My daughter came home today and, as usual, I checked her schoolwork. She had made a self-portrait, and above it, she had written, at the teacher’s direction, “Aleena has five senses.”
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with that, you’re probably not alone. You could probably even get this answer from any given skeptic: five senses, no more. What? A sixth sense? What kind of paranormal newage woo-woo is that?
But the truth is, our bodies are much more magnificent than that. Instead of being limited to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, we have a much greater experience in sensing both ourselves and the world around us.
What about when you go outside and feel how cold it is? And come back inside to the warmth? That’s not touch; you can’t touch heat. It’s thermoception.
What about when you get hurt, or in near danger of being damaged? That pain you feel isn’t touch; it’s pain, and it’s extremely useful. This is nociception.
There’s also equilibrioception, which helps us balance and gives us a sense of acceleration. If this sense is damaged (by, say, an ear infection) it can be as debilitating as losing a limb.
Proprioception, the kinesthetic sense, lets you know where the parts of your body are and what position they’re in. When you wake up, you haven’t been keeping track of how your body has moved in your sleep, but you still know exactly what position you’re in–where your arms and legs are, what side you’re lying on, what direction your fingers are going, etc. Again, people who lose this sense (generally through nerve damage of some kind) realize how much we rely on it.
Those make up our nine basic senses, but there are more besides:
Do you like spicy food? That’s due to special cell receptors which are completely different to taste. Although it activates the same nerves as for temperature, it is a different sense, and one can easily tell the difference between spicy food and food that has been heated.
You have sensors in your lungs telling you how much air is in them and how much you need to breathe.
You have sensors in your gut alerting you of gastrointestinal distress.
Your stomach has sensors that give you a feeling of hunger or fullness.
Ever felt tired or achey? That’s a response to the body dealing with some extra task such as fighting a disease.
For that matter, getting sleepy is the result of a sense, too.
We have a mild (in comparison to other animals) electroception. We can feel electric charges of a certain voltage (like static-electric shocks), and strong electrical fields (just ask anyone who’s played an electric guitar outside in the rain). We can’t use it to navigate like birds can, but it is there.
Humans have been found to have a form of echolocation, although we can’t produce any sounds other than verbally. But verbal noises, as well as attached devices that send out an audible ping, have been used in tests of blindfolded subjects to help them navigate around a dark room. It isn’t yet known how much we use this in real life.
We have pressure-detection senses, which helps us when we move from a low to a high altitude (or vice-versa).
The list goes on. There is universal agreement among scientists for the nine basic senses; whether the rest should be included, and as how many senses, is a matter of debate. By some counts, there are as many as twenty-three senses.
Why make such a big deal about this? Because the five basic senses come from Aristotle, who also said there are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. What if we taught our children there were only four elements? Would you feel good about that? So why teach them only five senses?
What, is it because it’s easier to teach? Well, why not teach that the Sun goes around the Earth, since that’s easier for kids to understand? You shouldn’t be giving kids misinformation just because it’s easier.
I think the answer is, because the teachers just don’t know any better–and that’s a shame.
But now you do.