Examples of senses used in the pursuit of expertise
September 17, 2019 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Polytalented professionals of MetaFilter, what is something specific that you discover, detect, discern, diagnose or deduce through a sense.

How do you use your senses (any and all welcome). If possible, specific examples would be fantastic. For example, perhaps a mechanic may know that there is X problem with Y engine via Z sound, more so than ‘a sommelier can use smell to identify flavours’ (but I will take any and all sense based deduction tips, including those you learned about tobacco ash from Holmes).
posted by infinite intimation to Science & Nature (44 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Teachers know “good” and “bad” quiet in a classroom (working quiet versus lost/confused quiet). Another common thing is when walking around the room talking to place a hand on the shoulder/back of a student who is disengaged or rowdy. It makes them feel “seen”
posted by raccoon409 at 12:39 PM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

I can tell when rain is due if I can hear a blackbird (turdus merula) calling. There's something about the tone... I used it yesterday; I was doing a forest assessment and someone walked by and said "it's gonna rain very soon" and I was like I've got at least two hours'.

Sense of the size\'bigness' of a space through knowing my own dimensions. Pretty essential in my work as it saves carry measuring gear. But I think we all do this sort of thing 'instinctively' - how many times have you squeezed your car between two other vehicles 'knowing' there was room, even when it was inches only?

and more sixthy senses:

A sense for untrustworthy individuals, even at a distance of a 100 metres, i.e. at first sight and when I know nothing about them, I have specific cases of this where I ignored it and found out the hard way. Now I just go with my body.
posted by unearthed at 12:42 PM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

I used to be a whitewater raft guide and kayak instructor. You can learn to "read" water through a combination of senses: how it looks (from above, the side, from your boat, from higher up, from a range of angles) and how it sounds (rapids can sound gigantic from the noise above, but you learn that loud water isn't necessarily the hardest water). People who fish learn to read different things in the water (for example, they are looking for calmer bits of water where the fish might be, rather than as a spot to rest in a boat).

Also as a whitewater person: you hear the rain in a different way. If you wake up and hear the rain outside, you get all tingly with excitement because it means the river is higher. Long-time guides who hear a big storm at night wake up knowing what parts of the river might be different from the day before.

You also know that a muddy/darker river is higher. It's not dirty or polluted; it just means that some dirt has washed it as the river went higher on banks. So a muddy river might be a good sign, too.

I haven't been on whitewater in years and I still look at rivers quite differently than folks who have never paddled.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:45 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can smell acetoacetate (specific ketone-not everyone can). Sometimes at work I just have to smell a patient and I know they are producing ketones which can identify one of several Pathologies (diabetic ketoacidosis/alcoholic ketoacidosis) that do that. I can tell when my kiddo is sick too because she throws ketones as soon as she gets viral illness (easy to know if she’s faking ;-) ).
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2019 [13 favorites]

When I worked in a photo darkroom, I could tell by touch when the water was 68° F.
posted by xo at 1:12 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Trail running, I realized that I listen to the footfalls of the person in front of me (when running with a partner or group, or in a race) as a clue to how muddy or wet the path is, and adjust my foot placement accordingly.

As a barista, steaming milk for espresso drinks, I was taught to keep the steam wand in the frothing pitcher until it was just edging into too hot to touch territory (we still used a thermometer, but could get in the general area this way).
posted by miratime at 1:23 PM on September 17, 2019

When I was a barista, I knew the steamed milk was at the perfect temperature based solely on the sound... No thermometer needed.
posted by Jacob G at 1:24 PM on September 17, 2019 [7 favorites]

I was just at a lecture by a guy (name is escaping me) who worked on restoring steam locomotives. He was taught how to drive them by an old-timer engineer who could run the train with much less fuel and water consumption, and did so primarily by listening to the sound.
posted by janell at 1:42 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I worked in a print shop for five years. Many people could distinguish between most paper type/weights by feel, and a few of us knew all of them just by touch. I didn't realize how much I relied on that until I stripped the skin off my favorite thumb and couldn't rub them between it and my index finger for a while, and it turned out my other hand had no clue. It was also entirely possible to pick out the sounds of individual printers churning away happily/about to jam/faulting out and just dumping blank paper/just finishing up a job, even with all of them going at once. There was also a laminator with a perpetually-faulty heat sensor that would occasionally go into meltdown, and its rubber rollers had a very distinct smell (in my opinion) as they crested 240F or so. Other people missed that odor and only noticed it having a problem when the laminate glue started oozing out the sides (because it'd start running when the heat overwhelmed the control panel, natch -- to be fair, some people did hear the gears start to engage and caught it then), which of course was a total mess and awful to clean. The pine blocks under the drill press also had their own specific sappy smell when someone was drilling into them with the punch instead of just using them as backstops. And it also turned out that I knew when dawn was approaching and would get miserably depressed about an hour before it, no matter what time of year and without paying any particular attention to the clock beyond "this all is due at eight, so I have X hours to get it done." The place really was a sensory delight.
posted by teremala at 1:43 PM on September 17, 2019 [11 favorites]

Also: I use touch to determine meat doneness when grilling.
posted by janell at 1:43 PM on September 17, 2019

Maybe this is too obvious, but the best way to know which songbird species are in an area is to listen for them. If you can identify bird songs and calls you can walk through the woods and tell what birds live there without seeing a single one. People surveying for marbled murrelets are listening as much as watching. Spotted owl surveys are all listening; same with ruffed grouse drumming surveys.
posted by Redstart at 1:44 PM on September 17, 2019

While handling acetate motion picture film at work, I can smell when it's developing "vinegar syndrome"--a form of deterioration in which the film gives off acetic acid. Catching even the slightest whiff of vinegar tells me to tag the can so it can go to the preservation coordinators to have its level of vinegar syndrome officially measured with test strips.

I can also tell diacetate motion picture film (an older acetate stock) by its distinctive camphor-like smell.
posted by theatro at 1:46 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

As a naturalist-nerd, I try to very keenly aware of what insects and spiders are active, along with what wildflowers are currently in bloom, the result of which is that I can usually tell when and where something was filmed if there are any exterior shots at all (assuming they shot anywhere in the Southeast US).

Another one: forty-plus years of living in the South, and when I hear a Southern accent, I can usually place the state pretty quickly, and when I was really good, the specific part of the state.
posted by jquinby at 1:58 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Audio engineering is obviously full of this sort of stuff. An experienced live sound engineer can equalize a room by listening to the impulse response (basically the reverb from a percussive sound like a hand clap or going 'chk chk chk' into the microphone. Many of my colleagues could probably identify certain codecs and bitrates just by listening for specific artifacts in a recording. Experienced musicians can tell certain instruments, drum machines, etc just from the sound.
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:00 PM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

Cooking is full of this stuff. For one example, the sound of frying calamari changes pitch when it's done. Meat temping is very much by touch, whether it be with my hands or tongs. I can smell if your pan is too hot or if your onions have started to cross the line between caramelized and just barely burnt. Oil is hot enough when it has the right shimmer.
posted by Grandysaur at 2:06 PM on September 17, 2019 [9 favorites]

Lots of this in archaeology. Bone and antler stick to the tongue for example, most wood and stone don’t. Stone makes a tink sensation when you tap it on your front teeth while other substances really don’t. The texture of the soil is much more informative than its color, generally speaking.
posted by Rumple at 2:21 PM on September 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

Using CNC tools for milling or cutting stuff you absolutely have to pay attention to the sound, because that's how you can tell when something's gone wrong, like the bit broke, or a chunk of material came loose or it's cutting deeper than it's supposed to or whatever.
posted by aubilenon at 2:30 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m a professional writer and editor. Once I’m exposed to another writer’s work a few times, I can tell who the author is without looking at the name. I’m also exceptionally skilled at picking up on plagiarism because I can spot where tone and cadence changes within a piece of content or when a writer suddenly doesn’t “sound like themselves.”
posted by _Mona_ at 2:35 PM on September 17, 2019 [12 favorites]

A musician can hear time. When listening to a performance, it's strikingly obvious when tempo goes up or down, or when two or more players are out of synch. *Very* good musicians can listen and determine the tempo in beats-per-minute +/- 1.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:40 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

In fishing, a lot of information regarding what is happening with the lure is transmitted through the line and into the angler's hands. So you can tell if a lure is bouncing along the bottom of the river, or suspended in current, or getting sucked into a fish's mouth.

If a surfboard's fins are out of alignment they will hum or vibrate when traveling down the face of a wave. Surfing generally includes piecing together a lot of sensory information about what a wave is going to do next. Barbarian Days of Surfing has some good descriptions written by a great writer.

Skiing also includes a lot of "touch" sense information, particularly once you're off groomed runs. In deeper snow, your skis are traveling through snow in three dimensions, and they transmit, through your feet, information about snow density and makeup. Touch information about snow is also important for assessing avalanche danger in avalanche terrain. It's common to build snow pits to assess layers in the snow. The presence of a solid, cohesive slab over weak, granular snow is a recipe for an avalanche. There are some tests that will try to look for this strong-over-weak layering, but just touching the layers gives you a lot of information as well.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:47 PM on September 17, 2019

When you review and make changes to proofs on the basis of written editing marks and notes on paper, you start to get a sense of the frame of mind someone was in when they wrote them, and what can and can't be ignored, how serious someone is about an edit, what's optional, etc. There's so much literal reading between the lines. This is somewhat to do with tone, but actually more visual, 'cause you can read it in the way handwriting changes, how the person pressed down on the page (how heavy the ink is), the length of the comment, etc.
posted by limeonaire at 2:50 PM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you lead a lot of meetings, you start to get a sense of openings in conversation, which can be as much about hearing the way someone breathes or breaks off as anything. It's a rhythm thing. You start to get a sense of just how long you have to take notes on what someone said, get an idea, and put down some notes for yourself on how you might respond, then find an opening to jump in. If you subsequently become a speaker on panels, you are then well-positioned to be able to jump in with talking points at those inflections in the discussion. I imagine experienced debaters might be awesome at this as well.
posted by limeonaire at 2:54 PM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

A sommelier can assess probabilities by looking at wine: age, alcohol content, sugar content, grape variety, if the wine was 'fined' /filtered. By smelling, all of the above, plus more likely grape variety, age, region, winemaking practices (use of oak). Finally, tasting confirms and enlarges all of the above, although smell and taste don't always line up (can smell like ripe apples but taste very tart & green). They say we can't smell alcohol (as in, from one wine to the next, not talking about distilled spirits), but I can surely feel it tingle my nose when it's above 13.5 ABV, without tasting. Those monster Zins that clock in at 16% usually give themselves away long before tasting.

There was a big Picasso exhibit a long time ago at LA County Museum, when I finished up I was staring at all the really badly printed books/items in the gift shop. The difference in the reproductions was staggering and sad, I went back into the exhibit because I literally couldn't grasp the point of some of the Cubist paintings unless I saw them in the original. The reproductions were so bad they flattened and distorted even further, there were terrible cyan casts and washed out muddy images everywhere.

I'm rebuilding an old car, when we were able to get it started we could clearly hear that one of the cylinders wasn't firing completely; when we pulled the injectors we were correct as to which one wasn't working fully. We haven't pulled the valve cover yet but when we do I'm interested to see what that looks like.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 3:19 PM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

I can tell when an AskMe answer was written by jessamyn before I scroll down to the "posted by" tag and see her name there.
posted by matildaben at 4:09 PM on September 17, 2019 [28 favorites]

I'm a therapist and through a decade of work and 2 years of a specialized certification, I am very, very good at sensing what other people's nervous systems are doing and what to do in response to help someone else regulate themselves. If a person is heading into fight or flight or shut down, I know it before it happens, and then I use my own senses and system to bring them back into a state of ventral vagal regulation. (It is really, really cool.) Edited just to add: I mainly use my interoceptive sense to do this.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 4:15 PM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

I've had jobs doing light industrial work/packing. When it came to things like say, counting papers in 30 sheets to put into folders, I would quickly get very good at thumbing a chunk of paper from the stack with the right number I needed. A heightened sense of touch that one develops doing very repetitive work for a long period of time.
posted by acidnova at 4:46 PM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is an outstanding AskMe, thanks for asking it. It makes me think of the extensive research I do in the grocery store to get the freshest produce.

Avocados: My fingertips do a very quick run-through of the fruit on display to determine a range of ripeness. I use this to decide how many to buy. If there is a decent range, I will find one for today, one for 2 days from now, and one for 4 days from now.

Oranges: I can smell the gas that citrus produces when it's past its prime. If this smell is present, I determine if it's all the fruit in the display, or just a few bad oranges. I am smelling for a sweet fragrance and a fruit that is heavy for its size. I hardly ever pick dry oranges anymore.

Incidentally, I've noticed this gas smell is also present with bell peppers that are turning. And once I smelled it on a cheese platter!
posted by oxisos at 5:19 PM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I run a shop for students at a university, which means I sometimes need to monitor the condition of the machinery and whether it's being used properly while staring at a computer screen in an adjacent office. Sight and smell are both important. Some sounds are obvious, e.g. chattering noises let me know that material is being fed improperly into a fast-moving blade or abrasive, and a kickback of some sort may be immanent. The motors on big machines are all meant to run at constant speed, so hearing one of them slow down during use means someone is asking too much of it, taking too heavy a cut or feeding material into a blade too quickly. A vaguely smoky smell lets me know a blade is dull and needs to be replaced. The whine of an unloaded ball bearing spinning very fast means someone is pushing material too hard into a bandsaw. It just goes on and on; I can only look in one direction and focus visually on a small area at a time, but I can listen to and smell the whole shop at once.
posted by jon1270 at 5:53 PM on September 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Nobody has mentioned the dozens of new senses you develop as a parent, e.g., distinguishing the "tired" vs. "hungry" cry, knowing 98.6 degrees vs 99.5 degrees by touch, etc.
posted by slidell at 6:49 PM on September 17, 2019 [12 favorites]

I can follow conversations without understanding the language! I had to lead meetings for over a decade where I did not speak or barely spoke the main language and the person translating often had imperfect language in one or two of the languages and there were frequent delays, side-conversations and the subject matters were about family secrets, money, politics, HR issues and other touchy subjects.

The key is to constantly watch the entire body for body language, eyes scanning everyone's face - hands, shoulders, how people are leaning forward and back from the conversation, keeping track of how long sentences are, the tones in what they're being said, listening for some key words and interrupting gently or pointedly to ask for a translation or a question or clarification when needed and to do a lot of circling around and involve everyone. I had to show with my body and face a response to the conversational cues and plausible answers with expressive sounds, even when I didn't fully follow at the moment. Later I'd go over everything that happened to confirm key details, but in the moment it was like a sort of talk-dancing? is the only way I can describe it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:59 PM on September 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

I work in gun violence prevention and live in a neighborhood where both gunshots and fireworks are common, and I can tell the difference based on - um - the sound version of an aftertaste? Hard to explain but I’m almost always right.

I can tell when my stovetop moka pot has started making actual coffee by the sound, long before it boils. Same with roasting sliced potatoes - I can hear when they’re almost done.

I judge how much more I should trim the bottom of a pot by the pitch and hollowness of the sound it makes when I tap on it, and I can tell if a fired piece has a crack by the sound.

I can tell if my kid has a fever, even a slightly elevated temperature, by kissing her forehead. It doesn’t work with other touch.

This is a great question! I would’ve guessed my most telling senses would be smell or taste, but other than being really good at reverse engineering recipes, they’re mostly sound. Might be relevant that I played the oboe and had to tune the orchestra as a kid...?
posted by centrifugal at 7:38 PM on September 17, 2019

I can keep quite accurate track of how much time has gone by (1 min, 5 mins, 10 mins, 20 mins), as long as I noted the starting moment. This comes from working as an art model, where the vast majority of poses involve standing/sitting still for the above specific intervals. 20 minutes is a particularly common interval. After years of posing, I know exactly when 20 minutes have elapsed - even if I zoned out or started paying attention to something else, it's as if an internal alarm goes off in my head at the designated time.
posted by danceswithlight at 11:57 PM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I could tell by sound and skin whether a CRT was turned on anywhere in my vicinity, and as I worked in television this came in quite handy when staring at a collection of cameras (with CRT viewfinders) or a wall of seemingly-off screens trying to tell whether they were really off -- I could easily tell whether any were on, and know with 100% certainty which one(s). I could also hear and feel if any had an unstable video signal, even without seeing them (such as when I was working camera and a teleprompter stopped working.)

The ubiquitous nature of non-CRT televisions these days has done wonders for my well-being.
posted by davejay at 12:23 AM on September 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

Some people can easily detect micro-expressions - very fast/fleeting changes in people's faces/body language when they're lying or hedging on the truth. It's a apparently a trainable skill, too. I heard about it originally on this Ted talk; her book was equally fascinating.
posted by jquinby at 11:54 AM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I work with a lot of nurses who say they can tell by smell if a patient has c.diff. I never, ever want to have this skill.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:54 PM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am very good at sensing direction but this only came to be after I learned to fly in my late teens. I have discovered that there are certain areas, such as Spokane, WA, that cause my sense of direction to be off by 90°. I have no idea why but it is persistent.

If it is a piston-driven propeller craft, I can tell by the sound what general model of aircraft is flying overhead. Similarly, I can tell what model of helicopter—whether turbine or piston—is approaching or flying over. With the helicopters, I can often distinguish between the variants of the same model.

I can often identify a specific car by the sound it makes as it is starting—the engagement of the starter motor, the speed of the starting spin, etc., are distinct. Older cars are more distinct sounding when starting than are newer cars.

I can drive to within one mile an hour of the speed limit in almost any vehicle without looking at the speedometer—and I drive a different vehicle almost every day.

Telling the time within 5 minutes or so is something I used to be good at. Since I began regularly wearing a watch, this sense/skill has diminished. My older brother was similarly good at this and we used to challenge each other on guessing the exact time. Even now, if I awaken at night I will play a game with myself guessing the time before I open my eyes and look at the clock and I am usually with 15 minutes or so.

I can often tell what brand of piano is being played as long as they haven't been radically re-voiced. Particularly Steinway and especially Yamaha although I can usually identify a vintage Mason & Hammond or Scale 123 Chickering. Older Kawaiis are especially easy to distinguish as their tone is darker.

I am shit at distinguishing color.
posted by bz at 4:29 PM on September 18, 2019

I've been scanning and color-correcting color negative film and, lemme tell ya, I'm starting to see color casts and overwrought color grading everywhere. Like don't even try to show me a superhero movie these days. I also have a decent sense of what a shutter should sound like at 1/125 shutter speed.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:06 AM on September 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

That color-correcting one reminds me of how after you've corrected the tracking, line-spacing, kerning, and hyphenation settings on enough proofs, you'll never be able to not see it when someone has set up an InDesign document with default settings. I started looking at a friend's proof a while back and I was like, oh dear, let me fix this for you... He had no idea the subtleties of document setup he was missing. It looked like something when I got to it, but afterward, it looked like a book.
posted by limeonaire at 12:09 PM on September 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Bartender. I can see and feel the difference between 1 ounce of liquid and 1.25 ounces of liquid in glass containers of various weights. I also might not be listening, but I can hear everything you're saying from some distance away.
posted by ZaneJ. at 4:02 AM on September 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Similar to oxisos with their citrus (and I know exactly the smell you mean!), I can smell when a bag of salad leaves is on the turn or a loaf of bread is about to go mouldy, before there's any visible indication of either. I don't know if that's true of everyone.

Unfamiliar bird calls really stand out to me; over the years they've helped me spot my first kingfisher, turtle dove, lapwings, corn buntings and more. I may not know what I'm hearing, but I know I don't recognise it, and that's enough to stop me in my tracks so I can cast about for a glimpse of the bird. Relaxing birdsong recordings can therefore have the effect of making me more alert! Once I do know what a bird sounds like, I'll still look for it, but I already know it's there, so it's OK if I can't see it.

(But I did spend one episode of Silent Witness frustrated that not one character was reacting at all to the beautiful, haunting cry of a curlew as they investigated a murder at the water's edge.)

More related to my work (software development with a front-end focus), a visual thing: a typo is jarring to me, and stands out from the text around it in much the same way that a rough spot on a polished table stands out to your fingertips. I'll often actually flinch when I see one. Sadly, this doesn't save me from creating my own.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:26 PM on September 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

ManyLeggedCreature, I have that typo thing too. For me, though, it's nothing to do with my work; I've had it since I was a child. Could do it with the newspaper and I know my grandpa could too. One of those skills that used to be eminently marketable and now is more of a parlor trick.
posted by potrzebie at 11:09 PM on September 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Many plants turn from glossy to dull when they are under drought stress, even before they start to wilt. I lift potted plants all day to sense how much water is in the root ball, calibrating ococcasionally by feeling soil temperature and looking at the color of the peat moss at all layers of the root ball.
posted by gray17 at 10:45 AM on September 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Silt feels gritty between tongue and roof of the mouth.
Clay looks the same but doesn't have that grittiness.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:07 PM on September 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Flying is interesting because at a certain level you have to deliberately ignore what your body is telling you. If you're in the clouds, it's not uncommon to get "the leans" where your inner ear is telling you the plane is turning but all the instruments say you're flying straight and level. You must resist what your body is insisting is happening. On the other hand, your senses can be important for diagnosing certain problems. You learn to tell by sound and feel when the spark plugs are fouled or the fuel-air mixture is too rich. I can tell pretty much immediately if the engine will start or not when it's cold. It's also very easy to feel differences in weight and balance - carrying passengers feels a lot different than when I'm alone, mostly in the amount of force required to manipulate the controls but also something else more ineffable that's difficult to describe.

I've also gotten very good at picking out airports from the air from very far away. There's a certain look of the break in the surrounding environment that screams "runway" even if all you see is a slight color difference in the trees.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

« Older If it was the right decision, why does it feel so...   |   The Most Boring Girl in Las Vegas Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.