Beyond the Five Senses

We think there are only five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. But neuroscience says this is wrong. There may be as many as 22 to 33 senses according to the latest scientific research. That’s what the neuroscientists tell us and that gives us between 17 and 29 more reasons to celebrate as writers.

The more tools we have in our writer’s toolkits, the wider our range and the more chances we have of reaching wider audiences.

We intuitively know about many of these ‘new’ senses but most of us neglect to apply these valuable gems in our writing. They can be vital for creating unique characters and character worlds.

As master writer Stephen King says, we want our readers to “prickle with recognition” when they read our writing and what better way than to manipulate some of the many senses most of us instinctively recognize but aren’t taught to identify as universal, human senses.

One of the most fascinating under-talked about senses is the physiological sense of balance. This sense enables us to walk without falling.

This applies equally to animals and humans. This means a dog or a cat with no sense of balance could provide as much comic relief as a person who lacks a sense of balance could provide tragedy in your writing.

Even something as simple as a character with a cast on his arm or leg loses the full sense of balance and can be used by an adept writer as a unique handicap in a story.

Consider riding on a merry-go-round. A disturbance with your sense of balance can make you feel nauseous, dizzy, or disoriented. This could apply equally to a character who has overdone it in an amusement park as it can to someone with Alzheimer’s or vertigo.

Another fascinating sense is the ability to detect magnetic fields to pick up direction, location, or altitude.

Roughly 50 different animal species that we know of use the Earth’s magnetic fields to get around. These include birds, insects, and mammals, including mice and bats.

This sense would come in truly handy when you’re trying to get somewhere, especially if you’re lost in a dark forest, in cold outer space, or in a magical maze.

Detecting magnetic fields, altitudes, and locations can be used by writers who stick with realism, too. We do have a mineral called magnetite in our brains and bones. Perhaps scientists might figure out that humans can detect magnetic fields, and that scientist might be the main character in your next novel.

A neglected sense in much of our writing is our sense of time. The ability to perceive long vs. short periods of time passing may come from two different parts of our brain, but either way, it’s a great sense to manipulate in your writing.

When did you last read a book in which one of the characters couldn’t track time? Yet, it opens up so many possibilities for unforgettable, relatable characters we can all empathize with. All of us know at least one person who doesn’t seem to have any sense of time.

I’m not even talking about toddlers who lack the brain structure to even comprehend a sense of time. Yes, little kids really do live in the ‘now.’ Emotions often run high around people big or small who have no sense of time and that makes for great drama in a novel.

I used the sense of time as a writing exercise in one of my classes and one class participant based an entire short story around it.

Another sense you may not be able to define and that you should add to your writer’s toolkit, is the ability to distinguish your body from the rest of the world and move it (i.e we can scratch our feet without looking because we know where they are).

Before we pick anything up, we have a sense of how much effort will be required to successfully lift it. If you take a deep breath and prepare yourself to haul a heavy suitcase only to discover it’s empty, you are momentarily thrown off balance.

Though I encourage writers to apply under-used or never-used senses to liven up their writing, it doesn’t mean the classic five are in the clear. At least two of them need to be revamped: smell and taste.

We can smell a lot more than roses. Here’s some information about our olfactory sense that you can use to apply the sense of smell in new ways in your writing.

You can move way beyond sweet, spicy, and citrus perfume, a trillion scents beyond, in fact. Yes, humans can sniff over one trillion scents, including fear and disgust (through sweat).

There’s a reason why your mom was always telling you to wash your runners. Women do have a superior sense of smell. Consider that the next time your heroine walks into a laundromat or a gym.

Everything one writes about smell applies to everyone’s favorite sense: taste. Don’t be afraid to explore beyond the standard sweet, sour, salty and spicy (crunchy peanut butter anyone?).

Scientists are split on whether we can taste savory (cheese, meat), fat and calcium. Why not have a heroine who can’t bear the taste of fat or calcium engaged to be married to someone whose greatest love is to cook for her using many fat and calcium-filled ingredients?

Could expanding your use of characters’ senses change and improve your writing? Please leave your thoughts below.