cover image Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses

Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses

Ashley Ward. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5416-0085-0

This eye-opening pop-science treatise by University of Sydney biologist Ward (The Social Lives of Animals) rhapsodizes about the power of the senses. He draws on evolutionary theory, neurology, and psychology to explain the development and functioning of senses in humans, animals, and plants (peas, for instance, can “hear” water flowing underground). In humans, according to Ward, each sense serves as an “information highway” that transmits “terabytes of information every second,” which the brain assembles into a “narrative” as it prunes, anticipates, fills in gaps with educated guesses, and sometimes overthinks. (Carsickness, he notes, happens because the brain interprets the disorienting sensations of motion as the product of intoxicating poison that it tries to make the body vomit up.) He packs in innumerable fascinating details: stars look white because we see them in dim light that only allows the eye’s black-and-white rod cells to function, a Scottish nurse was able to detect undiagnosed Parkinson’s disease by smell, and goats can sense impending volcanic eruptions hours ahead of time. The science illuminates the complex processes through which creatures make sense of their surroundings, and the delivery benefits greatly from the author’s stylish, evocative prose: “There’s a note of elderly fish, swimming valiantly against the lavatorial flow,” he writes of tasting Icelandic fermented shark. This will change how readers see the world. (Mar.)