Friday, February 25, 2022

Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses by Jackie Higgins (Spotlight, excerpt, and review)

Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses


Jackie Higgins

Being sentient—is being aware of the world around us and conscious of our own place within it—is a marvel that science has yet to explain and that we take for granted because it seamlessly defines our every waking moment.


The 5 senses we grew up being taughtsight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste—conceived by Aristotle have become a nearly universally accepted belief system.  And yet it is a myth. Many neuroscientists say up to thirty-three distinct senses are served by dedicated receptors in our bodies.


In the vein of Oliver Sacks, Diane Ackerman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Sy Montgomery, author Jackie Higgins has a fascination with nature. She studied zoology under Richard Dawkins at Oxford and went on to become a leading writer and producer of documentary films about nature.  In SENTIENT: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses, Jackie Higgins explores the breadth of our capabilities as sentient beings through the lens of the animal kingdom. This book looks to animals to better understand the ways we sense and make sense of the world. Scientific research shows that there is more to unite, than divide us and that all creatures are built on the same foundationsa message of particular importance right now.  Through their eyes, ears, skin, tongues, noses and more, we can uncover what it means to be human and rediscover the extraordinary in the ordinary waking moment.

With stories of creatures from land, air, and sea that have the ability to sense the world in ways that boggle the mind. With its unique combination of armchair travel, scientific discovery, and a magnificent cast of animal characters, SENTIENT is a mind-boggling read unlike any other.  


"Sentient is a revelatory book. Exploring animals' beyond-human senses opens to us whole new realms of experience. Thank you, Jackie Higgins, for enlarging our understanding of what the world looks, feels, tastes, and smells like." —Sy Montgomery, New York Times bestselling author of The Soul of an Octopus

The book is narrated in an easily readable tone, and Caroline Church’s well-rendered illustrations are a bonus. An appealingly written, enlightening, and sometimes eerie journey into the extraordinary possibilities for the human senses.” — [starred] Kirkus Reviews






True to its various names, the peacock, painted, or harlequin mantis shrimp is one of the most colorful creatures on the Great Barrier Reef. Neither shrimp nor mantis, Odontodactylus scyllarus is more akin to a diminutive lobster with a kaleidoscopic carapace of indigos, electric blues, and bottle greens. Yet this captivating countenance belies a somewhat irascible temperament. One spring day in 1998, at the Sea Life center in the English seaside town of Great Yarmouth, a particularly pugilistic specimen named Tyson astounded onlookers by smashing through the thick glass wall of his aquarium. "He was clawing and snapping. Nobody dared touch him;' the manager told the national press. "All our visitors assume our sharks are the man-eating killers, but they are pussycats compared to Tyson. His power is incredible:' Tyson was not the first to attempt such a jailbreak; these marine crustaceans, known as stomatopods, have developed quite a reputation among aquarists and scientists. Indeed, research has shown that the peacock mantis shrimp uses its dub-like arms to pack a punch faster and more forceful than any heavyweight boxer.

One scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, made it her mission to understand the mantis shrimp strike, but only because she had run into problems with her original research plan. "I decided to take a break from trying to study their sound production and look instead at a behavior they perform regularly, without hesitation;' ex­ plained Sheila Patek. "It was a classic example of how failure can open up new and unexpected directions:' Her first challenge was to find a camera system fast enough. "Standard high-speed video cameras, that film at 1,000 frames per second, are too slow to capture the creature's strike. They only show a single frame of blur;' she said. An opportunity arose to team up with a BBC film crew and use the latest high-speed technology for low light conditions. "Low light is the critical issue when filming these animals;' because, "if it's too high, you fry them:' The experiment was simple to set up: a peacock mantis shrimp, a sacrificial snail loosely tethered to a stick-"they are aggressive animals, happy to strike whatever is placed in front of them"-and, sure enough, they soon had a recording of a shell-splitting impact. They had filmed the punch at 5,000 frames per second, and, playing it back, they slowed it down by a factor of three hundred. "It was still pretty darn fast;' Patek told me. "Even a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the speed and acceleration of the strike put them right at the outer limits of what people had ever seen:' The final calculation was more surprising still: it was the fastest strike ever recorded in the animal kingdom. "It is a glorious moment as a scientist to see something for the first time and recognize how special it is;' Patek added. The calcified club accelerated like a bullet in a gun, reaching its target in three- thousandths of a second, at velocities approaching 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. "But that was not the end of the story:'

Patek decided to film the behavior at even faster speeds. "At 20,000 frames per second, we saw an incredible flash of light where the limb hit the snail, that then spread over the shell;' she said. "I recognized it instantly:' She was looking at a potent phenomenon called cavitation, which occurs where areas of water moving at vastly different speeds meet and the pressure drops. "This results in the water literally vaporizing and when that vapor bubble collapses, it does so with such destructive force that it emits sound, heat, and light:' The experiments revealed that the force behind the peacock mantis shrimp's fist is so great that sparks really do fly. The knockout blow spells doom for aquarium walls and any snails unfortunate enough to be within reach. Patek's research enabled the Guinness World Records to claim it, relative to the animal's weight, as "the most powerful punch in the animal kingdom:' But the mantis shrimp shows prowess beyond the boxing ring.

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About the author:


Growing up in Cornwall by the sea - spending much of my childhood outdoors, on the beach, poking around in rock pools - fostered a fascination with nature. At Oxford University, I was taught evolution and animal behavior by Richard Dawkins, as well as epidemiology, ecology and conservation, eventually I graduated with an MA in Zoology.


I worked for Oxford Scientific Films making wildlife films for the BBC and National Geographic. My first day in the office involved stinging my boss with a bee – he showed me where on his arm the lens was focused so we could get a macro shot of a sting for a film we were making on bees in the Panamanian rainforest.  I filmed in many places around the world: bats pollinating saguaro cactuses in Arizona, warring woodpeckers in the peaceful Californian Carmel Valley, to seed dispersal in the rare Coco de Mer forests of the Seychelles.  OSF was world renowned for its expertise in unusual photographic techniques: cameras to play with time (e.g. hi-speed photography to show seed pods exploding, time-lapse to show flowers budding, locked shots to show landscapes changing through seasons) or lenses to play with size (e.g. macro lenses to show microscopic creatures or endoscopes to reveal unusual points of view). 


I next worked in the Science Department at the BBC making narrative documentaries across all scientific disciplines for the Horizon strand (sometimes co-produced with PBS Nova or The Discovery Channel): I covered the SARS epidemic from the WHO headquarters in Geneva and filmed quite a few people who have been in the news throughout this year.  I debunked Atlantis myths by exploring the origins of Egyptian and Mexican cultures, exposed the truth behind the Atkins diet, followed magic men in India to explain the science behind their trickery, a team of evolutionary biologists in Latvia studying fossils to understand how our distant ancestors first crawled out of the oceans and a team of anthropologists into the remote Indonesian forests of Flores in search of one of the most important ancient hominin fossils of the last century; she became known as 'the hobbit'.


It is therefore no surprise among my favorite books are The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks, A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman and Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape.


SENTIENT combines my deep fascination with the fragility and diversity of the human experience: what might it feel like not being able to see colour, to smell with the sensitivity of a bloodhound or to lose the sense of one’s body, to live disembodied? Ultimately, I intersect what we can learn about humanity from these wonderful creatures.





My review:


5 stars


Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses by Jackie Higgins is a thought-provoking and intriguing book that invites one to marvel at the creatures of the world around us. Even better, it challenges the reader to contemplate the wonders of the human body and the capabilities it has, far beyond the traditional five senses postulated by the ancients. Using a variety of animals who specialize in certain abilities, the author explores how form affects function, how the brain can be mapped to reflect the emphasis on a particular sense, and how knowledge of these capabilities can be utilized to understand certain disease conditions.


I’m astonished at the idea of having an additional receptor in the eyes that confers time sense, fascinated by the existence of abysses in the ocean that could swallow up Mount Everest, and love the creative descriptions such as that of the peacock mantis shrimp having “optical panache” as well as pugilistic expertise. I can’t help but be dismayed by the idea that a person could lose the ability to know where their body is in terms of spatial knowledge after a viral disruption of proprioception, or that the body’s innate clock can be disrupted by a head injury.


This is a densely packed volume of information. One can read it on several levels. Easiest is reading to just marvel at the amazing creatures. I’d never heard of most of these entities…except of course, the cheetah, which I’ve adored for years and admired for its ability to turn on a dime and to explode into action; the octopus, which I’ve learned that I should be even more wary of its escape abilities than I already was; and the vampire bat which exhibits far more compassion that I’d ever imagined. Then one can admire the lengths that scientists go to in order to analyze a hypothesis…whether it is being sense-deprived or tolerating the presence of giant cockroaches (ewwww) or counting the number of hair cells or rods and cones. And finally, there is the science itself. Personally, I wince at some of the implications of the investigations, as there were quite a few animals sacrificed in order to provide the information, but wow, the revelations that are provided are truly invaluable.


Whether you are a scientist, a philosopher, or just a curious student of life, this book will provide hours of fascinating material. I invite you to expand your mind and enjoy discovering that we have far more than the traditional five or six senses ascribed to us.


A copy of this book was provided for review

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