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17 April 2007 @ 06:59 pm
Supernatural University: Sensory Perception  

How do you know what’s real? How do you perceive the world around you? Humans have five core sensory inputs: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. We base our reality on what those senses perceive. To those senses we add imagination, which lets us expand our reality beyond the physical reach of our personal senses. Television activates only two inputs – sight and hearing – but truly well done television, through invoking our imaginations, brings all our senses into play.

 

Welcome to another psychology seminar at Supernatural University! This class explores how differently the characters of Dean and Sam Winchester perceive the world around them, and how Supernatural uses their sensory impressions to affect our perception of the show.

 

The Winchester brothers are different from each other in very many ways, but one very basic difference is how they perceive the world and define their reality. Dean is predominantly sensory, while Sam is predominantly imaginative. They both have skills in the other camp, but their preferences show in the way they approach and execute an investigation. Dean clearly prefers using his own direct sensory observations, while Sam prefers researching what is known through the experiences of others in order to inform his own observations and prepare his reactions.

 

Dean lives largely in the now of sensory impressions. He’s always watching the world around him and keeping a running tally of everything he sees, and he’s superb at following visual clues. Just watch him putting together the shapeshifter’s trail into the sewers in Skin and Night Shifter, or picking out the pattern in the blood in Shadow. Watch him watching his brother’s back every time they’re in the Roadhouse; watch him in Simon Said taking inventory of everyone in earshot, everyone so much as glancing at Sam. Watch him being constantly aware through both eyes and ears of his brother’s position even when he himself is focused on a target, as he was while holding the Colt on the possessed John in Devil’s Trap. Watch him leading the way into every danger zone in nearly every episode, with every sense on alert. He’s quick to react to and turn toward any sound, no matter how subtle. His behaviors with regard to sight and sound draw us along with him, especially since we experience those same triggers right along with him.

 

But Dean isn’t limited to living in the two senses that we can share with him through the television set. Dean also employs touch, smell, and taste, and the fascinating thing is that Jensen’s performance of Dean’s sensory exploration of the world around him can invoke our additional senses along with his. The end result is that we accept the world of Supernatural as being more intrinsically real precisely because we buy into Dean experiencing that world fully. Dean reacting to touch, taste, and smell makes those things real to us. Let’s look at some examples.

 

I noted in an earlier seminar just how tactile Dean is: that whenever he sees something that attracts his attention, he automatically reaches to touch it, to experience it fully. Think back, and realize the extent to which he takes us along with him every time he does that, and how often he brings other senses into play at the same time. For example, watch him in Hunted reacting to the powder on the windowsill at Ava’s: he noticed the open window, saw the powder, reached out, touched it, checked its consistency, and between the color, the feel, and the scent, we realized that he had recognized sulfur before he ever said what it was. Watching Dean and his reactions, could you feel the powdery grit and smell a faint dry whiff of rotten eggs? Dean uses his nose as well as his fingers, ears, and eyes: remember him sniffing after the elusive scent-memory of chloroform in No Exit? His sense of taste also plays into his exploration of the world around him, and not just because he’s usually the brother we see eating: who could forget Dean tasting and reacting to the mixture of unsavory things he was putting into the ju-ju bags at Missouri’s direction in Home? How many more examples of Dean using smell and taste as well as touch can you easily recall? You may be surprised at how many you can identify, once you start.

 

Dean’s emphasis on sensory perception doesn’t eliminate his imaginative capacity. Indeed, his imagination and intuition often combine instantly with his sensory awareness to lead him to right conclusions: think of his immediate realization in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, upon seeing the dead plants in Neil’s office, that the zombie Angela was hiding behind the closed door. But Dean’s reliance on his senses and his reluctance to believe in anything that his senses have not confirmed mean that he is emphatically not a creature of faith. Unless he implicitly trusts the source of his information – for example, his father’s journal, Bobby, or established hunter lore – he doubts and doesn’t fully rely on what he is told until the evidence of his own senses supports it.

 

There’s no question that Sam can be sensory. Like Dean, he’s been trained to observe and to notice details, and as we’ve often seen, he’s quick to do so and to make the connections between what he sees and the knowledge he’s acquired. Recall him spotting the subtle quincunx in Playthings, for example, or recognizing the presence and significance of the tree near the cabin in Roadkill. But unlike Dean, Sam’s sensory focus, like that of most people, appears to be mostly visual: he sees things and reacts, and doesn’t seem to share Dean’s pervasive need also to touch, or sometimes to taste and smell.

 

Sam is also more inclined to accept and rely on information from outside sources, and doesn’t generally feel the need to confirm that information through his own senses. He will even look for authoritative sources to corroborate things he’s guessed, glimpsed, or been told. One clear example came in Something Wicked. Dean told Sam that the monster they were facing was a shtriga, and that he thought it was a kind of witch; Sam turned to the computer to find out whether Dean’s recollection was correct, and when Dean offered more information contradicting some of the source data that Sam had found on how to kill the thing, Sam questioned Dean’s memories, because nothing in Sam’s research materials, including John’s journal, provided that information.

 

Sam’s focus is intellect, and his principal tools are both deductive and inductive reasoning from data. His tendency to seek out written sources and accept them as being reasonably reliable may in part be a function of Sam having had a more extensive formal education than Dean, and particularly in an area of education – pre-law – that emphasized logical reasoning, performing research, and extrapolating from precedent. Sam readily applies imagination to extend what he learns from books, other people, and online sources into his own experience without needing to translate it through his own sensory apparatus. His imagination creates and accepts the reality of things he hasn’t seen and can’t demonstrate from personal experience. This imaginativeness, this willingness to believe in things he hasn’t directly experienced, also opens the way for him to have faith in things he cannot establish through his own senses. Those things can be strengthening – for example, his belief in God – but they can also work against him, because Sam is both better able and more likely than Dean to visualize unacceptable outcomes, such as the thought that he may be fated to become something evil, and by imagining them, make them ever more inescapably real.

 

Between the two of them, the Winchester brothers draw us into accepting the reality of their lives in Supernatural because they use the same tools we all do to perceive our reality – both physical senses and imagination – and let us share the experience with them. The more they convince us of their objective reality, the more we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and imagine along with them, the more we feel, and the more we care about what happens to them. These characters, aided and abetted by the writers and the performances of these two very gifted actors, seduce us into their reality by activating our own senses and our own imaginations.

 

And that’s good television.

 

I’ll leave you with one more thought, in anticipation of the upcoming episode 20, What Is and What Should Never Be:  how will sensory-oriented Dean, in particular, deal with a situation in which his senses apparently deceive him about the nature of reality?

 

Class dismissed. Enjoy the lightness of Hollywood Babylon this Thursday night!

 

 
 
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