Archive for March, 2011

How Many Senses Do We Really Have?

March 4th, 2011 4 comments

We’ve had it drummed into us our whole lives that there are five senses. We all know what these are!

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch

However, is that the end of the story? No, of course not. As with most commonly accepted facts, a closer look reveals that things are not quite so straightforward, as pointed out in the following extract from the Wikipedia article for “Sense”.

There is no firm agreement among neurologists as to the number of senses because of differing definitions of what constitutes a sense. […] Humans are considered to have at least five additional senses that include: nociception (pain); equilibrioception (balance); proprioception and kinaesthesia (joint motion and acceleration); sense of time; thermoception (temperature differences); and possibly an additional weak magnetoception(direction), and six more if interoceptive senses are also considered.

So that makes for a count of 17, so far.

On top of these, there is also the frequently referred to, but little understood, sixth sense. It is called the sixth presumably because it is based on the assumption that there are only the five others to start with (rather than 17 or more), and is generally considered to mean “extra-sensory perception”. This is usually considered to relate to the paranormal, but a more straightforward interpretation is that it means sensing with the mind rather than via a physical sense, and therefore refers to the everyday experience of the sensing or perception of our own thoughts. After all, who could deny being aware of their own thoughts, even though they are obviously not sensed through any of the traditional senses.

And thus we arrive at 18 senses. However, despite this surprisingly high number of supposedly separate senses, do we really experience 18 different types of things?

I very much doubt that anyone would actually be able to keep track of which particular sense is responsible for any given feeling / sensation / perception at any given time. My own experience, and I suspect the experience of everyone else is that there is really only one experience, regardless of which supposed sense it comes through. Rather, everything happens seamlessly in our consciousness.

I might be having a conversation with someone in a crowded room, and there are all manner of perceptions occurring together – the sounds of their voice, of my own voice, of other people and things in the environment, the smells, the bodily sensations of balance, movement, temperature, my thoughts etc. All these things are occurring simultaneously, and although my attention may wander at times from one to another, or sometimes include several or more things at once, there is never any experience of things being disjointed, or as coming via different mechanisms. Rather it all runs together – a single ongoing, evolving experience of the whole thing.

So when it comes down to it, although we may use our minds to discriminate and categorise various senses, direct experience demonstrates that there is really only ever ONE sense, which might be called the sense of awareness – or even just awareness itself.

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