The Critical Senses That We Aren’t Usually Aware Of


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

We are all aware of the five senses. Vision is quite important, hearing can help us get out of danger, and smell can trigger so many memories. Taste is probably our least critical sense overall, but it teams up with smell, touch, and visual cues. But, there are more human senses that are not so obvious. What are those?

Man tasting wine
Out of all the senses, taste is probably our least critical sense. (Image: OPOLJA/Shutterstock)

Amusement Parks or Reading In a Car?

We have three important body senses: vestibular, kinesthetic, and tactile. Our vestibular sense provides information about our body’s movement and helps us maintain balance and body posture. The sensory organs that process this sense are located near the inner ear and respond to our head’s movement as well as gravitational forces. We often are not consciously aware of the vestibular sense, until something goes awry.

For example, car sickness can result when someone tries reading a book in the car because of a conflict between what the eyes are following—the book, which is not moving—and the vestibular sense which is detecting the car’s movement.

Woman reading a book in a car
Something like reading in a moving car can mess up our critical senses and lead to feeling dizzy or sick. (Image: Estrada Anton/Shutterstock)

But this conflict isn’t necessarily bad. Part of the thrill of many amusement park rides, at least for kids, comes from confusing our vestibular sense. Our eyes and ears send contradictory messages to the brain, and for kids, the struggle to maintain balance as a roller coaster moves in unpredictable ways can feel thrilling. For adults, who are used to more predictable motion, this can cause dizziness or motion sickness.

Why Our Legs Fall Asleep

The kinesthetic sense refers to the perception of body movements, such as the position and movement of our arms and legs when riding a bike or when we are crossing our legs. Kinesthetic receptors are found throughout the muscles, joints, and tendons of the body. 

These receptors tell the brain which muscles are being contracted or relaxed, whether you are carrying something that is too heavy, where your arms and legs are in relation to the rest of your body, and so on. 

We use the kinesthetic sense anytime we’re engaging in physical activity: walking, running, dancing, swimming. When your leg falls asleep, you are deprived of kinesthetic sensations, which illustrates how you depend on this sense in order to maintain enough tension in your legs to stand up without collapsing.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

‘To Touch Can Be to Give Life’

Another body sense is touch. Although we talk about touch as a single sense, touch is actually a mixture of four sensations: pressure, warmth, cold, and pain. And yes, cold and hot are distinct. Our sense of touch is controlled by a huge network of touch receptors in the skin. The concentration and depth of these receptors influences how different types of touch feel. 

The touch receptors are most concentrated on the face and in the fingers, which is why a paper cut can feel so painful. Some receptors respond to more than one type of stimulation. For example, simultaneously stimulating both pressure and pain receptors can produce a sensation of itching or tickling.

Baby holding an adult’s hand
Touch is an especially important critical sense for babies since it helps their growth and development. (Image: Insta_photos/Shutterstock)

But the benefits of touch are far more profound than most of us even realize. From the very beginning of life, touch plays an essential role in stimulating growth and development. Skin-to-skin contact helps babies grow and is especially beneficial for premature babies. In the words of Italian sculptor Michelangelo, “To touch can be to give life.” And his intuition is now fully borne out by empirical scientific research.

Touch Is a Critical Sense for Communication

Touch reduces stress on the cardiovascular system, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and increases the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone”. Touch even activates a part of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, that processes feelings of reward and compassion. Basically, touch feels good even at a neurological level.

These physiological effects help explain why touch reduces pain and protects us from illness; why people who hold hands with their romantic partner show lower levels of pain during a laboratory procedure involving high levels of heat; and why people who get more hugs each week are less likely to become sick even when a cold virus is directly inserted into their bodies.

Now, these findings don’t suggest that all touch is good. But on a very fundamental level, humans are clearly wired to form connections with those around us, and physical touch plays a very important role in forming and maintaining these interpersonal bonds.

Common Questions about the Critical Senses That We Aren’t Usually Aware Of

Q: Why do people feel sick when they try to read a book in a car?

One of the critical senses that everybody has is the vestibular sense which tells us about the body’s movement. Though it helps to maintain balance and body posture, it contributes to the feeling of sickness when reading in a car, since our eyes don’t tell us that the book is moving but our vestibular sense tells us that we are.

Q: Is touch a single sense?

No. Though touch is a critical sense, it’s a combination of four sensations: pressure, warmth, cold, and pain. And the concentration and depth of the receptors of such sensations influence how we process different types of touch.

Q: What are some of the benefits of touch?

Touch proves to be a critical sense right from the start of a baby’s growth. Skin-to-skin contact is especially important for a premature baby’s development. Touch also reduces the cardiovascular system’s stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and increases the release of oxytocin.

Keep Reading
What Makes Us Happy?
Can We Predict Happiness?
The Fight for Happiness