Question: how many senses do we have? The short answer: it depends.
A “sense” is not a closely defined term in the scientific world. One definition, “a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus”, would seem pretty good – but it’s also vague. The five senses that are traditionally taught don’t cover nearly everything within that definition. And there are also things we can perceive within our own bodies that don’t quite map to “external stimulus”, but that seem like they might count as senses as well.
So keep reading, and we’ll have a long answer.
How Many Senses Do We Have?
The Traditional Five
Sight / Touch / Hearing / Smell / Taste
These are the traditional five senses that most people are familiar with. These five map clearly and conveniently to distinct organs within the body – eyes, skin, ears, nose, and tongue. Some of the other senses feel like they should fit within or under these headings, and others feel completely foreign to this set. The majority of sensory input probably maps pretty closely with these.
Other External Senses
Proprioception is sense of the position of one’s own parts of the body. Even in a pitch black room, the average person would be able to touch their finger to the tip of their nose without guessing or missing.
Balance, or equilibrioception, is sensed by organs within the inner ear. Part of sensing balance is sensing gravity, as well as acceleration and direction.
Humans can also sense temperature via specialized receptors in the skin. This might sometimes be grouped with “touch” as one of the traditional five senses. It’s known as thermoception when considered a unique sense.
Another sense sometimes grouped with touch, known as nociception, is the sense of pain. But pain is a complicated experience, and it intertwines with other senses in a way that can be tough to untangle. The human body has more than one type of pain receptor, and different types of pain can seem very different.
There are also all kinds of internal sensations we can detect that don’t map perfectly to the traditional five senses. Some examples: hunger, suffocation, the feeling of your heart racing, the sensation of being full, the sensation of needing to use the bathroom. These don’t quite work out to be touch, and seem very specialized compared to the “main” senses. Most of these do map to specific receptors and organs in the body.
There are also sensations we can’t really map to any specific organ or feeling. The sensation of time passing is an example of this. It could be an amalgamation of other sensory input in some ways, but it could be a separate sense as well. It’s hard to define precisely.
If you’re interested in the human senses, you might like our quizzes on Anatomy. Alternately you might be more interested in the animals that have totally different senses than ours – everything from echolocation to electroception!