Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/November 1879/The Evolution of a New Sense



WE find that the degrees of perception in people vary. In other words, one may receive more impressions than another, so that we measure the extent of a person's life by the number of objects or ideas that produce a lasting effect and modify the disposition or mental tendency. This suggests a comparison of the senses in different persons. Then arises the general question of the possible evolution of new powers, for with a wider meaning we may term the telegraph, the printing-press, and particularly the telescope, approximations to what we may consider new senses. The subject may be thus carried to the higher point concerning the increase of all the mental powers.

In "our little life. . . rounded with a sleep," we are cut off by invisible barriers from even a comprehension of the peculiar tastes for enjoyment manifested by some others. It is difficult to understand Livingston's contentment during a life of exile and exposure. There was in him an inextinguishable mental tendency which appeared in his strange delight in conquering difficulties. But we need not cite an example from the other hemisphere. We see this bias or mental momentum (if a mechanical phrase be allowable in affairs of the mind) all around us. It is true the force is not always effective, but this does not invalidate the reality of this peculiar tendency, which too often shows in how singularly narrow a manner the mental powers act. The minds of men are like circles which allow elongation in a given direction, but at the expense of another part of the circle which contracts in a corresponding degree. The addition of a sixth sense would result in a resource which would not lessen the effectiveness of other faculties by a withdrawal of force to supply the new demand.

That we are mentally inadequate appears in our ever-recurring errors. This narrowness of view is also illustrated by the misunderstandings that arise between ideal and practical men. Some persons who are devoted exclusively to every-day affairs can not easily comprehend how others can look at a printed page and then form imaginary images or be greatly interested in fiction. On the other hand, the imaginative reader is forced to admit the importance of practical people, yet he can not see why they take pleasure in trade, which to the reader of intense literary taste involves necessary monotony—like that of a mill at which tramps in England were forced to grind before they could obtain lodging. The ideal and the practical are apparently at opposite poles, yet the general result conforms to the law of liquids in hydraulics: a proper balance is maintained in spite of particular variations. But this intense progressive action, or bias, on one side or the other, should be distinguished from the primary power which would be added were another subjective connection opened with the objective world. The perceptions of a new sense would be positive, like those of our present senses, and would in no manner seem the result of effort or of the skill that comes by practice.

Mr. Gladstone, in an article contributed to the "Nineteenth Century," tried to demonstrate theoretically that the perception of color among the ancients was especially defective. In support of this he cited numerous passages from Homer as showing that the great Greek poet could not distinguish fine shades of color. After noticing Homer's comparison of the objects in nature with the colors of animals, he argues that a person with the average modern eye for the perception of color would not have made such comparisons without being aware of their inaccuracy. But he does not maintain that everybody in Homer's time was color-blind. He simply quotes many passages from Greek literature as supporting his position that, we will say, where one person is color-blind now, nine were color-blind then. Looked at hastily, this question of color seems of small importance. But let us look carefully. Is it not startling to think that the primary senses may be widening? It would follow, if additional evidence should be found to sustain Mr. Gladstone's theory, that the highly civilized portions of the human race are capable of perceiving finer shades of color, owing to a more delicate material development of the sense of sight. Once admit the development of one of the senses to be a demonstrated process, and the door is opened to tremendous consequences and possibilities of power, and consequently to a wider scope for the soul in the coming generations of men. For comprehension of the methods of Nature inevitably results in that form of control which opens the way to further perceptions.

In some respects the development of the senses is not quite as inconceivable as it may at first appear. The following analogies can hardly be considered sufficiently connected by evidence to be properly called theories, yet they are only relatively visionary. For example, imagine that we should acquire the power to become aware of the smallest change of material particles many miles away. Tait and Stewart have ingeniously argued that, according to the law of attraction, the slightest vibration or change of particles in the human brain during thought infinitesimally influences the remotest fixed star. This does not appear wildly theoretical, because it is mathematically demonstrable to the imagination. The visionary theory is in supposing that owing to corresponding vibrations of nerve-fiber we would be definitely conscious of distant material changes. This would result in a form of universal consciousness and consequent confusion, unless the perception were specialized in the form of a concentrated effort. The singular analogy is that the effect arising from the mutually attractive vibrations of particles would resemble the process by which sound reaches us—an accordance of the vibration of the ear-drum-with that of the air, George Henry Lewes has shown that "the physiologist can lawfully speak of unconscious sensations as the physicist can speak of invisible rays of light—meaning those rays which are of a different order of undulation from the visible rays, and which may become visible when the susceptibility of the retina is exalted." This is in part applicable to Mr. Gladstone's theory of the development of the perception of color. It is believed that the heat-rays of the sun, largely consisting of what are called the dark rays, do not produce a luminous effect, simply because the vibrations of the nerve-substance of the retina are not in unison with the invisible ray. In the same way the perception of color may involve a special series of vibrations absent in color-blind persons. Then arises the question here noticed, as to whether the sensation of color is owing to individual education, or is the result of slow and continuous physiological evolution during thousands of years. Owing to lack of evidence the question seems at present unanswerable. But it is obvious that our present senses might reveal more to us, because we are inferior to many animals in detecting objects by smell, hearing, or sight. Our comparative dullness is apparently due to the fact that there is with us no incessantly impending danger, and in consequence some of these senses are not as often excited.

It is unquestionably our wish that we could have greater powers of discernment. The telegraph and printing-press are indications of this longing for a wider life. Science has taught us that we perceive only an infinitesimal part of the objective world and of its processes. The theoretical addition of another sense does not satisfy us. It would seem only a new working-wheel of the mechanism. In fact, greatly magnified powers of perception without the assistance of instruments seem possible only through slow methods of development. If a sixth sense should confer upon us with our present range of faculties the power to be everywhere at once, we would be reduced to a state of confusion equivalent to the nullification of consciousness. The attempt to conceive it results in absurd contradictions. It is precisely this condition of omnipresence which is vaguely imagined as possible in clairvoyance. One of the difficulties in regard to accepting clairvoyance as an indication of a sixth sense is that the effect arises from a diseased condition of the sensibility. The result is unaccountable, but at the same time unwholesome. It is at variance with the steadily increasing scientific knowledge of our day in the fact that its phenomena evade verification or reduction to a consistent law of action. Men have been learning for the past five thousand years or more that physical or mental work and obedience to natural law increase the force and effectiveness of the individual and of his descendants. The geological discoveries of Huxley and Marsh, and the development of the simplest forms of vegetable life, denote an irresistible evolutionary sequence or working power in nature. It seems as necessary that those animals with the greatest power of adaptation should survive and express the later result, as that, to use Spinoza's geometrical illustration, the sum of the angles of a triangle should equal two right angles. And it is probable that a finer and higher grade of perceptions would not be altogether through the physiological development of our present senses, because such senses imply an inevitable relation or result from the action of the outer world; but many such perceptions would be due to a greater command of material potencies—such as that outlined in the possible extension of knowledge through the telephone, the phonograph, or the liquefaction of all the gases.

Among the many singular and original ideas attributed to Edgar A. Poe, was one to the effect that during a silence of about twenty minutes it is possible to know an intimate friend's line of thought as well as if the ideas had taken form in "words. In order to be successful, this would require a very intimate acquaintance with the friend's habits of thought. In fact, we all try to interpret the thoughts of others during silence, but we are generally wide of the mark, because we do not know the peculiar law of association of ideas applicable to each person. There is a general process by which one idea suggests another in all minds, but there are also particular variations. Nevertheless, unless the person is on his guard, fully seventy-five per cent, of his ideas will be known to any one who is accustomed to following the thoughts of others. The first thoughts, which arise in the mind automatically, are limited in number, because the connection with more remote ideas has not yet been made. It is probable that with increased knowledge of the peculiar laws of mental action, great skill will be shown in thus following the ideas of others, and it is clear that such a science of mind-reading would be built upon metaphysical data, just as mathematical data are now necessary factors in estimating the distance and motion of a planet. In some respects the limit of mental penetration may not be as absolute as we imagine. It is certainly not advisable to set limits like those astronomers who claimed that they had discovered the center around which the visible universe is revolving in a mighty orbit. It was found that this so-called center was describing a vast arc of a circle around another center inconceivably distant. The discoveries of the past indicate that others as important are to be made. The horizon recedes, revealing new objects.

In the light of past discoveries it seems highly improbable that so important a physiological gift as a sixth sense could come to us suddenly and mysteriously. This is not the manner in which Nature works. Everything is paid for, and our advantages come only from work and its accompanying natural growth, or by the hereditary transmission of a fortunate balance of powers in a line of ancestors. The first impulse arises from the necessity of work, and from the actions of events which stimulate the ingenuity. The increased activity is accompanied by an increase of fiber or power of continuance. Tyndall has admirably illustrated the fact that this law of mental supply and demand applies with precision to the processes of nature: "No particle of vapor was formed and lifted without being paid for in solar heat. There is nothing gratuitous in physical nature, no gain without equivalent expenditure." It is our tendency to look for theatrical or imposing manifestations of human power not paid for by work, and when a result appears mysterious owing to our ignorance of its source, we too often settle the difficulty in accordance with a convenient and visionary theory. In this way we hear a coincidence called a prophetic dream, no one has adequately estimated the enormous number of dreams that drift through the mind during a lifetime, and when a dream coincides in a measure with an event which takes place long afterward, the assumption then is that some dreams are of a prophetic nature. It seems clear that the only element of prophecy is due to a coincidence or similarity between the dream and the event. The minute particulars missing from the dream will be filled in by the imagination almost unconsciously, because the events of the dream and the real events become confused in the recollection.

All this does not divest the unknown of its mysterious possibilities. But there is a striking contrast between the so-called unaccountable results of clairvoyance and mesmerism, in their relation to transcendental knowledge, and the theories of science founded upon verified experiments. The obscurity or apparent mystery of the scientific theory steadily decreases with each addition of evidence, until the astonishing possibility "hardens into a fact." The clairvoyant theory not only evades all attempts to analyze it, but utterly fails in regard to any valuable results which could serve as starting-points for future discovery. The coming fact at once seems "reasonable and real," and does not rest upon the mere belief of one person. It can be verified from more than one point of view, and carries with it the convincing force of an axiom. Emerson, in his lecture in the Old South Church, Boston, on February 24, 1873, finely said, "The gracious lesson taught by science to this country is, that the history of nature from first to last is incessant advance from less to more, from rude to finer organization, the globe of matter thus conspiring with the principle of undying hope in man."

We must look to the onward march of progressive development for new power, and not to the mysterious and so far valueless results of clairvoyance, with its examples of trickery or nervous organisms thrown out of balance. There is more of the spiritual element in a beautiful sunset than in the table-rapping and other dramatic effects of animal magnetism or jugglery.