Extra-Sensory Knowledge Translation and Design

A new type of extra sensing perception

There is a myth that we only use 10% of our brain, but we certainly don’t use the fullest array of creative means of communication at our disposal. What if designers, health promoters and those seeking to communicate better started considering a more sensory-forward way of sharing what they know to each other? 


“Pheromones?” I said.

“Yes. Think about how much we convey by pheromones?” my colleague said. “Imagine what we could explain if we knew what they told us?”


So started a conversation between three of us faculty at the annual Center for Contemplative Mind and Society annual faculty curriculum development program.  The conversation was prompted by a performance by New York-based dancer and fellow contemplative Yin Mei the previous night that we found bereft of words to fully explain. The performance, and our conversation,  The dance and movement performance blended film, sound, music, dance and kabuki-style masks in an interactive dance studio environment. If I wrote any more and I wouldn’t be doing the performance justice.

Here were three people who were literally involved in a performance virtually unable to share a common description of what they saw, even if it was the same thing. We three were stuck trying to come up with words to describe what we had experienced. Words, feelings, text all failed. And that is how we came up with our conversation.

Our discussion has inspired reflection on how much information we neglect and the types of information that we privilege when we design things and communicate what we know to the world around us.

Pheromones are a means of communication available to us to use. Yet, we don’t, nor have the knowledge of how to use them. We might develop an instantaneous connection with someone — even fall in love (or lust) —  for reasons that make no rational sense to our brain, but it happens. We don’t have the sensory intelligence to make sense of the signals we receive, but we nonetheless transmit and receive a lot more than we are aware of.

When we seek to develop a design for something, good practice involves engaging a diversity of perspectives to generate ideas that create new knowledge, best suit the communication of those ideas, and develop those ideas into products, services and policies that best help people. However, our means of communicating these still remain with spoken and written words.

A touch can convey information that is immeasurable. A look, a feeling, a smell, a brush of a hand are all sensory means of conveying information and learning about our world. As we seek to tackle the kind of ineffable, yet persistent and pernicious problems that complexity introduces, new ways to express and share our understandings are necessary. There are simply times when words won’t or cannot do it.

The practical application of this sensory-based approach to design is not a simple venture. Western culture is not very kinesthetic making a lot of touch-based collaboration problematic. Add in the very real issues that those who’ve experience physical trauma or abuse, and such application of touch must be handled with care. But just as words can be weapons or means to joy, so too can touch if done with compassion, skill and sensitivity. Artful methods like dance, sculpture, or video could be means of communicating ideas that simple words cannot.

What if we could cultivate the means to be intimate with these methods in the service of better design and communication? What kind of design would that look like? Could we engage a much broader range of people into the discussion? Right now, we privilege those who can write and speak well, those who are forward (i.e., extroverted) and verbal, at the expense of those who might have as much to offer, but for whom writing, reading or oral communication might not be their strongest method of communication, yet that is all they are given.

We are more than our words and we can be more than what those words convey. It seems time to start taking this a little more seriously and seeing where it goes. Who knows? Maybe the best ideas are just a painting or dance away.

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