4 Under-Appreciated Senses

The Vestibular Sense, Proprioception, Thermoception, and Nociception

The sense of balance. GettyImages

Most people are familiar with the five senses: taste, hearing, smell, touch, and sight.

Our senses gather information about our external world and even our internal body to influence our perception.  This information is complex and there is loads of it—much of it we never consciously register; instead, is processed intuitively.

Today, I wanted to recognize four sense that go underappreciated because they do not fit within the 5 commonly observed senses.

Appreciation of our senses beyond the five commonly known categories can give us a broader understanding of the work our body is constantly undertaking to inform us about the world and our place in it.

Knowledge of the basic function of our under-appreciated senses is also extremely valuable for when these senses become compromised.  For example, occupational therapists often work with impaired senses, whether with people who have suffered a stroke or a child with sensory processing disorder.

Vestibular Sense

The sense of balance

The vestibular sense gives you a sense of balance. The receptors for this sense let you know what direction your body is moving in relation to gravity. If you’ve ever spun quickly in a circle and then had difficulty walking in a straight line, you have experienced an overloading of your vestibular sense.

The receptors for the vestibular sense are located in the inner ear.

Some diseases specifically impact the inner ear leaving the patient with a sense of extreme vertigo.


The sense of where your body is space

Sir Charles Bell called proprioception the “sixth sense,” and while it isn’t quite as exciting as seeing dead people, it is still an amazing sense. Proprioception is an awareness of where your body is in space.

If you close your eyes, you still have a sense of where your arms and legs are. You can even probably reach out and precisely grab an object next to you. In addition to our vision tracking where we are, we have receptors in our joints, major muscles, and the skin that all work together to gather information about your position.

This sense can be impaired by neurological disorders, most notably by a stroke. For example, a person who has suffered a stroke may lose their sense of proprioception on one part of their body. They will then have to check visually where their arm is in space, so they do not sit on it or get their hand caught in something.


The sense of temperature

Your body has receptors to help you sense hot and cold. While this sense is linked our sense of touch, thermoception is distinct from it with it’s own set of receptors. Many of the receptors do lie in your skin, but we also have receptors in our body that tell us about our own body heat and help our bodies regulate our body temperature.

This sense can also be compromised, for example, cancer patients with peripheral neuropathy may experience this sense being lessened along with other senses related to touch. There are also stories of people losing the sense of cold after being struck by lightning.


The sense of pain

Pain also at first glance may seem to be simply an extension of touch, but it is so much more complex than that. There are pain receptors throughout your body, not only your skin but also throughout your insides as well (gut-ache anyone?) There are three different kinds of pain receptors. Mechanical pain receptors alert you to any pain that is inflicted physically, for example, from rolling your ankle or getting whacked with a bat. There are also temperature pain receptors that alert you to extreme heat or cold. Lastly, there are chemical receptors, which are triggered by your body’s own chemicals, for example when inflammation occurs you may feel an ache along with it.

Like all of the other senses, this specific sense can be impaired. Some neurological diseases cause your sense of pain to be dulled. There is also a rare genetic disorder, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis that impedes the person’s ability to feel pain. 

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