Have You Lost Your Senses? Tristan Gooley on Finding Our Lost Natural Instincts

Posted on 5th June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Natural navigator and author of Wild Signs and Star Signs, Tristan Gooley, explains how we can rediscover our lost sixth sense and why it matters.

In the past second your senses have picked up eleven million pieces of information. If you thought about each of them for one second it would take more than 18 weeks before you finished. This is clearly no way to go about understanding our environment, such a clumsy approach would have killed our ancestors long before they had a chance to procreate. A fast way of understanding the world around us has always been essential to our survival as a species. 

Our brain has evolved with two main ways of assessing what the senses discover: fast and slow. And the fast part filters out almost all of it without troubling our slower conscious minds. A green woodpecker has just ‘laughed’ outside my window, but I only know that because it was unusual enough that it wasn’t filtered out. Shapes, colours, sounds and smells that stand out in some way are noticed. Much of this is automatic: you will turn to face the sound of a stick breaking in the woods involuntarily. 

We are also more likely to notice things in nature that have meaning; we spot the dark thunder clouds but remain oblivious to the less ominous white ones. We have a name for things with meaning, we call them ‘signs’. Our ancestors sensed signs everywhere but we rarely do, because we filter out so much of what nature is trying to tell us. 

This filter is ever-changing and our lifestyle is constantly tweaking it without our permission. The things we notice outdoors have been steadily morphing, natural clues have been replaced in the pecking order by things like screens, traffic, adverts and ringtones. In terms of our conscious experience, we have stopped sensing the things our ancestors once did. The good news is that we can push back and change this trend, if we choose to. 

If we stand before a picturesque landscape, we might admire the scenery but we can also try to notice the ‘sentinel’ crow or the ‘jink’ in the pigeon’s flight. These two signs would reveal an invisible walker approaching from the distant woods to our ancestors. To an uninitiated witness this may appear to be a ‘sixth sense’, but it’s just the habit of noticing patterns in nature, like animal body language, and the signs they contain. And with practice we can all learn to sense these things again. Simples, as that mercantile meerkat likes to say. (The meerkat that stands up is signalling that it is in vigilant mode, you will not be able to approach, one step and the group will be gone. Once it lowers its body again you can walk towards it without it warning the others.) 

The outdoors is still teeming with these signs, they have gone nowhere, it is only our attention that has absconded. Once we know what to look for and where and get back into the habit of focusing on these areas, the fast part of our brain is tweaked back towards these signs. We start to sense direction from plants and stars, forecast weather from woodland sounds and predict the next action of an animal – instantly. 

Very little in our environment is random and appreciating this leads to a more radical experience of the outdoors than has been common for centuries.


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