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Role of Human Senses in the Spatial Experience of the City

Info: 2619 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Nov 2021 in Psychology

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The built environment plays a vital part in our living conditions, affecting the decisions we make, experiences and memories. Our senses are essential in helping us to understand the environment. We experience the environment with more than one sense at a time. The McGurk effect is an example of a striking demonstration of multisensory integration where our brain meshes with our vision and hearing in creating our conscious experience of the world (McGurk & MacDonald, 1976). What we hear is very often dictated by what we see and likewise, hearing can also affect vision. The senses provide national grounds in navigating and determining human behaviour, as shown in Figure 1. While it is important to focus on each of the senses and understand how each of them frames our access to the world, it is also essential to focus on how the senses interact. This paper examines the role of human senses through the spatial experience of sense walking in the city as well as the significance of the urban spaces especially for those who are missing some of their senses.

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We perceive the urban spaces of the built environment as a result of the sensory experience of that particular space. Sensory experience is the input of the physical world obtained by our five senses while perception is the process of brain collection, organisation and interpretation of these sensory experiences (Pentz and Gerber, 2013). Information from these senses is processed and interpreted in the brain to form a three-dimensional image of the world we live in. “Our bodies and movements are in constant interaction with the environment, the world and the self-inform and redefine each other constantly” (Pallasmaa, 2012, 44). Interaction between the senses, body and the urban spaces help in gaining memories in places one has visited hence making the sensory experience a vital part of spatial perception. This also helps to strengthen the connection between the people, the public realm and space. When the eye collaborates with the other senses and the body, this interaction of the senses strengthens and articulates one’s sense of reality (Gibson, 1966). Each sense plays a significant role in transforming the architectural values and the design of urban spaces, shown in Figure 2. Our vision is capable of providing information in observing and investigating the spaces in the so-called far space, making it a very dominant and leading sense in our life causing the other four senses to become suppressed (Franck & Leopori, 2007, 20). The senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing all require closer contact or actual involvement thus they are denied importance, as shown in Figure 3. 


Perception of space or spatial perception is the ability to be aware of our relationship between our body and the environment (Gibbs, 2006). As senses are constantly collecting information about the urban spaces, perception allows us to act within the space. Our five senses are always attracted to the stimuli that exist in the urban space. This includes the haptic system which is the change in the position of the body in relation to objects in the space or the movement of the arms or legs (Serina and Haggard, 2007). These represent the space stimuli and act as the beginning point for the perception process. As our attention is usually focused on a specific object in the urban space, that object will then form an image on the retina. An inverted image will be projected and converted into electrical signals to allow the transmission of visual messages to the brain. This cognitive ability will then allow us to perceive our surroundings with shapes, distances, and sizes making us aware of its presence in the space (Dijkerman, 2007). Our brain will then start moving to the recognition stage which helps us to recognise and respond to the world around us (Robinson & Pallasmaa, 2015). 


Sense walking is a method to explore and examine how we perceive and experience urban spaces which usually involves walking alone or with individuals through particular, mostly urban environments concentrating on one or more sensory environment or spaces (Adams and Askins, 2009, 42). Of those sense walks considered, the sense walks in this experiment includes walking alone and walking with individuals, implemented on a pre-determined route from Lincoln train station to Pavilions Student Accommodation carried out in silence and blindfolded to allow the participant to focus on olfactory and auditory information. The duration of the sense walks is between 25 and 30 minutes including stopping points in different types of spaces such as the train station, university area, busy roads and housing area, shown in Figure 4. At each of these stopping points, anything that is observed and detected by the senses are recorded.

Based on the sense walk with all of the senses being present, the spaces are perceived based on the sensory systems, context and memories. These systems have different ranges for exploring urban spaces. Sense of sight and sense of hearing can receive information over a greater range. (Wankhede and Wahurwargh,2017). For instance, while doing the sense walk, different types of spaces and sound can be identified and heard from far away, for example, the shops along the High Street, the restaurants along the Brayford Pool, the University Library, the sound coming from the trains, cars and people as shown in Figure 5 and Figure 6. Hearing is an incorporating sense to the sense of sight. Thus, the experience while walking along the journey, the meaning of the level crossing bell, the noise from the people, the various approaches of the soundscape provides the sense walk a three-dimensional atmosphere. “We are not aware of the importance of hearing in spatial experience, although sound often provides the temporal continuum during which visual impressions are embedded” (Pallasmaa, 2012, 53).

Since the sense of sight is too powerful, it is hard for the other senses to immediately come into action. The sense of touch, smell and taste would only be beneficial if we come nearer to the objects or spaces. For instance, the scent helps in stimulating emotions and capturing one’s memory of a certain place. Likewise, since every city has its smell, every urban space could have the same. Since the eye is the distance organ where it observes and investigates, touch is the sense of closeness to which we approach and feels. When light makes space for shadow our other senses are sharpened including the sensitivity to touch. The sense of touch is the tool in providing texture, density, weight and temperature. The skin helps in detecting the temperature along the journey and the foot measures the texture and density of the pavement, shown in Figure 7 (Hadjiphilippou, 2013). 

The sense walks while being blindfolded provides a completely new perspective in perceiving the spaces although the route is completely the same. As the ability to have proper mobility has lost very quickly, the thought of bumping into objects or people are there but those feelings go away over time. “It is not simply that the world becomes unreal when one is not able to see it any longer; one’s own body becomes unreal because it is no longer plunged into a familiar world” (Hull, 1997, 181). Once I get used to my body along with the guide, the guide itself becomes an extension of the body instead of a simple object. As the sense of sight is completely removed in this experiment, sense of touch become the most used and important sense. Tactile impression become prominent for a non-sighted person, as shown in Figure 8. For instance, the railings on the steps going to the Arts Bridge plays play a vital role when climbing the stairs and also the types of textures on the ground. The smell is additionally an essential sense in capturing and understanding the idea of the space, shown in Figure 8. With respect to smell in the form of food products such as those sold in the café, and those of cooking food, whether being cooked, sold or eaten helps in indicating the food court area in the Minerva Building. As I am completely focused, the sense of hearing also becomes more prominent. Sound coming from cars and people seems a lot closer and clearer than usual. Similarly, sounds of nature such as wind and birdsong are also present, as shown in Figure 9. Comparing to smell, the sense of taste is less obvious. This is because the taste action needs support from the sense of touch.


‘Din Blinde Passager’, which translates as ‘your blind passenger’ is an approximate 39 metres tunnel which uses varieties of fluorescent lamps, yellow mono frequency lamps and fog machines to limit the visual perceptions of the visitors as they move through the long narrow passageway. The densely fogged surroundings solely present visibility at about 1.5 metres forcing the visitors to use senses other than sight in navigating and orienting themselves in relation to their surroundings, figure 10. Usually, these changes are so gradual and normal in our environment that we hardly notice them, but Eliasson’s piece condenses an entire day to a special, intense experience on how we perceive the world around us. With the distractions of our surroundings eliminated, having limited visibility in a confined space, we experience the light in a way we have never before. After all, we realise that we are not completely blind as the other four senses play their respective roles and start kicking in. This indicates that the relativity of our senses is higher than we think. We are actually able to recalibrate it or at least stop being numb.


The sense walks and ‘Din Blinde Passager’ experiment does not replicate the experience of a deaf or a blind person. However, these two experiments provideuseful insight into non-visual aspects of the urban spaces and also how people use their senses to perceive the surrounding environment. Although sight still prevails as the dominant sense, through these experiments, sight seems to go as far as the surface context, but it has little connection to user-specific experiences and expectations. Hence, the other four senses play their respective roles and work together in stimulating and enabling access experiences and memories, thus resulting perceptions of those areas. In the built environment context, urban spaces and architectural design more often responds to only the visual sense. Planning and construction of the built environment without taking into consideration their multi-sensoriality and accessibility will only result in blurred spaces. In addition to the functional demands, architectural design should focus on how people feel inside the building and how they will perceive the environment. Not only on how the space looks, but also how it touches, feels, sounds and perhaps even tastes. For the occupant to have a deeper, more meaningful interactions and experiences in the built environment, form and function need to be articulated more thoroughly by engaging all of the senses. As the human body moves and undergoes sensory experiences, only then the architecture comes to life.  


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