Could balance be considered a sixth sense?
August 14, 2006 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Could balance be considered a sixth sense?

A friend and I recently got into an argument regaring balance and whether or not it could be considered as a sixth sense.

I need some academic writings that back up the idea of balance as a sixth sense. The paper could also include other senses as well.

He just doesn't seem to believe me no matter what points I give him. Even when I give him examples such as, how do you walk without seeing, he still stand behind the idea that he could walk without balance, something which I know is completely untrue.

I need some good proof so go at it!
posted by bd to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia says balance is a sense (along with sight etc.)

There is also proprioception, which is basically how you know where you are in space, relative to yourself.
posted by gaspode at 11:30 AM on August 14, 2006

I think the term you're looking for is "kinethetics", and it involves a knowledge of body positioning, and motion, outside the realm of simple "touch".
posted by blue_beetle at 11:30 AM on August 14, 2006

A word that could help you out is proprioception
posted by soma lkzx at 11:31 AM on August 14, 2006

Oliver Sacks argues that it is. IIRC, he has a piece in this book about a woman who loses that sense and how she learns to manage without it.
posted by rottytooth at 11:32 AM on August 14, 2006

oh I fucked up my proprioception link, it's the wikipedia one like soma lkzx's.
posted by gaspode at 11:32 AM on August 14, 2006

wikipedia is not a valid source according to my friend...i need something from academia
posted by bd at 11:33 AM on August 14, 2006

There are about 26 senses including your basic five, balance, thermoperception etc. This was a question on QI quite a while back. I do not have a list of the full breakdown of that 26 however as I am currently playing Guitar Hero at full volume in my office and eating a hot dog.
posted by longbaugh at 11:34 AM on August 14, 2006 [5 favorites]

Perhaps a better question is "Where did the notion of only five sense come from?" The ancient Greeks (Aristotle, I think) who came up with the idea chose only the most obvious external senses. Since then, scientists have added a number of other senses - balance, pain, movement, etc. - that are very obvious and fairly well-defined.

It's kind of like the argument about Pluto, in that nature doesn't fall into the easy categories we humans like to create. Claiming there are only "FIVE SENSES" and the rest are somehow subordinate is a silly thing to do in the first place.
posted by mediareport at 11:37 AM on August 14, 2006

In short, your friend is being overly rigid in clinging to an ancient, arbitrary definition of what a "sense" is.
posted by mediareport at 11:38 AM on August 14, 2006

Your friend is indeed misled. For my students who seem to cling to the "five senses" belief, I ask them which one they are using when they feel a headache. This seems to convince most people you've got more than five.
posted by ontic at 11:46 AM on August 14, 2006

Does you friend need this sixth sense to be tied definitively to biology?

If so I know there was a paper that showed certain mutations can have effects on both hearing and balance (can't link but if you type vestibular organ and balance into google scholar, I imagine you'll find it)
posted by Eudaimonia at 11:51 AM on August 14, 2006

The key distinction is internal vs external senses. Your body has a massive amount of internal sensing mechanisms, far, far more than your mind is aware of at any time. By contrast, you only have a handful of external senses, and those are fairly closely tied to the physical ability of those senses.

There's a bit of wiggle room, but that helps narrow down the argument quite a bit.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:59 AM on August 14, 2006

In short, your friend is being overly rigid in clinging to an ancient, arbitrary definition of what a "sense" is.

I suggest you cease this friendship immediately. However, if you insist on keeping ties with this so called "friend," perhaps this will help:

The primary organ of balance (equilibrium) in the human body is located in the inner ear. The fluid-filled inner ear serves as both the sense organ for spatial orientation and head movement, as well as hearing. The inner ear is the body's gyroscope, telling the brain at all times where the head is in space. The balance portion of the inner ear is referred to as the labyrinth or vestibular system. It consists of three semi-circular canals, and other structures in each ear. It is the movement of the fluid through these canals which constantly informs the brain as to the direction and the speed at which the head is moving in.

This is why you get carsick: your eyes perceive that you aren't moving (if you restrict your vision to inside the car) while your inner ear says you are. Your eyes and inner ear fight about it to the point that your stomach gets them both to shut up by puking all over the nice bucket seats. This is exactly how I learned it.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 12:07 PM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

This was a question on QI quite a while back.

From the QI forums, a producer of the show responds:
Aristotle proposed five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Modern physiologists subdivide the "touch" category into "tacticion", the sense of pressure perception, which is really what Aristotle was talking about, but also "thermoception", the sense of heat, "nociception", the perception of pain, and "equilibrioception", the perception of balance. Some add "proprioception", the perception of body awareness (eg if you close your eyes and move your hand about you continue to know where it is even though it isn't being perceived by any of the traditional senses). There are other candidates, eg the senses of hunger and thirst, and direction, so that the number suggested varies between 9 and 21.

There are also senses which some animals have but we don't: "electroception" detects electric fields, "magnetoception" detects magnetic fields and is used in avian navigation systems, "echolocation", the "lateral line" used by fish to sense pressure, and infra-red vision.
posted by Robot Johnny at 12:11 PM on August 14, 2006

As others have pointed out, there are plenty more senses than the traditional five that are backed up by research. Which of these is the "sixth" sense is a matter of semantics and classification.
posted by randomstriker at 12:45 PM on August 14, 2006

You can also add additonal senses, like electroreception, thanks to modern medicine and cutting edge body modification techniques:
With a magnet implanted in the skin, the body would be able to detect electromagnetic fields. In response to EM fields that magnet—implanted in the ring finger—would move ever so slightly and stimulate the nerves in the finger. Any kind of a EM field could be felt in the finger by a tingling sensation—speakers, hard drives, refrigerators, etc.

posted by squink at 2:15 PM on August 14, 2006

Balance is an combination of the senses hearing and touch. Pain is a part of the nervous system, and is connected to touch as well. Not sure why you guys are wanting to add more than five senses. Isn't that enough?
posted by ZachsMind at 2:29 PM on August 14, 2006

Hearing has no relation to balance. Just because it's in the ear doesn't mean it has to do with hearing.

To put it another way... What about proprioception? -- how is knowing where your limbs are (even if you're deaf, blind, have a plugged nose and have no body parts are touching each other, and are presumably therefore not tasting your limbs) covered by one of the five traditional senses?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:07 PM on August 14, 2006

This is why you get carsick: your eyes perceive that you aren't moving (if you restrict your vision to inside the car) while your inner ear says you are.

To back this up: I had an infection which affected my inner ear. I had trouble walking even though I could see just fine. But I had lost my sense of balance. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like walking on a boat that was swaying madly even though I was on solid ground.
posted by vacapinta at 3:36 PM on August 14, 2006

I've always thought about it in term of what the senses are actually detecting (eyes -> electromagnetic radiation, ears -> pressure waves in the air, nose -> aromatic molecules). By this token, I would describe balance/the inner ear as detecting acceleration - which is mostly in the up direction (due to gravity). But imagine you're in a car with all other senses blocked - you could still feel it braking, cornering etc. because your inner ear is sensing the acceleration.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:56 AM on August 15, 2006

"The semicircular canals detect angular acceleration. There are 3 canals, corresponding to the three dimensions in which you move, so that each canal detects motion in a single plane^."

These canals are also known as vestibules.

Another reference here.

Here is more info on what can go wrong with them, and consequqntly, one's sense of balance. The last link has references to a number of academic sources.
posted by owhydididoit at 11:24 PM on August 25, 2006

posted by owhydididoit at 11:24 PM on August 25, 2006

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