Could You Actually Have More Than Five Senses?

When it comes to interpreting the world around us, we lean heavily on our five senses. Sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch all help us to navigate our everyday lives. However, the scientific community has long explored the possibility that we may harbor far more senses than previously thought.

In BBC Science Focus, neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett describes the five senses we learned about in grade school as exteroceptive senses. These are the ones designed to interpret our surrounding environment. Yet the body also possesses interoceptive abilities, or senses that pick up information about what is going on internally. This includes body temperature, heartbeat, breathing, and much more. For the 10% of people said to have a heightened sense of interoception, they may be able to sense their own heartbeat through directed attention rather than physically placing a hand to their chest, reports The British Psychological Society.

Suddenly, the answer doesn't seem so clear-cut. If we aren't limited to five senses, then just how many senses does the human body actually have?

Scientists aren't able to pinpoint exactly how many senses we have

No one can say for sure exactly how many human senses we have. Therefore, perhaps the best answer to this question is upwards of five. After all, some experts argue that humans have anywhere from seven to twelve senses, including those that detect pain or balance, according to Johns Hopkins University Press.

The question becomes even more convoluted when you consider that certain senses may share some potential overlap with one another. In a 1964 article published by The New York Times, the outlet cited two case studies in which two different women were able to identify color through their sense of touch. The author of the archived article noted how this challenged the scientific notion of what's referred to as specific disposition. The concept suggests that each of our senses are designed to respond to a specific type of stimuli. For example, our sense of hearing is said to be triggered by auditory sound, not the aroma of a burning candle, which is specific to our sense of smell. However, being able to detect color with one's fingertips suggests that certain types of stimuli may not be exclusive to only one human sense.

How important are our different senses?

Each of our senses have something important to offer. However, science shows us that perspectives regarding which of our senses hold greater value varies across the globe. While Western society has often placed significant value on our sense of sight, researchers from a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) set out to take a closer look at whether a universal hierarchy exists when it comes to our senses.

The study involved participants from around the world who spoke 20 diverse languages, including sign languages. The research findings were determined based on how easily the participants found it to discuss specific senses. This included conversations about colors, varying textures, sound volumes, etc.

"While English speakers behaved as predicted, describing sight and sound with ease, this was not the case across all cultures," leader of the study Professor Majid told ScienceDaily. Furthermore, findings showed that while participants who spoke English had difficulty conversing about basic tastes, participants who spoke Farsi and Lao were able to discuss and detect tastes with near-perfect accuracy and ease. Amongst all cultural groups, smell proved to be the most challenging sense for participants to articulate. "What this study shows us is that we can't always assume that understanding certain human functions within the context of the English language provides us with a universally relevant perspective or solution," Professor Majid stated.