Thu
Sep 1 2011 3:18pm

Making Senses

In Voltaire’s Micromegas, a gargantuan visitor to Earth says that in his home world there are 39 primary colors and 1,000 senses. Ever since Voltaire (though not due to him) extra senses have cropped up throughout science fiction, fantasy and comics.

Someone becomes a vampire and suddenly they can see at night, smell blood from a distance and hear hearts beating. Peter Parker gains a danger sense. Daredevil is blind but has crazy sensory powers. (We all know, or at least we really should know, however, that the old martial arts movie trope of the blind badass is far from accurate. I’m not saying blind people can’t be badass, but rather that blindness does not give you a superhuman enhancement to other senses. There’s a change in focus, but not an actual change in the nature of a blind person’s hearing or any other sense. The many variations of Zatoichi make for fun characters, but there’s no truth to it.)

How would it actually work to have a non-human sense? How would a non-human sense or superhuman sensory acuity feel? (By the way, this is just a big post full of speculation and questions. Feel free to jump in with all the answers you like. I’m not really providing any.)

My first thoughts are about the senses we already have. Just about everyone can name five: visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory and gustatory, to give the high-fallutin’ names. But there are two more that people generally are unaware of or forget about: vestibular and proprioceptive. These are spatial senses, pertaining to the position of a body and its limbs relative to the environment. These are the “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” senses. Given that people use their proprioceptive and vestibular senses constantly, without consciously knowing that they are senses at all, perhaps extra or supernatural senses could function in a similarly subtle way. Of course, when these two senses are not functioning properly, it ain’t subtle at all. You fall over, vomit, get vertigo, run into walls, all manner of discomfort.

While it’s hard to imagine an extra sense, we know how it feels to have a temporarily impaired sense from time to time, and we know how it feels to regain sensation. And perhaps regaining sensation is as close as we come to gaining a new sense. Allergies or a common cold can mess with every sense we have. And people can be born with a sense that doesn’t function properly or one that diminishes with time or injury. Multiple ear infections as a child have left me with tinnitus and rather poor hearing overall. Sometimes my hearing on one side just kind of shuts off or the ringing amplifies for a few hours and then comes back to normal. At the moments when my hearing, bad as it is, returns to me, it almost feels like I’ve developed a new sense.

How do extra or artificial senses integrate with the other senses? In other words, how does the brain filter and prioritize sensory information provided by a non-human sense? Sensory integration is something most people take for granted. Since I have a special needs kid I am more aware of the difficulties presented by a lack of sensory organization. Believe me, it can be a huge concern. Someone like Daredevil would not only have to be unnaturally keen in all senses other than sight, he’d also need to be neurologically organized to an additional degree proportionate to his added keenness, otherwise he’d fall prey to a constant bombardment of data with no way to process it all. Or take Geordi La Forge’s famous visor: how does his brain process and prioritize aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum humans don’t normally perceive? Does the visor send information his visual cortex, or to some other part of the brain perhaps naturally better suited to process electronic information? And is there such a place in the brain?

As I mentioned earlier, when senses are functioning normally, we don’t think about them so much, but when something goes askew, it’s a major concern. I imagine that were I to gain a non-human sense… say, a Time Lord’s sense of planetary proprioception, it would completely bombard me until my brain mapped strategies to filter it. It wouldn’t be, I don’t think, a sudden rush of “Ooh, space and time are so neato.” It’d be more like, “Holy shit! I can feel the moon!” and then I’d fall to the ground and puke. But I assume that A) Gallifreyan neurology is innately set up to process this and B) If my brain didn’t cook itself as Donna Noble’s so nearly did, I would eventually be able to focus again. But then, after finally finding a way to work with it all, how would it feel if a meteor shower hit? Would I get all itchy? If I got a middle ear infection would I suddenly think the axis of the Earth had shifted?

I am assuming that the Gallifreyan sense feels similar to proprioception because the Doctor says he can feel the planet turn. Feel, not smell. But who knows how it’d really function? It may very well be more like smell, a very subtle, thoroughly filtered but crucial sense.

Allow me to ping-pong to another angle. There’s a band I’ve come to be quite fond of called Box Five (Good stuff! Check ‘em out! No, they aren’t paying me to say that.) Singer/songwriter Mary Bichner has both perfect pitch and synesthesia, a condition in which input from one sense registers in another sense. In her case, she sees colors associated with sounds, not in terms of analogy or metaphor but actual sensation. I imagine this is both beautiful and deeply frustrating.

Many people can summon up a crossover of senses, though it’s not true synesthesia. Rather, it’s a way of imaginatively categorizing sensation. When I think of cooking, I sort of assign a physical placement to flavors so that I can organize them in my head. It’s an odd method, but it isn’t the same as synesthesia because not every time that I taste a salad does the vinegar feel higher and further left than the lettuce. It’s just an expedient for me, albeit a peculiar one. If we think blue is cool and red is hot, that isn’t synesthesia either, because we have actual cool and hot things that the blueness or redness is reminding us of, rather than a fixed additional sensory response.

All of which makes me wonder if someone without synesthesia can really understand what it’s like to have it any more than a regular human being can imagine seeing like an elf. Or even a hawk, focusing on two distinct objects at different distances.

And so, dear readers I turn it over to you. What would it be like to have a new sense? How would it work with the rest? Would it be a boon or a liability? What books or movies give the most interesting insight into unusual sensation? (For me, it would be Perfume by Patrick Suskind and, if you extend the idea of senses to include telepathy, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.)

What do you think?


Jason Henninger lives in Santa Monica and works for a Buddhist magazine. He would like to see in the dark.

3 comments
fizzel
1. fizzel
Well, there was that guy that gave himself a kind of magnetic sense by inserting a rare earth magnet in his finger...
http://www.wired.com/gadgets/mods/news/2006/06/71087
or the one that gave himself a directional sense with a vibrating belt with compass integrated:
http://neurodudes.com/2007/04/05/giving-humans-a-compass-like-directional-sense-via-tactile-input/
from those experiments it seems our brain is well suited to learn to process extra sense input to expand our worldview.
fizzel
2. a1ay
Haptic input's a good one; the villain of "Daemon" ends up with all sorts of senses (including cellular radio reception strength and a constant Google news feed on his own name) relayed to different bits of a haptic vest.
A couple of interesting ones from the natural world: electric sense in sharks, and directional olfactory sense in male moths (so they can tell where a smell is coming from).
fizzel
3. Eugene R.
Echolocation would be another neat sense to pick up. Dolphins can integrate their "sonar" with their vision, using either to pick out objects of the same shape. (I participated in lab experiments that demonstrated this interchange of senses.)

Oliver Sacks, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, tells about a medical student who (after some extracurricular chemical enhancements) dreamed of being a dog and awoke with a heightened sense of smell that lasted for 3 weeks. I'd like to experience that (along with re-reading Patrick Suskind's Perfume), though I suspect that having a sensory overload like that would take up enough of my brainpower that I'd be a bit too canine-like for my own good.

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