Can’t you smell it?

Aristotle says that our association of imagining with seeing shows up in the etymology of the Greek word for imagining, coming from the word for light. (de A. 429a4)  Etymology aside, we still do tend to think of imagining and images as visual, or as based on seeing. But we can imagine with or from the other senses: sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Laura did not smell odors in the dryer that other people couldn’t smell.  It was just that everyday smells like coffee, or even mouthwash, on my breath or soap in the laundry room had become noxious for her. In fact, I did eventually remove the odors that offended Laura by running the washing machine through a couple of hot cycles with lots of vinegar.

Laura wasn’t “imagining,” in the sense of “making up,” foul smells.  There were chemicals in the air of that room.  We both smelt them.  Our noses and smell receptors interacted with the same chemicals.  Whether it was because of cancer or chemo or radiation messing with her sensory processes, the end result was that Laura felt that she was smelling foul, dirty, disgusting, dangerous odors.  I was missing the point by arguing with her that the sources of such smells were not present where she said they were.  I was just not paying attention to what I myself was doing with the same smells: translating chemical interactions with the receptors in my nose and skin into images to my CNS which I then judged to be appropriate for a small room filled with bottles of detergent and other cleaning agents, and two well-used machines where the residue of washing and drying collected.  We were both imagining with the chemical reactions and electrical impulses our bodies generated in that room, and then making judgments on what these sensory processes were telling us about where we were and what we should do about it.

This sounds very much like what Melzack calls a “neuromatrix” and what Varela might call an “emergent property.” Imagining starts with the basic changes in our sense organs, which the nerves transmit to the brain and which the brain converts into an image to which we commit or not..

We feel the pain and turmoil of shame when we imagine being disgraced and believe that others (will) see us as bad.  We feel the pain and turmoil of fear because we imagine danger and believe that imminent evil will bring pain or destruction.  Laura’s bodily reactions to the trifecta were very much the same as during the flat tire.  What differed was what she imagined was going on in each incident.  During the flat tire, Laura was afraid because she was afraid of losing her sight, which would mean not going to work anymore, with the next step—death, or worse in her eyes, hard times for Anne Mei and me.  During the trifecta, she pictured the physical and social discomforts inflicted on her as the doctors’ and nurses’ not caring what happened to her, as others’ being more important to them than she was.  She pictured herself as helpless, trapped.

This was how Laura hurt.  As Buytendijk writes, “pain does not exist without helplessness and perplexity.”  (83)  The situation of “helplessness” doesn’t mean anything in and of itself.  We have to see that we are trapped, helpless.  “Helplessness” is like other nouns ending in -ness.  It doesn’t happen unless we are doing something, in this case, imagining not being able to stop the pain .  We have already seen Walter Cannon’s analysis of the physiological disturbances that can erupt when an animal realizes that it can’t escape, and how pain fades when the animal sees a way out.  Similarly, we read about the South African runners who could only keep going through the pain as long as they could see how far they had to go.

We make as we imagine, but that doesn’t always mean that we are making things up.  Laura did pull when I said to push.  Her tire did go flat.  Both were physical events that others saw or could have seen.  We didn’t make them up.  But we did imagine them as part of the process of experiencing them.  By themselves the physical motions of neither event would ever have brought Laura to feel shame or fear.  As Laura imagined them and their consequences, experiencing with the bodily reactions interacting with this process, she experienced the pain and disturbance of shame and fear.  And anger in the case of the trifecta.  By itself Laura’s pulling the dryer when I said to push would not have upset me.  I erupted in anger because for a split second I imagined that she intentionally undid all my efforts.  My anger hurt Laura because she imagined both my frustration and her mistake.

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