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You have more than 5 human senses. How are you using yours?

December 13, 2021 - 21 min read

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What are human senses?

Do we really only have 5 human senses? 

The other human senses 

How to engage your senses

We often take our ability to taste our favorite food or listen to a song we love for granted.

But neither of these things would be possible without our human senses. 

Everything we experience and perceive while we’re alive is thanks to our human senses. We can see the world around us using our sense of sight or smell a flower with our sense of smell. 

But what about sensing pain or our inner body awareness? Are these not also senses that contribute to the human experience? 

For a long time, it was widely accepted that the human body only had five senses. However, modern neuroscience has shown that they aren’t the only senses we have at our disposal.

Let’s take a deeper look at all of our senses and how we can engage them to live a more fulfilling life. 

With the help of sensory receptors, we gather, process, and respond to various stimuli such as a sound or a smell. 

For example, the taste receptors on our tongue collect different tastes. They then translate them into sensory information our brain can understand. That’s why we can distinguish between salty and sweet food. Other types of sensory receptors help our eyes detect the presence of light, enable us to hear music, or allow us to feel textures. 

In other words, they create our perceived reality. 

We can trace the concept of human senses all the way back to ancient Greece, where they were commonly known as “the windows of the soul.” It was during this time that philosopher Aristotle was the first to define the five primary senses we’re familiar with today:

  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Taste
  • Sound
  • Smell

Aristotle then classified the senses in accordance with our sensory organs: skin, eyes, mouth, ears, and nose. His classification of the human senses was so enduring that most people accepted it as a universal truth. 

Is this right? Or are there other senses that shape the human experience? 

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Do we really only have 5 human senses? 

Traditionally, only five human senses have been known and accepted as common knowledge. Many schools still teach that these senses are the only ways the human brain can receive information about the body or the outside world.

Before we dive deeper into how many senses we truly have, let’s explore each of the traditional senses (the ones we were taught in school) and their functions.

Touch (Somatosensation)

The sense of touch responds to anything that comes in contact with the skin, thanks to a network of receptors called the somatosensory system. This system tells us when something’s cold or hot, rough or smooth, painful or itchy, and so on. 

As you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling the soft texture of the sofa or the hard surface of a chair under you. 

Close-up-of-touching-hands-human-senses

The nervous system constantly collects and makes sense of information from thousands of different mechanoreceptors — tiny sensory organs in your skin and hair follicles that register even the smallest pressure.

Touch plays a central role in our interaction with the world — and a crucial role in our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Skin-to-skin contact is scientifically proven to reduce loneliness and stress. 

According to a recent study, physical contact reduces the perception of feeling alone and enhances physiological well-being. Ultimately, it can help ward off loneliness.

Sight (Vision)

Vision lets us visually process the world around us. It allows us to see the faces of friends and family or perform daily activities we sometimes take for granted. For example, you can’t drive a car without sight.

It’s also an excellent way to gather information about our surroundings and protect ourselves from danger. 

Eyesight starts when light passes through the front layer of our eyeball, called the cornea. It then enters the human eye through the pupil and makes its way to our retina. When light lands on the retina, it’s transformed into electrical signals that travel to the brain through the optic nerve. It’s there that our brains transform these signals into the images we see every day. 

Sight plays an essential role in many aspects of our lives. Take communicating with others, for example. Besides verbal cues, sight allows us to see and interpret nonverbal cues like body language. Being able to interpret and understand people’s body language helps you develop emotional awareness. It also helps you bond better with individuals. 

Vision can even affect the body’s sleep-wake cycle. In visually impaired people, the absence of light can cause a desynchronized circadian rhythm, affecting sleep quality. 

Taste (Gustation)

There are nearly 10,000 taste buds on the tongue, roof of the mouth, and throat — these tiny bumps power our sense of taste. Without them, all the delicious foods you’ve eaten in your life wouldn’t have tasted like anything.

Imagine taking your first bite of a rich chocolate cake. As soon as the cake makes contact with your tongue, a chemical reaction triggered by tiny receptors on your taste buds lets you experience a sweet flavor. 

Sweetness is one of the five core types of taste. The other tastes we experience are sour, bitter, salty, and umami. The fifth taste, umami, is a Japanese word that describes a savory, meaty flavor. It’s common in foods rich in protein like meats, cheese, or shellfish. 

The purpose of tasting isn’t just to experience yummy foods. It’s also vital for our survival. How would our ancestors know when their mammoth meat went bad without their sense of taste? 

Hearing (Audition)

Hearing enables us to perceive the world through sound. It allows you to listen to others speak, hear music, or hear the sound of birds chirping in the morning. 

The hearing process begins when sound waves enter the ear and move towards the eardrum. On contact, they cause the eardrums, malleus, stapes, and incus bones to vibrate. Our inner ear converts these vibrations into electrical signals with the help of tiny hair cells. 

The auditory nerve then picks up these signals and sends them directly to the brain. Finally, our brain interprets these signals as sounds.

Our sense of hearing plays a vital role in communication. Listening is what enables you to learn spoken language as a child. It also plays a crucial role in your adult life. Effective communication skills give you an advantage in the workplace. For example, critical listening skills help you analyze complex information or handle challenging client requests. 

Smell (Olfaction) 

Our sense of smell lets us pick up clues about our surroundings by analyzing tiny fragments of matter in the air we breathe in through our noses.

When you ask people which sense they’d give up if they had to, smell is usually the top answer. By comparison, we often consider the other senses more important to our quality of life.

woman-smelling-flower-bouquet-human-senses

However, our sense of smell is anything but disposable. Here are a few notable ways that olfaction enhances our lives:

  • Protects from potential dangers (smelling a gas leak) 
  • Stimulates appetite 
  • Enhances sense of taste 
  • Conjures up feelings and memories (both good and bad)

Our noses are closely linked to memory and emotion. Scents travel through the nasal cavity to the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the hippocampus and amygdala. 

Neuroscientists link these brain regions to learning and memory. Multiple studies have even found that you can use smells to boost learning efficiency.

But newer research shows that these five senses only scratch the surface. In the next section, we explore some of the senses beyond the traditional five.

The other human senses 

The concept of the five human senses is outdated.

Neuroscientists agree that people are gifted with far more than the five senses we learned in school. 

So how many senses do we have exactly?

Well, this is where they disagree. The exact number of human senses is still the subject of ongoing discussion and scientific research. 

There can be as many as 9, 21, or even more. Ultimately, it depends on how you define each sense. For example, you can look at vision as one sense or divided into two — light and color. 

Let’s explore some theories about the full spectrum of all human senses and their functions. 

9 human senses 

How can you stand up without falling over or locate your left knee with your eyes closed? Besides the five senses that you’re familiar with, there are other senses you use every day without even realizing it. 

Balance (Equilibrioception)

Equilibrioception is our sense of balance. The organ responsible for balance, the vestibular system, is located in the inner ear. It works together with the visual system to help the body maintain balance and coordination. 

female-gymnast-on-balance-bar-human-senses

It helps us stand and walk without toppling over and sit upright in a chair. And it generally allows us to move smoothly. When something throws off our balance, we can experience dizziness and nausea. A typical example of this is motion sickness caused by being on a moving plane or ship.

Body awareness (Proprioception)

Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the ability to sense our body’s location, movement, and actions. It’s why we can go up a flight of stairs without having to look down or locate different body parts with our eyes closed.

Proprioception comes from receptors found in muscles, joints, and tendons. When you move, these receptor cells inform your brain of your position and actions. 

Temperature (Thermoception)

Thermoception is an awareness of the temperature of your external environment. Having this awareness helps you dress warmly in low temperatures or avoid touching a hot stove. 

Pain (Nociception) 

Nociception is another sense that protects us. When our body receives a painful stimulus like a cut, it activates pain receptors called nociceptors. They alert the body of danger and trigger an appropriate defense response. 

21 human senses

An even more comprehensive view of the human senses includes as many as 21.

One of these senses is interoception –– your brain’s perception of your body’s inner state. Interoception helps you understand what’s going on in your body thanks to signals from internal organs like your lungs or gut, for example. 

Understanding this lesser-known sense is essential. According to scientists, it has a big impact on your well-being. In a recent article from The Guardian, professor Manos Tsakiris explains that our sensitivity to interoception affects our ability to regulate our emotions. This in turn affects how susceptible we are to mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. 

Take heart rate as an example. As the Association for Psychological Science explains, people can interpret a rise in heart rate in different ways. A neurotypical person can read it as excitement when stepping into a party, while someone with anxiety can interpret it as danger.

Misreading interoceptive signals can amplify negative emotions. But learning to pay attention can help you take back control.

Other examples of interoceptors include lung inflation, hunger, thirst, or bladder stretch. 

Beyond 21 senses: how many human senses are there?

You can define senses in many ways. You can classify them according to the number of sensors we have or by the nature of the stimulus. Depending on how you choose to categorize them, you can end up with more than 30 senses. 

Taste can be classified as one sense or five –– sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. You can even break down pain into cutaneous, somatic, and visceral. 

But ultimately, the most important thing isn’t to focus on finding the “right” number of senses. It’s learning how to engage them.

How to engage your senses 

Engaging the senses means proactively activating them through meaningful everyday practices. You can engage multiple senses simultaneously or choose to focus on one particular sense. 

To engage your senses, you have to pay full attention to the activity you’re doing. Be mindful of each sense you are using. That helps you become grounded in the present moment and create more meaningful and memorable life experiences. 

Engaging your senses can also reduce stress and anxiety. That’s because self-care strategies that relieve stress and anxiety involve using one or more of your senses

Here are simple yet powerful ways to engage your senses and become more centered: 

Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, intensely aware of where you are and what you’re doing. Mindfulness activities like meditation and mindful breathing can help you engage your senses. 

For example, mindful breathing helps you improve your interoceptive awareness. Paying attention to each breath and how it feels in the body can regulate your emotions and reduce stress and anxiety.

man-meditating-on-floor-human-senses

Another mindfulness practice that engages multiple senses is mindful eating. Being fully present while you eat helps you appreciate the sensory experience of eating. Next time you’re having dinner, notice the textures and colors of the food. Really pay attention to the smell of each dish and savor the taste of each bite.

Mindful eating can improve your digestion and help you appreciate the present moment. 

Engage in physical exercise 

Experts recommend engaging in regular workouts. Exercise can help you read and interpret interoceptive signals better. 

If you’re someone who doesn’t exercise, your heart will race more when you experience emotional or physical challenges. When you become more physically fit, your body becomes more resilient in these situations, strengthening your mental fitness. Your heart gets used to dealing with strenuous situations. 

Yoga is a form of exercise that engages different senses. During a yoga session, you activate your sense of balance, proprioception, and inner body awareness. The focus on breathing and observing can help you become more centered.

Cuddle with a pet 

Spending quality time petting your furry companion is a sensory experience that engages many senses. When you’re stroking or hugging your pet, you’re activating the senses of touch, sight, sound, and even smell. 

This activity is scientifically proven to: 

Go on a nature walk 

Spending time in nature is one of the best ways to activate your senses.

Next time you walk along your local nature trail, pay attention to the sounds of the birds or the crunch of leaves beneath your feet. Take a look around. What do you see? What do you smell? With each step you take, notice how your body moves and the pace of your breathing. 

Engaging multiple senses while outdoors helps you appreciate the world around you. It can also help you be more aware of what’s happening inside you, meaning it can help you do inner work. 

Listen to music 

Most of us have music in the background when we’re doing daily activities like cleaning or driving. But to fully engage your sense of sound, try turning your entire focus to it. As you’re hearing the music, be fully present and pay close attention to changes in your body. 

Focusing on these creative sounds can relieve stress and anchor you in the present moment.

Cook your favorite meal

Covid-19 has turned the art of cooking into a wellness trend of its own. What used to be a functional task became a sanctuary of happiness and relaxation for many. A recent study found that cooking as a leisure activity led to psychological well-being during the pandemic. 

Cooking or baking with all your senses can turn a chore into an immersive, pleasurable experience. 

Pay attention to all your human senses 

We have more than five human senses at our disposal. Some allow us to experience our outer world, while others help us make sense of our inner world. 

Our ability to use all these senses is a gift. Imagine what life would be like without even one of them. 

If you want to take full advantage of your senses, start practicing activities that engage them. Truly paying attention can create more meaningful experiences and enhance your well-being. 

If you need help tapping into your senses and finding meaning in your life and work, a BetterUp coach can help

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Published December 13, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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