perception and selfhood – more speculation

I’ve been thinking about the significance of the ideas in ‘The Inner Touch’ a little more.

For me, one of the key ideas is that, following Liebniz, we can declare ‘I perceive, therefore I am.’ The subsequent chapters in the book develop the idea that the self is a perceiving self rather than a thinking self. Some of the psychological work in the book shows how disturbances to the faculty of perception influence the experience of self. (I’m sure that some of the work published by Oliver Sacks also revolves around this area. Although I’ve also read cases where disturbances to perception are unconsciously reinterpreted by the individual and projected onto the external world.) Put another way, the self is constructed on the basis of perception which precedes any more cognitive attempts at identity formation.

Another question emerges from this is how the experience of self changes with time. Cohen writes about different stages of ageing and how people re-orient themselves and their identity with regards to age, the amount of time remaining to them and their contributions to the wider society (past and future). We also know (anecdotally) that people become more aware of physical changes and the limitations that imposes on them. But I wonder whether there is another change with age.

There was a comment on the Radiolab programme about ‘Falling’ that a possible reason for why older people fall over more frequently is because myelin (natural electrical insulation on nerves) starts to break down resulting in slower electrical conduction along the axons and therefore resulting in degradation of communication between brain and limbs. Older people’s brains don’t get the feedback sensori-motor feedback signals as and when they expect them and therefore may make poorer / more inappropriate control commands. (I’ve just read that myelin breakdown is associated with multiple sclerosis, so the idea of associating myelin breakdown and poor motor control seems reasonable.)

So, I wonder whether – as we age – our faculty perception changes (physiologically) and therefore our experience of self changes?

Furthermore, my feeling is that both classrooms and care environments are somewhat sensorialy deprived. Classrooms prioritise sight and hearing over the other senses. Similarly, care homes are (for mostly understandable reasons) fairly bland environments with some visual stimuli. So… do tactile experiences such as object handling sessions allow people to re-experience or put back into practice a fuller or more whole self?


Cohen, G.D. (2000) The Creative Age, New York: HarperCollins

Heller-Roazen, D. (2007) The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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