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Sensing the World Beyond the Traditional 5 Senses

The human sensory experience goes beyond sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

From childhood, we learn that people come into the world with five senses. To a greater or lesser extent, we hear talk of audiovisual “media,” and we watch commercials for perfumes that provide visual and auditory images of an olfactory phenomenon so subtle as to convey the idea of a fragrance through the television. But are there actually but these five senses?

This traditional divvying up of the senses is due to Aristotle, whose philosophy influenced many of the great thinkers of antiquity in the art of categorization: only by categorizing and name something, you can know it. Right? Not necessarily.

Think for a moment beyond the five “boxes” into which we customarily put all human sensory experience: what would become of us without, for example, a sense of spatial orientation? How are we to know top from bottom, or right from left?

What would we do without a sense of balance, where hearing and sight converge, and without the touch of our feet on the floor?

Would some universal sense obey a “self-perception” that is, an ability to perceive one’s own body in space? Would it recognize the dimensions we use, those which also serve to identify and locate areas of pleasure and pain in the body?

From the above, we might think that these five “Aristotelian” senses don’t act independently of one another. What happens, for example, when we do something as simple as serving a glass of water?

Touch guides our hands to take the glass firmly, and the movement pulls the water along with it. We need to observe – but we also listen – to the water filling the vessel, and we stop just before spilling, all while our feet are planted firmly on the floor, serving as a support so that our hands can balance both the container and the content (the water and vessel).

Philosopher Barry C. Smith has also considered the relationship between neurology and philosophy in sensory experience: “One of the things we might be learning through neuroscience and its interaction with philosophy is that we’re not as good at knowing about our own experience as we think we are.”

For example, the taste of mint candies relies on several of the “traditional” senses to give us a recognizable feeling: that of a freshness on the taste buds, the slightly bitter taste at the back of the mouth, that same aroma of mint, etc.

Breathing, likewise, inhalation and exhalation we carry out unconsciously throughout our lives. Yet it’s an axis around which our senses, allowing us to judge the quality of the air we’re breathing, as if we could smell it but at the same time to touch it. Our perspective prevents us sometimes from breathing the air in a polluted city, and an agitated breath can impact the inner ear with the dizziness that results from hyperventilation.

The body knows, always, more through experience than through philosophy. But little by little, we will discover new ways to learn what we don’t know yet but that we will know if we pay attention beyond the traditional senses.


*Image: jeonsango – pixabay / Creative Commons

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