This new course shows how scientists, philosophers and medical practitioners developed theories of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing.
Lan Li is an assistant professor and historian of the body who uses her passion for medicine and health to teach students about the many social, physiological and neurological complexities of sensation. Using examples from diverse regions and periods of history, Li’s class blurs the line between history and science to transform the ways one usually thinks about the senses and the body. As an elective for history and cognitive science majors, as well as the medical humanities minor, Li’s class blends art history, medical history, and science and technology studies.
“Sensation is just complicated, period,” Li explained. “I want my students to be able to look at psychology, neuroscience and neurology and make sense of the incongruities present in each field, especially in connection to concrete historical case studies and critical social theories.”
Each class involves discussions and collaborative learning activities aimed at helping students develop a new understanding of sensation. Students may be asked to draw anatomical models of the senses and the body (like those of 11th-century Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham) and answer questions about what these models reflect about the society that created them. This activity, Li explained, helps students apply the concepts acquired from the critical essays, scientific papers and anthropological studies they read each week.
Joy Wang, a junior history and kinesiology major, wanted to take the class because of how it juxtaposed the humanities and sciences. “Our senses mediate between ourselves and the world, and I was interested to see how the class would explore this,” Wang said. “So far, the class has really helped me question how social influences affect our sensory processing.”
Li hopes to give her students the tools to think critically and groundedly about cognition. “I try to raise difficult questions that don’t really have an easy answer,” Li said. “What do non-European, non-Western ways of knowing contribute to science studies conversations? What does sensation look like from within a nonnormative body or even a nonhuman perspective? How can we reconfigure the biases and stigma we have about the body?”
HIST 353: History of Sensation