The problem is, most of us take our senses for grantedÃ¢â‚¬”and that's so not a smart thing, because life's a lot less interesting when they're not operating at peak capacity. But thanks to blaring iPods, long stretches on the PC, even the occasional nasty sunburn, you may be slowly and imperceptibly chipping away at your five functions. So we've come up with these easy ways to sharpen your senses to Ginsu-knife perfection. Because that beachside hammock is empty, kiddo. And just waiting for you.
Your eyes may be tiny, but they're as complex as the plot of a David Lynch movie. A quick tutorial: Vision occurs when light reflected off of an object enters the eye through the cornea (the transparent covering) and reaches the lens, which projects the image upside-down onto your retina (the nerve layer lining the back of the eye). These nerves send the image to the brain, which then flips it right-side-up andÃ¢â‚¬Â¦heelloo there! If you have 20/20 vision, you can make out what a normal-sighted person can see from 20 feet away. Some lucky folks can see 20/10, and some birds' vision is 20/2, meaning they can see clearly at 20 feet what the average person can see only from two feet away. Smoking, shunning sunglasses, and aging all contribute to less-than-stellar vision, but we have ways to protect your peepers:
Take the long view. Sure, it's hard to tear yourself away from that YouTube video of the incredible waterskiing squirrel, but keeping your nose planted just a few inches from the monitor will strain your eyes. "Close-up vision uses a 'focusing' muscle that relaxes when you're looking at something in the distance," says Ruth Williams, M.D., clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "To give your eyes a rest, stop every 10 minutes and gaze out the windowÃ¢â‚¬”for at least 30 secondsÃ¢â‚¬”at a spot that's at least 100 feet away."
Get all teary-eyed. The average person blinks up to 15 times per minute (that's more than 14,000 times a day), but long stretches spent staringÃ¢â‚¬”whether it's at an important Excel file or a marathon of The HillsÃ¢â‚¬”can slow your flutter rate to three or four times a minute. That leads to dry eyes, a leading cause of blurry vision. Drop a few bucks on a bottle of artificial tears (like GenTeal Lubricant Eye Drops, $12.50, drugstore.com) and squeeze out a drop or two anytime your eyes start to feel parched.
Make like a bunny. That would be Bugs, not one of Hef's babes. Lutein and beta-carotene, antioxidants found in carrots, have been shown to help stave off macular degeneration, a disease that causes a blurred or blind spot in the middle of your field of vision. A recent National Institutes of Health study found that beta-carotene supplements don't do bupkis, so get your nutrients at the dinner table. (Other rich sources of beta-carotene include sweet potatoes, apricots, and broccoli.)
Kick someone's butt in a game of Halo 3. According to a recent study at the University of Rochester, playing video action games improves the spatial resolution of your vision. That means it's easier to zero in on and pick something out of a crowdÃ¢â‚¬”like locating Waldo's striped shirt.
When Christina's stratospheric riffs travel across the radio waves and out your speakers, the vibration travels down your ear canal and hits your eardrum. That membrane picks up the vibes, activating the 15,000 hairs in your inner ear, which move the melody through your nerves up to the brainÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and let the slow-dancing begin. What sucks: Almost everything we're exposed to these daysÃ¢â‚¬”from honking SUVs to the Foo Fighters at Red RocksÃ¢â‚¬”can hurt those delicate hairs. Nearly 10 percent of twentysomethings have already done so much damage that they have trouble hearing higher frequencies. But you can help preserve what you've still got:
Get micro with music When listening to a song, pay close attention to each instrument. Don't concentrate on just the cowbell in "Don't Fear the Reaper"; focus on the guitars, then the drums, then the lead singer's pseudo-British pronunciations. "By training your ears to single out individual soundsÃ¢â‚¬”which helps your brain recognize them more easily in the futureÃ¢â‚¬”you can sharpen your hearing," says William Luxford, M.D., an associate at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.
Nuke the noise Chuck the standard-issue iPod earbuds and replace them with clamor-canceling headphones. "Blocking out background sound enables you to keep the volume lower," says Sergei Kochkin, Ph.D., executive director of the Better Hearing Institute in Washington, DC. If you're willing to drop some cash and don't mind looking like a DJ, go top drawer: Bose QuietComfort 3 ($350, bose.com). Low on dough? The JVC HA-NCX77 Noise Canceling Earbuds ($45, circuitcity.com) leave you with cash for downloads.
Smell and Taste
Even the ripest, juiciest pear will taste like cardboard if your nose is as stuffed as a sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday. That's because your 10,000 taste buds pick up only four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Your body relies on your sense of smell to fill in the rest. How this works: Odor molecules float inside your nostrils and attach themselves to tiny hairs, which trigger cells at the back of your nose that detect smell and taste. The average person can differentiate from among 4,000 to 10,000 odor molecules. Unfortunately, cigarette smoke can deaden both your taste buds and your nose's scent receptors, so you can be susceptible to long-term damage if you puff. Our advice: Toss out the smokes and try these taste-and-smell tips:
Keep your nose clean. You know that a head cold can temporarily play havoc with your sense of smell. But did you also know that the more colds you get, the more you risk hurting your sniffer for good? "If the receptor cells inside your nose become damaged by cold viruses, it can cause permanent injury," according to R.I. Henkin, M.D., of the Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington, DC. So cold prevention is key. Top on doctors' lists: Keep your hands clean: Scrub up for at least 30 seconds each time you wash.
Banish the bleach. Germophobes, beware: Noxious fumes from sprays and scouring products can kill your sense of smell along with all that nasty bacteria. Instead, scrub down your tubs, basins, and countertops with vinegar-based or other "green" cleaning products, like Deidre Imus's Greening the Cleaning spray ($5, lnt.com).
Become a pot head. Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have shown that nasal irrigation helps improve both smell and taste by getting rid of scent-blocking gunk inside your schnoz. How to do it: Dissolve a quarter-teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water. Press your ear to your shoulder and, using a neti pot (amazon.com sells 'em for $12 a pop), pour the solution into your upper nostrilÃ¢â‚¬Â¦then watch it stream out the lower one.
Give it a whiff. "Ever wonder how a wine connoisseur can distinguish subtle scents that the average person can't?" says Terence M. Davidson, M.D., director of head and neck surgery at the UC San Diego Nasal Dysfunction Clinic. No, it's not a golden noseÃ¢â‚¬”it's training yourself to pick apart smells and tastes. At the mall perfume counter, try to pinpoint the individual notes in a fragrance. Or sample a new dish at your favorite restaurant and name all the flavor nuances you detect in each bite.
What an ingenious system: Your guy plants a wet one on you, and sensory receptors under the skin signal your brain to release various chemicals, including the happy juice serotonin. But you could be missing out on the joys of subtler touches (like your guy gently stroking your hair). That's because, starting in our twenties, we lose about 1 percent of our sense of touch every yearÃ¢â‚¬”and the damage can be accelerated if you play rough with your skin (yipes, sunburn!). Fortunately, we have ways to keep your fingertips happy:
Glove it or leave it. Remember the time you Krazy-Glued your fingers together? Not fun. Harsh chemicals and solvents can burn away the cells on your skin's surface, leaving your epidermisÃ¢â‚¬Â¦well, words like sandpaper and lizard come to mind. To keep your skin safe during DIY projects, make like a neurotic hand model and slip on gloves anytime you're going to be in direct contact with things like bleach and turpentine.
Get creamed. The rougher and drier your skin, the harder it is to arouse those sensory receptors underneath, which slows down the flow of messages they send to the brain. Keep your dermis well-hydrated and your nerve endings fired up by slathering on a creamy moisturizer. One we love: Boots Expert Instant Soothing Lotion ($7 for 500 ml, target.com). It's fragrance-free and packed with moisture-locking ingredients like glycerin, vitamin E, and cocoa butter.
Say hello to Lars and his magic fingers. Massages don't just feel toe-curlingly goodÃ¢â‚¬”they're truly good for you. That's because repeated pressure stimulates sensory receptors in the skin tissue, making them even more hair-trigger sensitive. (Think of it as toning up your sense of touch.) But indulging in sessions with Lars isn't the only way to get stimulated. You can rub down your skin with an exfoliating scrub, go for a swim, or do the horizontal mambo (man, the things we do in the name of health!). For that last one, a luxurious body oil will increase the hydration; try Babeland Lickable Oils ($10 for 1 oz, babeland.com).