The concept of five senses is a near-universal belief expressed across cultures, both in everyday conversation and scientific literature. However, modern science has proved Aristotle, who was touted for first articulating the five senses over two millennia ago, wrong. A human ‘sixth sense‘ is now no longer in the realms of extrasensory perception or telepathy but rather simply scientific fact. In fact, modern neuroscientists believe we have upward of twenty-two senses.
“The typical person looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting … [and] inhales without odour or fragrance.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
The exact number of senses we experience as humans is contested. Experts still can’t even come to a consensus as to how to define a ‘sense’. And while that debate continues, what is not contested is that as humans we are both keen sensors and sentient beings. In fact, our eyes, skin, tongue and nose support more than just one way of seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling. Our eyes sense not simply space but time. Our inner ear hears but also senses whether we are balanced. Our tongue smells and our noses taste.
Senses and Sentient:
Humans are often described as sentient beings, but what does this actually mean? Some use sentience interchangeably with the word consciousness, which in itself is a phenomenon so elusive as to turn even the most devoted scientific mind towards incantations of magic. It truly is a marvel how brain tissue creates consciousness, and how material makes immaterial.
But perhaps there is a simpler definition for sentience. What if we simply defined sentience as the ability to sense the world around us. Such sensitivity leads to your experiences of seeing the creamy coffee in your hand, feeling the weight of the cup, the warmth transferred into your hands, the wafting smell rising through the cool air, and the distance tremble of the lion roaring. One moment, a snapshot in time. Yet 100s of senses all work together to create a moment which we physically are experiencing.
Scientists and philosophers still debate whether animals experience consciousness, but most will readily ascribe to them achieving a pared-down version of sentience.
He is a large, tall, and long male that has an incredible coat and a tuft of hair on his neck
As humans, we can observe how familiarity dulls our senses. It anaesthetizes us to our world of existence. We are all guilty of underappreciating – and underestimating – our sensory powers. Yet for all animals out here, there is no appreciation, no underestimating. The senses they possess are tools, keenly honed over millions of years of evolution. Tuned to the n-th degree, each sense is a way of survival. With a deeply lived experience of the world around them, animals will survive and thrive. Without it, not so.
Exploring the senses of animals in this wild place unveils the wonderful thought that there is in fact more than unites us in our experience of the world than devides us. Through furred, finned and feathered relatives, our familiar and ordinary become unfamiliar and extraordinary. A whole host of curious new senses may be emerging.
Perhaps this is just all too difficult to comprehend. In the next couple of blogs, we will delve into the evolutionary family tree that we share with all creatures, and look at some animals that epitomize one or more of the various senses. For now: open your eyes, ears, skin, tongues, noses and more to the everyday miracle of being sentient.