Coming to Our Senses

1 invisible creatures

The world we don’t see, animals invisible except through a scanning electron microscope. (Steve Gschmeissner at This creature lives in our bodies without us being aware one of the other.

I like the word we use for both emotions, and activity of our senses: feelings. The ambiguity indicates our reactions are not as clear cut as we imagine them to be. We don’t just see, or hear, for instance. We amalgamate sensual information into a ‘mood’. We feel welcome, reassured, angry, spooked, uneasy, nervous. In fact it’s the whole nervous system at work: senses, nerves and brain, and our emotional reactions to these. We re-broadcast this amalgam of sensory data through all our senses. We call the verbal component language, and the non-verbal, body language, made up of all the non verbal signs we give of our feelings.

1 The first five senses
It seems artificial to speak just of ‘the five senses’, merely because their mechanics can be understood by scientists. We know we create our world by our brain’s analysis of the data provided by the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But we also are aware there is something more, and speak of a sixth sense. In fact our language reveals we have a whole range of other senses, and we also find that the five senses we think we are familiar with do a whole lot more than we think.

Take the sense of sight. We understand how it works. But any painter knows that the appearance of objects and people changes according to the angle and degree of light that reaches it or them. They train themselves to see what is a relationship between surface and light, and understand that that relationship tells us different things as it changes. Similarly, photographers come to understand that any image we make is a selection of a total view; that we can never see the totality of a scene or group. But the way we frame our selected view changes profoundly the nature of what we see, or at least the message that reaches our brain along our optic nerves.

There is a two way relationship between brain and senses, such as the eye, and brain tells eye what to see just as much as eye tells brain what is there. This symbiosis is used to evoke the emotions, powerful and primitive reactions we need, and once needed much more, for survival. If there is an inconsistency between what the eye sees and what the brain expects to be seen, then we need to be alert, we could be in danger.

We’ve lost a lot of this alertness. When walking along a street, how aware are you of what’s behind you? Can you feel if someone’s too close? Can you distinguish scent and sound coming from humans from the blast coming from traffic?

Our evolution of colour, stereoscopic vision is an evolutionary choice that has helped us survive. But it is a choice that has precluded others. It tells us much about the world, and defines our sense of beauty, yet makes us relatively insensible to the awareness of shapes and density that guides a nocturnal animal for example.

2 eye anatomy

The human eye with its nine separate components, blink, stereoscopic perspective, colour recognition and peripheral vision (and blind spot). The demands made upon the brain by this complex organ are enormous.

A consideration of sensory mechanics is inadequate when considering the other senses too. We know how the ear hears for instance, but can’t really explain why some of us have selective hearing. Some use it creatively, and don’t hear what it’s best they don’t hear. Some hear, and argue about, what their companion didn’t say. Smell is non conscious for many, yet signals rank in the pecking order of groups, as well as the availability of a sexual partner, quite effectively still. Taste is a survival signal about what is good or ill to eat. Even though we damage it with huge intakes of salt and sugar in our foods, and burn the nerve endings of our taste buds with smouldering tobacco, yet mostly it still helps us avoid contaminated foods and enjoy good ones.

Probably the most neglected sense is that of touch. Could you write a paragraph on the surface texture of an apple for instance? Much of the exploration of the world we make now substitutes data input from the eyes for data input from the touch. We are highly ambivalent about touch, and see it as just as much an invasion as an exploration. Yet you learn more, and different, things from touch than from sight, as every lover knows. One thing could be said for earlier generations than ours for certain. They were more sensual. They learned more from touch. Tools are labour saving devices, but they also rob us of information about the nature of the objects we use the tools on. We no longer know what they feel like.

Civilisation overstimulates the senses of sight and sound and masks those of smell and touch and taste. We are thus the victim of media overload. The media can affect us at a distance, the other senses need personal contact still to work. So how good is this for survival? Is a photograph of food as useful as its taste? We are encouraged to think so.

We know (vaguely) of subliminal stimulation of the senses. Our senses all operate within a certain range particular to our species. The media can broadcast messages above and below out auditory and visual range, and may do so, and these can affect us without our knowledge. There’s nothing to prohibit it. Perhaps this explains some strange phenomena, such as why Americans voted for George Bush, or why they bought so many Harry Potter books.

2 Limitations of the five senses
Visible light (to humans) consists of a relatively small range along the electromagnetic spectrum. There are radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray emanations the human eye cannot register. Some of these affect us through other senses. And the range differs from species to species.

Humans have a limited audio range too, and it differs to other animal species, as the following table indicates, taken from

Species        Approximate Range (Hz)
guinea pig……..54-50,000
beluga whale..1,000-123,000
tree frog………..50-4,000

Our audio range narrows with age, or continued exposure to loud amplified sounds. And at the edge of our auditory range sounds are registered by other senses. We feel very low sounds rather than hear them. I remember being impressed by the savvy Indians in Western movies I saw when a kid, putting an ear to the ground to feel if horsemen were approaching. The awareness of some animals (and insects) of the approach of an earthquake can be several hours before humans register that one is occurring.

3 inside the ear

Inside the ear sound waves are channelled to the cochlea. Hair cells (seen through an electron microscope) help convert sound waves to nerve impulses (a kind of modem) and pass them to the brain for interpretation. Isn’t it beautiful inside?

In the vast waves of phenomena we experiences by being on the earth, we are capable of registering only a small range through our senses. We are aware of less than 1% of all created beings. Yet the ‘sense’ the brain makes of this limited intake is the ‘real’ world we live in. And we are almost sure that other species live in a different one, because their senses pick up other signals and convey them to their brains. With different data to make sense of, other species most likely live in a different world.

Perhaps those who dispute conceptual viewpoints based on the  apprehensions of our senses, such as if the world has been created by an all powerful god as the bible tells, or evolved over aeons  as matter changes according to fixed laws, should consider that our idea of god, and equally our comprehension of natural laws, is a product of our senses’ limited reaction to experience. We can’t experience reality because we haven’t the tools to do so fully, and depend on imaginings badly skewered by that inability. Both our laws of physics, and revelation, can only be seen by creatures with our particular range of sensory equipment, and no other. The aliens would think us deluded.

The senses evolved to give the brain feedback about the world, not to enable us to comprehend it in its entirety, but just to survive momentarily so we could reproduce. This fineness of co-ordination between senses, nerves and brain, which unifies the entire body with the brain, enabled us to become the most successfully adapted species we know about. Although we are losing that co-ordination, as human culture erodes our awareness of the environment, or rather substitutes an artificial one in place of the natural one, we can still place confidence in our senses. But we need to look further than the traditional five.

3 Compound senses
One essential sense is a combination of several senses, touch and hearing: our sense of balance. Have you ever had an ear infection that caused you to lurch unsteadily against the furniture, and need to lie down before you fell down? How debilitating is that? Or suffered severe sea sickness or other motion sickness, or fear of flying? This is what we come to when we lose our sense of balance. This is a sixth sense, made up of a synthesis of information from several of the five senses.

The sense of balance itself is part of another sense, the sense of proportion. Although we often use this phrase in a figurative way, it is also a very real sense, or synthesis of senses. Have you noticed that you find it easier to relate to objects or people of the same proportion as yourself?  One reason we are so cruel to animals is that we don’t fully realise them, as most are so much smaller, and a few so much bigger, than humans. We can be cruel to pygmies and giants, ants and elephants, environments and seas, because they are all beyond the threshold of our sense of proportion. In effect, only human is real. The sense of proportion is a seventh sense, and allows us to function in a certain context. Once we change that context, we lose our sense of proportion. This may explain why we destroy so many trees and pollute the air we breathe. Without a sense of proportion we cannot see that we are part of a larger entity that includes the environment that originally created us. The loss of the sense of proportion is a major problem for humans today. Unless corrected, it could lead to species suicide.

Another sense we usually don’t call a sense is memory. Memory operates on duration to compare past and present. As far as we know it is only extant in humans, at least to the degree we experience it. Memory is an eighth sense. Memory serves a dual purpose. It creates a sense of identity. You are who you remember you are. Memory originally enabled humans to identify safety and danger over a period of time. Good hunting places could be found again, and sabre toothed tigers avoided by remembering what happened last time we encountered both.

Just alluded to is another sense, identity, a sense synthesised from all sense data combined with memory. A ninth sense.

4 eye of fly moosplauze

Living in a different world,the housefly tastes with its legs, can only ingest liquid food, flies and walks upside down and backwards if necessary, has 3,000 eyes to detect movement on each side of its head and another three to estimate distance, and lives, with all its complex anatomy, only three weeks to three months.

4 Senses vaguely sensed
One sense, a tenth one, is essential for survival. It is an emotion, a feeling. Hope. Hope operates on imagined duration, and is similar to memory, but hope compares the present with the future. We have no data about hope in other species. Hope is the emotional supplement to our instinct for self preservation. Like data from the senses, it can be perverted, or even lost entirely. Hope enables us to execute the function of planning, essential to the creation of culture. Although some animal species can plan, planning, together with human manual dexterity, is one of the chief creators of culture, an activity that has supplemented, and almost replaced, feedback from environmental stimuli over the past three thousand years.

Hopes, plans, social stimuli, environmental stimuli and memories. Our brain has a lot to sort out and organise. To make sense of all the data we process every day we need to exercise an eleventh sense, a sense of perspective. One of the major functions of healthy mental processes is keeping all our experiences in order, in some kind of perspective. When this sense is impaired, we are likely to suffer. One of the signs and causes of depression is lack of perspective. We keep one problem, fear or obsession in the foreground of our mind, and it becomes disproportional to our other experiences. Sufferers from depression have a narrow and fixed perspective.

One way to avoid this dilemma is to exercise another sense, closely associated with our sense of perspective. Our sense of humour. We realise these activities are senses, as our language reveals, yet relegate them to a figurative meaning, not a real one. But they are real, and if they don’t function as they should, we suffer, and become ill. Humour is a twelfth sense.

Humour is a hard thing to analyse. If you need to explain a joke, it usually fails to be funny. One main type of humour though relies on incongruity. If we juxtapose two statements, or two contexts, inappropriately, the result is often funny. Some think the result is really shocking, and we laugh because we are shocked, as when a comedian uses obscenity to underline a point.

Here are some examples of humour, taken, for concision’s sake, from The Graffiti File by Nigel Rees. How do these work?

“only the mediocre are always at their best”.

A comment during Watergate: “where is Lee Harvey Oswald now that his country needs him?”

“If god exists that’s his problem”

“racial prejudice is a pigment of the imagination”

“no alcohol in Iran: but you can always get stoned”. Or the similar “I don’t like to hear people comparing Eric Clapton with god. I mean, he’s good. But he’s not Clapton”.

Insecurity; political corruption; the existence of evil; the scapegoat syndrome; fundamentalism: we have to deal with these problems. Humour is one way of doing so.

A thirteenth sense is one of our most important, and one of the most neglected. The sense of wonder. We know it first, and best, from childhood, when every discovery is first made and everything seems new. But that sense is always with us. It’s a kind of focus. Even when we are being most ‘realistic’, or even cynical, it can be exercised, by an act of will. Because, by being cynical, we often take the world for granted. We expect things not to work out. But if we were not the centre of our experience of the world, as we might realise should we exercise our sense of perspective, then it is easy to realise the world is full of wonders and miracles, things we cannot and shouldn’t explain. Only wonder at. Most things we waste time explaining have no need of explanation at all.

5 3D Universe

“Panoramic view of the entire near-infrared sky above the Earth reveals the distribution of galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Blue objects are nearest sources, green are at a moderate distance and red are the furthest. Image courtesy of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics”.

The sense of wonder is often allied to, but not always, with the sense of the spiritual and divine. This is a genuine sense, the fourteenth, and we become ill if we suppress it. Many of our ills are self inflicted. This sense has nothing to do with faith or revelation, but makes those states possible. It is a sense that gives us awareness of another dimension to being or existing.

5 Esoteric senses
There are a number of senses we acknowledge but don’t fully believe in. One is intuition, sometimes thought to be especially present in females. We all have it. Knowledge we cannot explain, awareness we have with no known cause. People we think of suddenly just before they call us up on the phone. Worry about a distant relative we hear later was taken ill, or died, at the precise moment we were concerned about them. What could intuition be? It is not any of the mentioned 14 senses, and so must be a fifteenth. ESP has been divided into a number of different senses, telepathy, clairvoyance, and clairaudience. These would be our 16th, 17th and 18th senses. Their existence is often doubted, because senses are usually thought of materially, as a function of our physical body interacting with our brain. Once we substitute the terms ‘thought’ and ‘mind’ for the demonstrable interaction of nerves and brain, we are in an area which we cannot yet explain. In fact, some of the esoteric senses exist just because we cannot explain them. We sometimes need to short circuit our rational processes lest they come to be self sufficient, and exclude some of the data we need to know about in order to better survive. Of course we can pass on ideas ‘telepathically’ to others. That’s what happens when a crowd panics. That’s how a charismatic teacher or presenter sways their audience. We can ‘explain’ that effect, or call it ESP. Whatever we are most comfortable with.

6 creepy crawlies

Another electron microscope image, a creature we can’t make sense of because we can’t see it. Or can’t see it because we can’t make sense of it? One can only be humble. “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamed of in your philosophy”.

We need to come to our senses. They make sense of the world. Put another way, the senses allow us to be sensible in and of the world. We end, as we began, with the ambiguities of language. Sense. Sensitive. Sensible. What we would make of the world without our senses is unknown. It would probably be tragic. Neither we nor the world would survive long it is doubtful. We know, from the example of those who have lost a sense, that humans can survive the loss, of one or even two senses. Thank heaven we have eighteen of them, at least. Without them what would we be? A handful of dust.

Note: About 10 years or so ago I read a book called A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. It was a book that influenced me deeply, and is probably the source of much of what I’ve said here. I’ve reviewed it on this site. I think it essential reading. It is not a book about science or human anatomy, or biophysics. It’s a book about philosophy, and human nature. Much better informed and written than this essay.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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