considered a “sense” is not so cut and dry–there does not seem to be a universal set of human senses. Geurts explains that the Western understanding of the five senses is not scientific fact, but rather a folk taxonomy handed down from Aristotle to Descartes and other influential thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition. Among the Anlo-Ewe people of West Africa, she explains, balance is a sense–this is similar to Greg Downey’s exploration of the neuroanthropology of balance as an elaborated sensory process. Other anthropologists also go beyond the “five senses” in their work in different cultures around the world.

In the Western approach, some philosophers and scientists have disagreed with the five-senses approach along the way. Some sensory scientists in the twentieth century (such as Lowenstein 1966 and Barlow and Mollen 1982, cited in Geurts 2002) have used a nine-sense taxonomy that includes balance and divides the realm of “touch” into three categories.

Meanwhile, neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system; one “sense” rarely acts alone. (Think of the relationship between taste and smell, or between balance and vision.) This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.

Sensory anthropology and the brain

What are the implications of all this for anthropology? Constance Classen and David Howes of the Centre for Sensory Studies have led the development of perhaps the most prominent strand of “sensory anthropology,” in which the researcher’s task is to understand how people “‘make sense’ of the world, or translate sensory perceptions and concepts into a particular ‘worldview’” (Classen 1997: 402). Sensory anthropologists may also study how worldview and environment shape sensory perception: for example, are people in environments that are less visually diverse (e.g., Antarctica) more attuned to sound than city dwellers?

So in sensory anthropology there is the possibility of cultural anthropologists taking up neuroscience (on what’s possible in sensory experience) in a way that helps them find and understand additional sites of worldview- and world-making. In Glenn H. Shepard Jr.’s comparative study of two Amazonian groups, the Yora and Matsigenka, he drew on psychophysical science to help him classify an overwhelming array of indigenous botanical medicines by taste, odor, detection of irritation, and visual/tactile properties, noting that “scientific and indigenous descriptions of sensation illuminate one another in interesting ways” (2004: 258). Equipped with a classificatory framework, he discovered sites of comparison that pointed to the differing “sensory ecologies” of the two groups, and to differing attitudes toward medicine and healing (roughly, allopathic vs. homeopathic).

Likewise, there is the possibility of ethnography of sensory experience offering clues to how neuroscientists might approach the topic of sensory perception in the brain and body. This is where the neuroanthropological approach–taking our informants’ descriptions of their experiences seriously and searching for explanations both in culture and the brain–is especially helpful. We see this approach in Greg Downey’s work on capoeira, mentioned above, and it would be fascinating to apply it in case studies where researchers have identified important connections between cultural values and certain senses.


Materials for a Santería sacrifice. Photo by Michiel van Nimwegen.

Take Elizabeth Perez’s sensory ethnography of food and religious ritual among Lucumí/Santería practitioners (2011). When Perez says that “food transmits knowledge,” is this just a metaphor? Are we speaking merely of people sharing information while simultaneously sharing food? Or are there neurological processes at work connecting olfactory and gustatory perception to other memories and information in the brain? Are these connections strengthened over time through Santería practice? There is great potential for continued development in sensory anthropology, especially if these researchers start engaging with neuroscience to take a more biocultural approach.

In order for sensory anthropology to grow, anthropologists must think and talk about how, exactly, to do it. Doctoral students in anthropology are required to learn the language of the people they wish to study, for many reasons, not least of which is the notion that language offers a window into cultural worldview. But how do we learn another culture’s sensorium?

Such investigations present a range of challenges, from the practical/methodological to the more theoretical/philosophical. Shepard Jr.’s study of the Yora and Matsigenka reveals some of the difficulties involved in ethnographic research on the senses. For one, we bring our own, deeply engrained sensory associations with us to the field.

In an excerpt from his field notes, Shepard describes botanical fragrances he encountered in his fieldwork: “A bit nauseating, sort of like fruitcake, candied melon…. Later, I was to realize what it smelled like: maraschino cherries. I hate maraschino cherries!!! Why do so many things smell like maraschino cherries?!” (Shepard 2004: 257-58).

We also may find it difficult to interview people about unconscious patterns of sensory perception, or about sensory knowledge of dangerous or threatening things:

Some responded to my insistent questions about sensory properties with exasperation, ‘No one tastes it! No one smells it! It’s just a medicine!’ (Yora herbalist Inima, field notes, February 23, 1996). Later I understood this hesitancy to taste, smell, and handle medicinal plants as a reflection of the concept of ‘rao’: Because illness-causing spirits inhabit them, it is best to keep a safe distance. [Shepard 2004: 258]

Embodied research

In Sensuous Scholarship (1997), Paul Stoller proposes a route to sensory anthropology through more “embodied” research. His goal is to “reawaken profoundly the scholar’s body by demonstrating how the fusion of the intelligible and the sensible can be applied to scholarly practices and representations” (xv). In other words, the anthropologist learns not merely by watching (with the eyes) and asking (with words) but also by doing and experiencing with their body and all of its senses.

So to understand sorcery among the Songhay in Mali and Niger, Stoller apprenticed and became one, participating in rituals including an initiation in which he “ate power” in the form of the kusu or magic cake. Through this research he came to understand, beyond the level of language and metaphor, how social relations among the Songhay are understood in terms of eating. Stoller’s approach challenges scholars’ traditional preoccupations with vision and text and the “conceit of control in which mind and body, self and other are considered separate” (xvii).

If becoming a sorcerer sounds a bit daunting, other researchers offer ideas for “embodied research” that are perhaps more approachable and practical for shorter-term research (Stoller has a 20-plus-year relationship with the Songhay communities he’s studied). Simply walking or eating meals with informants have helped social researchers understand sensory relationships embedded in particular communities and places.

Taking memory to be a lived process rather than a stored archive somewhere deep in the brain, psychologist Andrew Stevenson (2014) conducted a “sensuous ethnography” in which his research collaborators led him on tours of various sites in Manchester that evoked memories through sensory stimulation. The food served in one café provoked a discussion with one of Stevenson’s collaborators of her memories of cuisine in Tunis, where she was raised. Conversation while walking from one site to the next was also key, as Stevenson found that “perceptions of place were constructed between places, rather than merely (confined) in them” (2014: 14). Visual anthropologist Sarah Pink employed a similar method–walking, eating, photographing with her collaborators–to understand towns involved in the “Slow City” movement in Britain (2008).

If all of this is starting to sound a bit more like dating your informants than engaging in scientific inquiry, rest assured that researchers have anticipated this criticism. Anthropologists frequently find themselves explaining to other scientists that participant observation is more than just “hanging out.” Likewise, in her work on “the go-along method” in ethnography, sociologist Margarethe Kusenbach explores how we might engage in research that is both embodied and systematic:

Go-alongs require that ethnographers take a more active stance [than is taken in ‘hanging out’] towards capturing their informants’ actions and interpretations. Researchers who utilize this method seek to establish a coherent set of data by spending a particular yet comparable slice of ordinary time with all of their subjects – thus winning in breadth and variety of their collected materials what might get lost in density and intensity. [2003: 463]

Sensory ethnography: Smell-O-Vision 2.0?
Another important question that embodied research of sensory experience raises is how we go about sharing our findings. If we undertake research with a journal article or book in mind, do we limit ourselves from the very beginning? How embodied can our research be if all roads lead to text?

Within visual anthropology, the emerging subfield of “sensory ethnography” has been the site of some fascinating attempts to answer such a challenge. Following in the footsteps of ethnographic filmmakers David MacDougall, Jean Rouch, and Robert Gardner, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and his students at the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) have produced works of sound and film that eschew narration in favor of immersion in place or event. The most widely distributed of these works are the documentary films Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012). A.O. Scott described the latter as “90 minutes of wind, water, grinding machinery and piscine agony” that’s “often unnerving and sometimes nauseating” (2013)–see for yourself in the clip below.

Clip from the film Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor

In interpreting such works, anthropologists Sarah Pink (2009), David Howes (2006), and Karen Nakamura (2013) have invoked the neurological idea of synesthesia (literally, “union of the senses”) as a metaphor. Writes Nakamura:

Synesthesia is a part of all of our existence: smells can trigger the sense of touch, sights can trigger sounds, and sounds can trigger senses of touch. Many filmmakers, both theatric and documentary, have taken advantage of this. Films do not need to pipe in smells, waft breezes across the audience, or chill the room to have the audience members feel those various sensations. Our brain’s natural synesthesia will do it automatically when we are totally immersed in the filmic world, our mirror neurons firing in sympathy with what we see and hear. [134-35]

Oskar Fischinger plays with the notion of synesthesia in “An Optical Poem” (1938).

Multi-sensory art and storytelling
We are, of course, taking a risk when we assume all minds “fill in the blanks” in the same way, and we should be careful with how we use the increasingly popular term synesthesia, as Downey has noted. Still, connections between ethnography and the growing field of multi-sensory art merit continued exploration (Pink 2009).

Here at USF in the spring 2014 Neuroanthropology seminar, the class got a chance to experience an interesting example of multi-sensory storytelling in Chicago artist Fereshteh Toosi’s “book-in-a-box” called “Shoebox Lunch.” The book-in-a-box, which is part of a larger project related to food, gardening, migration, black culture, and health, contains an audio CD, text and braille instructions, and objects to touch, smell, and taste while listening to recordings of real people telling food stories.

Toosi’s audio instructions begin:

“The package you have before you is a time capsule of memories, and I’m here to guide you. The people you’ll hear from share personal stories demonstrating the intersections between black culture, migration, health, and wellness. If you happen to have vision, and you haven’t put on your eye mask yet, please do so now.”

Toosi excluded vision from the experience because many of the people she worked with throughout the story collecting process had significantly impaired or no vision. In class, we didn’t have eye masks, so we dimmed the lights, closed our eyes, and took in the evocative smells and tastes. (Forgive me–describing the contents of the box would be like giving plot spoilers, so I’ll have to leave you a little bit “in the dark” on that…) The overall effect was a feeling of immediacy and intimacy with each story (and a welcome break for our strained grad student eyes).

If the recent “Ethnographic Terminalia” installations at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are any indication, anthropological interest in multi-sensory art and other non-textual forms of communication is continuing to grow. This is promising, and not just because these projects are fun and accessible to non-anthropologists, but because they may help us communicate what we learn in ways that more accurately reflect how our informants see–sorry, sense–the world.


Classen, Constance
1997   Foundations for an anthropology of the senses. International Social Science Journal 49(153):401-412.

Geurts, Kathryn Linn
2002   Is There a Sixth Sense? In Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howes, David
2006   Scent, Sound and Synaesthesia: Intersensorality and Material Culture Theory. In Handbook of Material Culture. C. Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, Patricia Spyer, ed.

Kusenbach, Margarethe
2003   Street phenomenology: The go-along as ethnographic research tool. Ethnography 4(3):455–485.

Nakamura, Karen
2013   Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and the Multisensory [Review Essay]. American Anthropologist 115(1):132-144.

Pérez, Elizabeth
2011   Cooking for the gods: sensuous ethnography, sensory knowledge, and the kitchen in Lucumí tradition. Religion 41(4):665–683.

Pink, Sarah
2008   An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9(175).

2009   Doing Sensory Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Scott, A.O.
2013  Or Would You Rather Be a Fish? ‘Leviathan’ From Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel [Movie Review]. New York Times, February 28, 2013.

Shepard, Glenn H., Jr.
2004   A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies. American Anthropologist 106(2):252-266.

Stevenson, Andrew
2014   We Came Here to Remember: Using Participatory Sensory Ethnography to Explore Memory as Emplaced, Embodied Practice. Qualitative Research in Psychology.

Stoller, Paul
1997   Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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