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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Sentient What Animals Reveal About Our Senses

Popular Science
By: Jackie Higgins(Author)
344 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Nicely balancing coverage on animal sensory biology and human neurology and psychology, Sentient delves into the extraordinary senses of human and other animals.
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  • Sentient ISBN: 9781529030815 Paperback May 2022 In stock
    £6.99 £9.99
  • Sentient ISBN: 9781529030778 Hardback Jun 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
Selected version: £6.99
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About this book

Sentient assembles a menagerie of zoological creatures – from land, air, sea and all four corners of the globe – to understand what it means to be human. Through their eyes, ears, skins, tongues and noses, the furred, finned and feathered reveal how we sense and make sense of the world, as well as the untold scientific revolution stirring in the field of human perception.

The harlequin mantis shrimp can throw a punch that can fracture aquarium walls but, more importantly, it has the ability to see a vast range of colours. The ears of the great grey owl have such unparalleled range and sensitivity that they can hear twenty decibels lower than the human ear. The star-nosed mole barely fills a human hand, seldom ventures above ground and poses little threat unless you are an earthworm, but its miraculous nose allows it to catch those worms at astonishing speed – as little as one hundred and twenty milliseconds. Here, too, we meet the four-eyed spookfish and its dark vision; the vampire bat and its remarkable powers of touch; the bloodhound and its hundreds of millions of scent receptors, as well as the bar-tailed godwit, the common octopus, giant peacocks, cheetahs and golden orb-weaving spiders. Each of these extraordinary creatures illustrates the sensory powers that lie dormant within us.

In this captivating book, Jackie Higgins explores this evolutionary heritage and, in doing so, enables us to subconsciously engage with the world in ways we never knew possible.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Nicely balanced in its subject coverage
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Dec 2021 Written for Hardback

    Animals are frequently celebrated for their exceptional senses, being able to hear, see, or smell things that we cannot. In Sentient, zoologist and television documentary director Jackie Higgins shows that some of this research has taught us more about how humans perceive the world, while other research reveals that we are less of a pushover in the sensory department than we previously thought. And do we really have only five senses? We need to talk about Aristotle.

    I admit that I initially misjudged Sentient, thinking it was going to be another book about the wonderful world of animals senses à la Martin Stevens's Secret Worlds. There are plenty of fascinating critters in this book but the clue is in the subtitle – Sentient is as much about human senses and their neurological and psychological underpinnings. This research, as Higgins points out at the start, is upending the classic notion of "the five senses" of touch, taste, vision, smell, and hearing that Aristotle posited. We have many more sensory receptors, with the total anywhere from twenty-two to thirty-three, depending on who you ask. Sentient is a smart survey of twelve such senses with each chapter juxtaposing research on animals with that on humans.

    Several chapters deal with the classic five senses and introduce exceptional animals. The eyes of the mantis shrimp contain some twenty different types of photoreceptors, perceiving not just colour but also properties such as polarization. According to neurobiologist Justin Marshall, "400 million years ago, one of them got hold of an optics text book and now they are a physics lesson on a stick" (p. 12). The nose of the star-nosed mole looks like a hand and provides a sense of touch, but acts more like an eye, having taken over the visual cortex in the mole's brain. And catfish have a skin that is covered in taste receptors, to the point that they "do not possess a tongue, as we know it. Their whole body is their tongue" (p. 127).

    Other senses are more contested. Classic research by Adolf Butenandt showed pheromone communication in moths. By identifying and then synthesizing the chemicals in question, it "created the model for how we should go about pheromone analysis" (p. 183), according to zoologist Tristram Wyatt. Despite tantalising research in humans by way of lap dances, smelly t-shirts, female menstrual cycles*, and speed-dating on (androgen) steroids, we have yet to close the circle Butenandt-style and identify the substances involved. Some have thus rejected the notion of human pheromones. Wyatt takes a more moderate position: "pheromones have been identified in almost every animal you can think of [...] if the entire kingdom is awash with airborne aphrodisiacs, why should we be any different?" (p. 184). Animal navigation and sense of direction is a huge topic on which much has been written. Higgins limits herself to bird migration and details the two rival theories for how birds perceive Earth's magnetic field. Might it be by crystals of the iron mineral magnetite found in the body, or rather by light-sensitive proteins in the eye dubbed cryptochromes?

    Finally, several fascinating chapters deal with less obvious senses. Cheetahs are known for their speed, but it is their sense of balance that steals the show. Their vestibular organs in the inner ear are exceptionally well developed compared to other cats. Walking on two legs the way humans do is similarly "one of the most daring balancing acts in the animal kingdom" (p. 203), and we have similarly enlarged balance organs for a primate. Pioneering studies in which people retreated to caves, shut away from daylight, revealed an inner sense of time and established the field of chronobiology. A third type of photoreceptor diffusely present in mammalian retinas, neither rod nor cone, has been implicated in this. Finally, mechanosensory neurons give us a sense of body awareness or proprioception, telling us where our body is in space. A patient who suffered from a rare form of body-blindness has shown parallels with the octopus whose arms are only partially controlled by the central nervous system.

    Next to animal research, Higgins shows how we have learned much about human senses from those unfortunate souls who were afflicted by neurological disorders or suffered accidents. Drawing on the work of the late Oliver Sacks and others, she describes cases of blind people who visualise their environment through sound or touch, those whose colour vision is enhanced or completely absent, those whose pain receptors make them either immune or hypersensitive to pain, those who have no sense of smell or suffer from olfactory hallucinations, and so on. Time and again, neuroplasticity plays into this, with brain regions normally dedicated to one sensory modality rapidly being usurped by another when one sense goes missing. And this is not unique to humans. Regarding vision, one researcher quoted here puts it like this: "It's provocative, but we're arguing that the brain may not be organized into sensory modalities at all [...] The striate cortex is visual only if you have vision" (p. 94). It does answer that old chestnut of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there is nobody to hear it. On one level, yes, pressure waves are being produced; but on another level, no, perception happens in the brain.

    One recurring theme is that, when put to the test, humans perform surprisingly well. Higgins describes experiments in which subjects perceived single photons, heard sounds down to zero decibels, or smelled substances at concentrations normally reserved for dogs. This might leave you with the impression that humans are, perhaps, supersensers after all. The epilogue puts this into perspective by introducing, arguably rather late, Jakob von Uexkülls's concept of the umwelt, "the slice of the surrounding environment sensed by an organism". David Eagleman writes that "Our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of the surrounding reality" (p. 288), something that will be further explored in Ed Yong's upcoming book An Immense World.

    Sentient stands out for explicitly building a bridge between the fields of animal sensory biology and human neurology and psychology. My impression is that one usually plays second fiddle to the other in many other books. Higgins, however, balances her coverage well and includes incredibly interesting studies from both fields, making this book appealing to readers interested in either field.

    * Supposedly, women living together would synchronise their menstrual cycles. Higgins takes this to be true, though my impression is that this was subsequently shown to be an artefact. A good write-up of the arguments pro and contra can be found on the Modern Fertility blog.
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Jackie Higgins grew up by the sea in Cornwall and has always been fascinated by the natural world. She is a television documentary director and writer. She read zoology at Oxford University, as a student of Richard Dawkins. In her first job at Oxford Scientific Films, she made wildlife films for a decade, for BBC stands such as The Natural World and Wildlife on One, as well as for Channel 4, National Geographic and The Discovery Channel. She then moved in-house at the BBC for a further decade, where she worked in their Science Department: researching and writing, directing and producing films across the board, from Horizon to Tomorrow’s World.

She is also the author of three books on photography, a personal passion: The World Atlas of Street Photography, Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained and David Bailey: Look. In Sentient, she returns to her fascination with the natural world. She lives in London with her family.

Popular Science
By: Jackie Higgins(Author)
344 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Nicely balancing coverage on animal sensory biology and human neurology and psychology, Sentient delves into the extraordinary senses of human and other animals.
Media reviews

"The first rule of popular science is to reveal the wonder and mystery of the world. For that reason, Sentient, written by photographer and wildlife film-maker Jackie Higgins, is my personal pick of the year"
– Simon Ings, New Scientist Best Books of the Year

"Spellbinding [...] More than any other book, [Sentient] has made me think differently about the world this year."
– Alec Russell, Financial Times Best Books of the Year

"Higgins makes popular science accessible – Sentient is a dizzying display of the evolutionary ingenuity not only of lifeforms, but also of zoologists, neuroscientists and biologists who have mapped new frontiers of knowledge. You may finish reading it and wish that humans could use that intelligence to stop the destruction of the habitats all of us live in."
– Saskia Baron, Observer

"Jackie Higgins's eye-opening account of the often bizarre or superhuman sensory systems of other animals, from Hades-dwellers to Arctic owls."
– Steven Poole, Telegraph Best New Science Books

"Gripping [...] Thanks to Higgins' flair for storytelling, Sentient successfully informs us about our own senses by exploring those of animals."
– Barbara J. King, TLS

"[An] epic account of how the senses make sense [...] Higgins's argument, although colourful, is rigorous and focused. She leads us to adopt an entirely unfamiliar way of thinking about the senses."
– Simon Ings, The Times

"How would the First Encounter with an extraterrestrial alien change our view of ourselves? Great science fiction explores the question. But we don't need science fiction. The aliens are all around us – the octopus with its mysterious body-image, the electric scanner of the platypus's bill, the magnetic compass of a migrating bird, the moth antenna that can detect the scent of a female in quadrillion-fold dilution. Jackie Higgins's lyrical, literate style will charm you while her book stuns your imagination with strange, other-worldly truths."
– Richard Dawkins

"Sentient is a tour de force of popular science, leading the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the natural world, to show the fascinating parallels between animal and human senses."
– Stephen Moss, naturalist and author

"If we are sentient, how do we know the world? Why presume other species might know it less? In her fantastic new book, Jackie Higgins digs deep to show us star-nosed moles that see what they touch, discovers how great grey owls fly silently in search of their prey, and how sightless humans can see with their faces. You will never see in the same way again. With potentially endless reverberations for our creative and perceptive states, Higgins delivers a series of delicious lessons in what it is to be sensate, and shows how our own brains can emulate the miraculous feat of the animals with whom we share this fragile planet."
– Philip Hoare, Samuel Johnson Prize-winning author of Leviathan and Albert and the Whale

"In Sentient, Jackie Higgins deftly explores the sensory world of animals – the exquisite touch-sense of a mole's bizarre nose, the magnetic sense of migratory birds, the electric sense of the platypus – as a window onto our human senses, which echo and some cases even exceed their wild counterparts. Extraordinarily rich in detail; there is a miracle on every page."
– Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

"Jackie Higgins puts a mirror up to the natural world so we can sense ourselves through our animal relatives. I love this book because it reminds me of our wildness, it reminds me how powerful our senses are, and it celebrates animals and humans in a way that binds us together. The stories are so interesting and well researched, and the language speaks of an author with a deep sense of biological wisdom and wonder"
– Craig Foster, filmmaker and subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher

"I loved Sentient, it's filled with the wonder of knowing and the infinite surprises of nature."
– Stephen Rutt, author of The Seafarers and Wintering

"Educational, ground-breaking and meticulously well-researched."
Reaction Life Book Digest

"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."
Louder Than War

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