Saturday, July 28, 2007

Historical Marker & The Myth of 5 Senses

The common idea is that as humans we have the following five senses: 1. Touch. 2. Taste. 3. See. 4. Smell. 5. Hear.

Nonsense. We have far more than five senses.

Imagine you buy a high quality backpack at Summit Hut, a $300 indoor frame top of the line model that perfectly distributes the weight across your shoulders as well as a belt that also balances and supports the load. You masterfully adjust the pack for your measurements and start walking. Unknown to you, I start adding weight to the pack. As I keep adding weight, at some point a thought will register in your mind that, indeed, something is going on.

What data produced the thought? Taste, sight, smell, and audio are unlikely sources of the information. Touch? What are you touching? The information telling you of the increasing weight is coming from the sensation of touch on your skin?

Ridden a bike and hit a hill? Is it touch that makes you breathe harder and shift to a lower gear? Are you really asserting that the pressure on the skin of your feet through your shoes is the source of that information?

Oh, but that’s not physical data? I’m adding weight to your pack, not hurting your feelings.

I’m just getting started. Let’s blindfold you and extend your arm. I take a butane cigar lighter and slowly approach your skin. You sense heat. Is that touch? Sure? Nothing has touched anything. Is the radiation of the bright Arizona sun on your skin touch?

Getting dizzy is pretty physical, isn’t it? Which of the five senses plays a role in becoming dizzy? Where does balance come from, anyway? Is that among the five senses?

Been in something really fast that can accelerate like a rocket? Ridden a roller coaster or spinning ride that throws you around? Been turned upside down so the blood rushes to your head? Clue me in, are you smelling the blood rushing to your head or tasting it? We can safely reject that you are seeing it.

Five senses. Right. I would also argue that certain touching, well, just isn't quite captured by the word touch.

The kindergarten observation of a wide variety of alternate external and internal body sensations may seem trivial, but I promise it is not. Toss the notion of five senses. To reach the border, we require finer distinctions about the data we process.

I kid the reader not and will remain more friendly than the remarks on synaesthesia regarding perception and art.

Still, we journey, if you are up to it, to a place that addresses perception and consciousness.

I wanted to toss out some hopefully trivial remarks about the physical body. We’ll get to thoughts and feelings later. As one would guess, they are more involved.

I'll return to politics tomorrow.


Blogger Sirocco said...

I like this post, and I get the point you are making, but I don't like the backpack example. I can argue pretty strongly that what you are feeling is the increased tension of the backpack straps against your skin (through your shirt or whatever), which isn't a vast extension of basic "touch".

I've been trying to think of a possibly better example ... about all that came to mind was how an astronaut "feels" weightlessness. Of course, how many of us are ever going to be able to share that experience, so it might be hard for people to conceptualize.

7/30/2007 7:21 AM  
Blogger x4mr said...


The backpack example is not perfect. Obviously if someone were to jerk the pack, some of the data would correspond to touch or pressure.

More important is recognizing that if weight is slowly added, the more significant data will come from muscular sensations in the legs due to the additional weight.

The important take away learning from the post is that we have far more EXTERNAL (to the mind, i.e. the body) sensations than the five senses.

Consider an elevator dropping suddenly. What sense is that? To lump that data into "touch" misses a lot of what is really occurring.

You get it. For a slam dunk example of a body sensation outside of the five senses, consider thirst and hunger.

7/30/2007 11:33 AM  

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