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The Benefits of Sensory Deprivation for Writers

Flickr Creative Commons: Dennis Wong

My ENT didn’t call me a liar when I insisted I’m not and never have been a habitual mouth-breather, but he did smile before rolling his chair over to one of the posters on the exam room wall.

He pointed to the graphic on the left. “Normal septum.” He pointed to the right. “Deviated septum.” He drew an exaggerated zig-zag in the air. “Yours.” He suspected I’d never taken in a full breath in my life.

It took only a few minutes of paying attention to confirm that it was, in fact, possible to have both a keen sense of smell and the inability to take more than two swallow breaths from the nose before switching over to the mouth for the third. Once aware of this convoluted breathing pattern, I couldn’t shake the feeling of quasi-suffocation. Our deductible had been met and there was a surgical appointment available on New Year’s Eve.

Since I really know how to party, the choice was simple. New year, new nose, at least on the inside.

The surgery itself was no big deal. As promised, I felt like I had the worst head cold of my life for a week afterwards, with no medicinal relief possible beyond narcotics, which I took because they provided the oblivion of sleep. I had no bruising, no numbness, very little swelling, and my pain level hovered around a two provided nothing touched my nose. My annoyance level, however, held steady at about 357.

Nose splints were an effective form of torture. They not only jabbed into me with every change of facial expression, but made wearing reading glasses painful, leaving me functionally blind for anything involving my computer, phone, or books during the recovery period. After a few hours of binge watching TV, boredom set in and I had an intense craving for chocolate. The good stuff. It never occurred to my codeine-addled brain that I’d taste nothing if no air molecules of air could reach my olfactory system. The texture of a raspberry truffle is great and all, but totally unsatisfying if texture is all you get.

I had completely and simultaneously lost my two strongest senses. Worse, according to Google MD, it may take months to fully get them back, IF I fully get them back. I was not prepared for this.

The prolonged loss of multiple senses, while anxiety provoking, has come with the unexpected benefit of allowing me to experience an (I hope temporary) form of synesthesia. Two days after surgery, while applying lotion, I became aware of an odd taste. My nose was still 90% decorative at that point, but the unmistakable sweet-grass scent had been detected by my taste buds instead. It became a game over the next few days to see how many scents I could taste. Some were pleasant, like a burning candle, a rose, or brewing coffee. Others not so much, such as wet puppy or the litter box that the rest of my family had neglected until I was cleared to lift more than ten pounds.

I doubt I ever write about a character going through septoplasty, though I could, or that any of my characters will have synesthesia. Still, the experience of learning firsthand exactly how taste and smell are intertwined can only enhance my ability to portray sensory details in unexpected ways.

Yet another blessing/annoyance is that my remaining senses have become enhanced, and those are the ones I pay the least attention to unless I encounter a startling sound or an itchy tag in my shirt. For every twenty times I have a character observe something in my work-in-progress, they may hear something only once. Unless I’m writing a love scene, I rarely, if ever, include tactile details. Now that I’m aware of the lack, I can rectify it.

Of course, there are ways other than surgery that writers can experiment with forms of sensory deprivation.

How much do you actively pay attention to sensory details in your life? In your work? Which senses do you favor or ignore? Have you had any sensory deprivation experiences that changed your perspective? Have any of these experiences been deliberate?


About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.