Jackie Higgins: Sentient – book reviewSentient

By Jackie Higgins

Picador Books

Published 24/06/2021

Our human experience of the senses is surprisingly limited when compared to the more curious corners of the natural world, but possibly not as limited as we think. 

As a child my primary school had us perform a challenge where we were blindfolded, told to hold our noses, given pieces of apple, onion and potato to taste and asked to guess which was which. Asides from the many health and safety issues that would prevent this ever happening in a scholastic setting in 2021 it was a great experiment that has stuck with me because, as it turns out, it was virtually impossible to tell them apart with your olfactory function removed. Despite this revelation (aged 7) that our noses contain cells that operate much like taste buds and our tongues can sense smells I have continued, like many of us, to view sensory perception along fairly simplistic and rigid lines.

In Sentient Jackie Higgins takes us on an exploration of how we see and feel the world around us, with the many strange and wonderful creatures of the animal kingdom as our guide. Through sight, sound, touch and smell but also the more abstract senses such as desire, pleasure, balance and even time, the boundaries of human sensation are both revealed and challenged.

Jackie Higgins: Sentient – book review
Illustration by Caroline Church

Bats that use sonar to chase moths, blowflies that taste through their feet, butterflies that can sense the earth’s magnetic field and hummingbirds that can tell what time of day it is. Each chapter focuses on one or two animals, beautifully illustrated on the title pages, but there is a wealth of information to dig into here and a comprehensive set of reference notes at the end that are almost as interesting in their own right.

Brimming with fascinating, frequently delightful and occasionally freaky trivia this is an entertaining, gentle and easily digestible read with some important and intriguing ideas at its core. How can we apply these sensorial examples to our own bodies both as they exist now, and as they may do in the future? How can we advance medicine, expand our minds, or bio-hack our lives? What can we learn from the animal world about our latent capabilities? What makes us, in the purest definition of the word, sentient?

Jackie Higgins is a television documentary director and writer. She read zoology at Oxford University, as a student of Richard Dawkins, and has worked for the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and The Discovery Channel. She is also the author of three books on photography.

All words by Susan Sloan. More of her work for Louder Than War is available on her archive. Find her on Instagram as @thesmureviews and view Susan’s website here.

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