The Newham Sensory Deprivation Map is the result of an intensive workshop with 34 students from Newham Sixth Form College in London. The students were divided into pairs, one of whom was blindfolded and given ear defenders so that they could not see or hear. The other student was given a Global Positioning System as well as pen and paper. Together the two explored the local area around the college for up to an hour. The idea being that the blindfolded and deafened student verbally relates their sensory experience to the other student who is taking notes and making sure they are safe during the journey. On their return the geographical data from the GPS is downloaded and all the sensory observations made during the walk are spatially recorded. The final map combines all the annotations of the students and forms an alternative sensory map of Newham.
With the two primary senses of sight and sound disabled, the often neglected senses of smell, touch and taste come to the foreground. Looking at the map we can see that the vast majority of the comments refer to the sense of smell. Whilst the human nose can apparently differentiate between 4,000 - 10,000 smells our verbal language for smells is very limited. The naturalist Diane Ackerman goes as far as to suggest that smell "is the mute sense, the one without words". The students had the difficult challenge of finding descriptive words that capture the essence of the sensations as well as their feelings towards it.
Examining the comments in more detail it is interesting to note how 50% of the sensory experiences were negative whilst only 28% were positive. In addition many of the negative sensations seems to ‘man-made’. Whilst taste and touch allow us to make active choices about our sensory experiences by reaching out or by putting something in our mouth, other senses are more passive. For example with hearing it is hard to avoid loud noises. As a result we have established ways of measuring sound volume which allows a legal safety limit of 85dB to be set. Yet we have very few measurements for other sensory pollution. For vision there are no accepted measurements for the ‘volume’ of visual pollution. Whilst some people consider graffiti to be horrible others worry more about the billboards and litter. How for example might we measure the sensory pollution caused by the animated adverts currently being introduced on the London Underground? For smell the measurement system is even more very complex and subjective. In fact most of the volatile substances that are harmful to our health, have no odour, so we can’t even detect them with our noses.
The current political language and legislation for sensory experiences of the body is very crude and unevenly focused. Whilst painfully high levels of noise seem to be permissible on the London Underground, the British police have just been given new powers to evict people from their houses in just 48 hours for causing nuisance noise. Most of the political language appears to be focused on the traditionally identifiable ‘polluter’ and not on systemic sensory pollution. For example, a study in the Lancet suggests that living with the air pollution and passive smoking in cities cuts life expectancy by more than the radiation exposure of emergency workers sent into the 19 mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
A very extreme example of our lack of sensory choice are the bizarre sensory torture techniques being employed in Guantanamo and Abu Graib. Detainees are restrained and forced to endure loud music at unbearable levels. This is interspersed with detainees being deprived of all sensory experiences. This technique first developed by a Dr. Hebb in 1953 involved taking people and placing them in comfortable air-conditioned cubicles whilst making them wear goggles, gloves and ear muffs. After 24 hours these participants started having hallucinations and after 48 hours suffered a complete personality breakdown.