Alien senses
September 26, 2007 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to put together a list of senses other than the big human five...

I want to explore the idea (in writing) of an alien species which has none of the typical 'five senses', and instead has a totally different set. I'm looking for weird senses in every kind of organism, and also, if possible, other human senses besides the main five (which I believe I remember reading about at some point).
posted by showbiz_liz to Science & Nature (32 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The duck-billed platypus detects small electric shocks with its bill to determine how far away a given object (usually a mollusk) is from its head. It's like the platypus can feel its distance from something.
Looking for a link....and....there ya go.

posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:37 PM on September 26, 2007

Proprioception is generally considered to be the "6th" human sense. It's your ability to tell where all the parts of your body are, how your limbs are oriented, etc.
posted by vytae at 1:39 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Wikipedia Sense article has quite a few examples beyond the classical five.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:39 PM on September 26, 2007

Sensing electromagnetic fields.
posted by moonlet at 1:39 PM on September 26, 2007

Also, infrared perception might be interesting. It's technically just another form of vision that uses a different part of the light spectrum, but what it amounts to is "seeing" heat.
posted by vytae at 1:41 PM on September 26, 2007

This section of the Wikipedia article might be particularly helpful.
posted by ND¢ at 1:41 PM on September 26, 2007

Weakly electric fish produce electric fields and sense the distortions in them for navigation.

There has been speculation that mammals and birds can detect magnetic fields. Here is a guy (bloody photographs) who had a magnet implanted in his finger to enable him to do this.

Here's a Wired article with some more examples (magnetism/turtles, polarized light/sunfish, ultrasonic echolocation/bats).
posted by beniamino at 1:44 PM on September 26, 2007

posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2007

Lateral Line. I'm not sure what the 'sense' is called, but it's distinctly unique from any human sense.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 2:02 PM on September 26, 2007

Some of the answers in this previous thread may help.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:02 PM on September 26, 2007

Most fish have a "lateral line" which is like our sense of touch but gives lots more information about things moving around them, like whether they are moving towards or away, how big they are, etc.

Don't forget the possibility of the traditional five senses being tuned to a range imperceptable to us. i.e. ultraviolet vision, infrasonic hearing, ultra-sensitive touch and, of course, Vulcan sense of smell.
posted by OlderThanTOS at 2:05 PM on September 26, 2007

What about senses that use some of the same inputs but interpret it in a wildly different way? Take hearing, for instance. What we call "sound" or "noise" is really created by oscillations in the air (my non-scientific, non-technical way of putting it). Maybe an alien species can use that information to, say, detect what materials something is made of (something we might use vision and touch for) but they won't use it to "hear" in the way that we do. Maybe they wouldn't even communicate "verbally" as a result, their "mouth" would be a patch that "changes color" (or, emits different frequency light waves) and language could be a sequence of color shifts (or wave patterns) that they would somehow detect. Just a thought.
posted by lou at 2:05 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Brillat-Savarin in Physiology of Taste that 'physical love' is a sense. Link.
posted by Paragon at 2:09 PM on September 26, 2007

Echolocation? Really though, aesthetic sense is a sense that most people seem to be lacking. I mean really, how could you wear those shoes with THAT?
posted by fnerg at 2:09 PM on September 26, 2007

The vomeronasal organ gives some animals, including housecats, an auxiliary sense of smell, with different sensitivity to different things than the sense of smell from the olfactory epithelium. As to whether they experience it differently, and whether it should count as a separate sense, you'd have to ask them.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:34 PM on September 26, 2007

I've often thought about this. I think that of the senses listed on the wikipedia page only electroception and magnetoception seem to qualify as different in kind from human senses. Everything else seems to be an aspect of the senses we already take for granted. Pain and temperature for example seem like aspects of touch. Same with echolocation. Humans do this too, just not with the same clarity. Even if we couldn't, it's still an aspect of the sense of sound. Same with bees perceiving ultraviolet light. It's still vision.

It's difficult to conceive of a sense without being able to perceive it. Oliver Sacks talks about this in his book An Anthropologist on Mars in the case of a patient (an artist) who had lost the ability to perceive or even conceive of the concept of color. Or of an adult patient given the sense of vision after many years of blindness.

Maybe qualities that we infer such or truthfulness or reticence or loyalty or evil would be interesting to perceive more directly as senses. Studying autism might help to identify aspects of human behavior that most people take for granted. Physical qualities that might be interesting to perceive rather than infer might include origin, age, or degree of sustainability. Dogs can be trained to perceive the onset of a seizure, and I remember reading about a cat that recognized impending patient deaths by curling up in front of the person. These are undoubtably inferences on their part rather than senses, but they appear to us as senses (maybe conincidences in the case of the cat).

Another way to get at this might be to identify physical phenomenon in the world (like wavelengths of light in the case of vision) that we're not currently doing anything with and imagine what might happen if we could. Basically anything we use a machine to perceive. Like a Geiger counter for nuclear radiation. That could be a sense.
posted by Jeff Howard at 2:44 PM on September 26, 2007

Many species spread viruses between each other, or parasite on each other. These could be adapted as a form of communication.

There are half-measures too - touch, hearing and smell may be ordinary but different when there are whiskers and claws, differently shaped ears.

Remember pheromones - that's why polite dogs smell arses and piss-trees rather than shaking hands.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2007

I like lou's and Zed_Lopez's ideas--like using a hyper sense of "smell" that allowed the being to locate items via small particle trajectory or possibly could communicate with very complex scents as an output.

Or location by sensing the minute gravitational pull small items have.
posted by eralclare at 2:52 PM on September 26, 2007

You've heard of the basic tastes discernible by the human tongue, right? Salt, Sour, Sweet, Bitter ... but I bet you've never heard of Umami.

Umami is a Japanese word meaning "savory" or "meaty" and thus applies to the sensation of savoriness—specifically, to the detection of glutamates, which are especially common in meats, cheese and other protein-heavy foods. The action of umami receptors explains why foods treated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) often taste fuller.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:04 PM on September 26, 2007

What about senses that use some of the same inputs but interpret it in a wildly different way?

Actually humans can do that too.
posted by TwoWordReview at 3:06 PM on September 26, 2007

Smelling different wavelengths of light?
posted by Thorzdad at 3:13 PM on September 26, 2007

I'm surprised no one said Spidey-sense.
Or precognition.
posted by puddleglum at 3:20 PM on September 26, 2007

in western thought, humans have 5 senses...but in Buddhism, there is a sixth sense (=intellect) because the mind is considered a sense organ. sense sphere (ayatana). So I suppose its a matter of perception.
posted by hazel at 3:23 PM on September 26, 2007

It might be useful to think about the fundamentals behind our senses, and how those fundamentals might be tweaked.

Sight: electromagnetic waves
Hearing: compression waves in air
Taste: molecular receptor
Smell: molecular receptor
Feel: physical contact (electromagnetics again)

So perhaps a fictional alien race might have the ability to sense:

Streams of particles besides photons: alpha particles, neutrons, electrons
The other fundamental interactions: gravitation, strong and weak forces
Chemical, magnetic, electrical gradients in air or liquid
The polarity of light

For more inspiration, consider modern analytical tools (pdfs 1, 2) as examples of ways to monitor the world around us.
posted by Mapes at 4:10 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Another previous thread that may be useful.
posted by rob511 at 4:16 PM on September 26, 2007

It is thought that a small number of people (all women) are "tetrachromatic." They actually sense two different kinds of green. From their perspective, the rest of us are colorblind.
posted by adamrice at 4:17 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

According to NPR, a researcher has found evidence that birds actually see magnetic fields. With their eyes.
posted by thinman at 4:37 PM on September 26, 2007

I often consider my sense of balance to be the most important one... Wouldn't accomplish much if i kept tipping over :)
posted by clord at 5:12 PM on September 26, 2007

lou, there's a story by H. Beam Piper that uses this concept. A race of aliens experienced sound physically, with some sounds being pleasurable and others painful. The best part of the story to me was the efforts of the humans to learn to communicate with them. No Star Trek universal translator available.

Can't remember the title though. :(
posted by happyturtle at 11:23 PM on September 26, 2007

"Vision" with polarized light would be very strange to the human experience.

Some examples:
- Light is most frequently polarized by scattering, in the atmosphere, by reflection off of surfaces like water and roads, particularly.
- Mechanical stresses in metals often show up under polarized light, such a species might be intuitive mechanics and architects, even if they're non-sentient, like ants.
- Biological molecules also preferentially absorb and scatter certain types of polar light---it could be very useful for telling if something was organic or not, perhaops even if it were animal or plant. Natural camoflage might be a lot harder, especially for plants. Polarized light vision might be a real advantage for something like a cow or an elephant. They could see plants more easily and more easily spot lurking preditors. Maybe.
posted by bonehead at 6:54 AM on September 27, 2007

Alligators can sense things entering the water with special sensory bumps along their jaws. I heard about this recently (on NPR, perhaps?), but found this BBC article which also discusses it.
posted by SomePerlGeek at 1:09 PM on September 27, 2007

happyturtle's H. Beam Piper story is "Naudsonce."

This, while only tangentially related to this thread, is totally awesome.
posted by steef at 6:33 PM on October 1, 2007

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