A lot more than five...
Neuroscientists Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett and Dr Amanda Blake explain the hidden abilities we often overlook. Let's delve into the different ways we’re able to perceive the world that go beyond sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
How many senses does the average human have?
Assuming you equate senses with their receptors, such as the retinas in your eyes and the cochlea in your ears, then the traditional answer to this question is five – seeing, hearing, touch, smell and taste. They’re called the ‘exteroceptive’ senses. Exteroception is what helps us perceive the world around us - what happens outside the boundaries of our own skin.
But exteroception is just one among several classes of sensory information. Your body also has receptors for events occurring inside you, such as your beating heart, expanding lungs, gurgling stomach and many other movements that you’re completely unaware of. These, known as interoception, is the class of perception that tells us about the world inside our own skin. Like exteroception, interoception can also be divided up into five perceptual organs: the heart, gut, lungs, skin, and connective tissue.
Most of the time, these interoceptive organs quietly send messages to the brain that keep your body in a state of homeostasis. Interoception is what helps dial up your heart rate when you walk up the stairs, or when a sudden sound makes you jump, or when that special someone calls on the phone. It’s also the source of your “gut reactions” — for better and for worse — and your “knee-jerk reactions” — often for worse.
Yet a proper answer to this question "How many senses do humans have" is even more complex and interesting. For one thing, your body has receptors to carry other types of information, such as temperature, that we don’t usually consider to be senses.
Also, some of your receptors are used for more than one sense. Your retinas, for example, are portals for the light waves you need for vision, but some retinal cells also inform your brain if it’s daytime or nighttime. This unnamed ‘day/night sense’ is the basis for circadian rhythms that affect your metabolism and your sleep/wake cycle.
Even senses that seem fundamental, such as vision, are intimately entwined with other senses that seem separate. For example, it turns out that what you see, and how you see it, is yoked to your brain’s tracking of your heartbeat, which is part of interoception. In the moments when your heart contracts and pushes blood out to your arteries, your brain takes in less visual information from the world.
Your brain also constructs senses that you don’t have receptors for. Examples are flavour, which the brain constructs from gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) data, and wetness, which is created from touch and temperature.
In fact, your brain constructs everything you see, hear, smell, taste and feel using more than just the sense data from your body’s receptors. Light waves, for example, don’t simply enter your eyes, travel to your brain as electrical signals, and then you see.
Your brain actually predicts what you might see before you see it, based on past experience, the state of your body and your current situation. It combines its predictions with the incoming sense data from your retinas to construct your visual experience of the world around you.
Similarly, when you place your fingers on your wrist to feel your pulse, you’re actually feeling a construction based on your brain’s predictions and the actual sense data. You don’t experience sensations with your sense organs. You experience them with your brain.
Why is this important?
Our brain is a pattern detection instrument. In other words, our brain is extremely well-designed to seek out patterned behaviors that work well and then put them on autopilot, so we can enact them without having to use our conscious attention. This is a brain thing, for sure, but it’s not a thinking thing. The truth is the brain has its roots in the body. And this kind of behavioral pattern-learning is a whole-body process.
Your body ist your social and emotional sense organ.
What we often overlook with all of the recent fascination with what Amanda Blake calls the “head-brain” is that your brain is actually distributed throughout your entire body via the nervous system.
Consider this: when was the last time you had a physical reaction to an emotionally intense event? Perhaps something comes to mind for you immediately, or maybe you need to think about it some. Think about the last time your stomach was tied in knots, or someone made your skin crawl, or you felt light-hearted, or weak in the knees.
Our everyday experience of the world is inherently embodied, so we wind up talking about our experience through embodied metaphors. As your social and emotional sense organ, your body is always giving you information. This sensory information clues you in to your real reaction to the events and circumstances of your life.
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