Extrasensory perception is real. Sort of. We have more than 20 real senses and project imagination as yet more senses. Our senses and extra senses often cause more discomfort than pleasure. And yet we get deeper insights and creative breakthroughs.
More than 20 senses
When I was a child, the schools taught just 5 senses, the big five: vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Now science recognizes 10, 21 and 33 senses or modalities. And this number does not include some physiological experiences such as, for instance, the sensation of hunger or thirst. What is the full list?
There are four vision sensors (RGB and white), hearing, smell (2000+ different receptors, not yet fully understood), five taste senses (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami), three pain sensing systems, seven kinaethetic senses (linear and rotational acceleration, joint location, muscle strength), two temperature senses (cold and hot) and about a dozen senses called interoceptors (various blood pressure, hunger, and inflation of lungs, bladder and stomach).
If you think that this list is too long, notice that spicy taste is not a part of it. The spicy “taste” is actually a combination of a hot and pain sensation. When something spicy is eaten, the molecule capsaicin binds to receptors on the tongue that detect temperature changes and pain. These receptors tell the brain that there is pain and the brain immediately sends signals for the numbing of the tongue temporarily.
We do not actually know
Some senses are less accepted than others. For example, we know that we are sensitive to the life of bacteria in our stomach. If the bacteria are in trouble, we may feel depression. There are even semi-independant brain-like structures in stomach and in spine, processing some sort of sensory information.
It’s not like science finished figuring out all of these senses. When I practiced meditation, I felt quite vividly, a “touch” several centimeters away from my body. I do not know what I felt: temperature, vibration or something electromagnetic. It just did not feel like a sensory hallucination.
Animals have further sensory organs well beyond our range. Yet, maybe we have some rudementary sense, for example for air pressure (weather sensing) and magnetic fields.
Whatever skill and senses we do not currently have, we might be able to acquire in the future. The way we use computers is very deep. Some people introduce magnetic sensors into their pinkies, others add implant to living pigs. We already use computers as a “second brain” memory and computational system. Why not use them more?
At the very least, we can all mount virtual reality glasses and see metadata everywhere. We could easily use motion sensors, distance reading well beyond binocular vision and more. Further sensors could be mounted in wearable devices, especially exoskeletons for soldiers and elderly.
This is not the classical ESP
When I was a child, people talked about some mysterious sixth sense as awareness of metaphisical objects. Some people claimed they could feel the future or claimed that they talk to the dead.
It is very hard to distinguish the real senses from projected experiences. When we feel danger, the processing is often subconcious. Yet we see physiological effects, like adrenaline rush and goosebumps on skin. People often feel chills or frisson from hearing music.
While not directly senses, we should not ignore our subconcious processes. They might serve us well.
The senses are not processed independantly from each other. For example, to feel balance we use our vision, the acceleration sensors in our ears and additional mechanical sensors in our body. These senses are all a sort of complex “sense” of balance.
In more complex cases the senses are mixed or switched in strange ways.
Composer and painters often blur the boundaries between the art forms. Kandinsky could actually hear his paintings as compositions. It is not fully clear how Bethoven could compose when he was deaf. Mathematicians often see equations in color or in space or even hear them.
Synesthesia can be very useful, and we teach several forms of it.
How does that help me?
What we actually want from our senses is quite complex:
- Situational awareness. We use vision for so many different purposes, that without it we will be helpless, at least for a while. Hearing is used for what we do not see.
- Physical safety and prosperity. For example, poisonous food is often bitter and we try to avoid it. Gases often have smell. Pain helps avoid serious damage.
- Entertainment. Classical music, chef cuisine, expensive perfumes. They do not have a practical benefit beyond simple consumption, but we definitely enjoy them.
- Meaning. We rely on our senses for deep insights. Like so called “gut feeling“. Basically we have physical indicators for subconsious processes. We might not notice the processes, but we feel the symptoms.
- Validation. The senses validate, disambiguate and reinforce each other. For example, taste and smell are used together to evaluate food.
A lot of our brain power processes visual cues. Less brain power is used for hearing. Still less for the aggregate of everything else. This does not have to be so.
We can potentially switch brain processing power between senses. In some experiments people are given blindfolds for several months. During that time, the cognitive powers switch from vision to hearing and touch. Then the blindfold is removed, and the brainpower slowly repurposes back to vision. The effects are clear and measurable.
In synesthesia we can potentially share the brain power between senses. Vision is very fast, parallel and good in pattern recognition. These are wonderful qualities when listening to a symphony. Hearing is very logical and analytic. This is great for interoreting emotional cues, smells and tastes. Smell is very immediate and emotional, which might be fun when working with colors. Touch is very physical and localized, which may help analysing sounds.
It may look like senses are absolutely great. They are not.
Let us start with the cost. Senses need a lot of face and brain space. We are less sensitive to smells than most mamals, so our speach is more articulated. Dolphines have huge brains, but a large part of that brain deals with echolocation.
Maintenance. Brains need a lot of energy, so if our food quality drops our senses become less effective. They become less effective also as we age due to different mechanisms. And our senses are very sensitive to physical damage, especially our eyes.
Suffering. A lot of our senses are associated with some sort of pain. The pain keeps us away of trouble, but it is definitely not fun. Especially chronic pain or phantom pain that actually does not prevent any real damage. And the negative sensory experiences are often stronger than positive. Think of fine perfume vs public toilets: I think smell can be a rather obnoxious sense.
The toddler develop pain and pleasure paths in their brain before they are 10 months old. During that time if the toddler constantly suffers, and many toddlers suffer, the pain will dominate that person’s life.
Later this pain may reenter one’s live as chronic pain. This can be viewed as excitation of the pain sensors without the right stimulus. Chronic pains are hard to deal with, and definitely not helpful. They increase the risk of depression and suicide, addiction to drugs and medication, and general irritation.
A person that loses a limb often experiences itching or sharp pain where the limb used to be. These phantom pains are not helpful in any way. There were experiments with hand and leg implants, but they generate a lot of psychological resentment (to the point of self-mutilation).
Our neural paths are built in a certain way to help us function in most cases, but in rare cases they work against us.
Meditative procedures help to deal with some sensory issues. We can heighen or dull certain perception by the relevant visualizations or self-talk. There are also certain non-meditative training practices for synesthesia.
A lot of what we know about senses comes from sensual deprivation: blindfolding, sitting in a cage, fasting… These methods were used by monks in combo with medititation to change the sensory perception.
Religions tried to modify our relation to senses. Buddhism tried to end suffering. Christianity tried to deal with obsessivity. Judaism tried to reduce confusion (kosher rules often refer to separation of stimuli and apply for example to fabric). Science tried to reduce senses to mere sensors.
In fact, senses are not just sensors, but a large part of our brain processing the information. They include our memories, identity and creativity.
What do we actually want?
Most of us want to control the senses. To be able to heighten the perception when looking for cues and reduce it when dealing with interferences. We can do this pretty easily with our vision, but less so with other senses.
So when we approach senses, it is easiest to start with vision. Learn some cool tricks. Then slowly apply the same tricks elsewhere.