By Lisa Lickel
A series in five parts. Check back on these dates: Seeing vs. Looking - September 5, Touching vs. Feeling – September 24, Hearing vs. Listening - October 15, Smell vs. Aroma – October 24, Taste vs. Flavor - Nov 12
Aristotle, that great Macedonian philosopher, 384-322 BC, is credited with developing the theory of five human senses during his focus on biology and psychology.
Why five? I compare this concept to the periodic table of elements: purism. Each element stands alone. I have no way of visualizing anything without physically looking at it. Even if I imagine an object, I must have some prior experience to arrange the information in my mind. How do blind or deaf people understand their world? Such people have concepts based on how their other senses work together to create a unique perception. If I feel vibrations, does that translate to an auditory experience? Can I understand the concept of soft or hard by any other means than touch? Taste and smell are somewhat joined, but each is unique and stands alone.
A debate is ongoing whether to add to these five. Pain, Temperature, Motions of various types, Depth, Balance, Magnetic pull, even Extrasensory, Compassion, and that elusive Sixth sense – Intuition, are all candidates. Then there are the other odd categories of those with mixed-up senses: some visualize accompanied by a particular odor, or hear a tone that is deeply associated with a color or a scent. These unusual Synesthetes can make for particularly interesting character traits. Another aspect of the conversation around known senses stems from communal understanding. “Green” is the same all over the world. “Salty,” “Hot,” “Smoke,” may not have the same names in any language, but are culturally translatable perceptions. Someone once asked in a workshop whether the meaning of a sense changes if the perception is taught differently. What if what English-speakers know as “white” is “green” to Senegalese? Carrying the concept off-planet for spec and sci-fi writers, the opportunity to develop other senses or ways to communicate are endless. I tried to pick a few scenes from some of my favorite shows and books to illustrate this concept, but it would take too long. If you’d like to share, though, in the comments section, that would be excellent.
Adding all the stimuli we receive, building upon our remembered experiences, and our reactions create perception. Most of you are familiar with the story of the blind men describing an elephant after touching one part of it. It’s common knowledge that if four people witness an accident, there will be several different variations of the event, depending on the perception of each witness. Layering your writing with different senses gives the reader unique insights to your work. Each reader has his or her own action/reaction to particular stimuli, and if you can leave enough ambiguity or create the right recipe of sensation, your story becomes more than a quick read or listen, but a perfect storm of reaction that will stay long after the last page.
Clipart provided by Classroomclipart
I’ll use this scene from my upcoming book to flesh out the concept. Here is the scene stripped of most of the sensory details. With each post, I’ll add the layer of the sense we’re discussing.
A few References for more information:
READER QUESTION: Which sense is the least important to you and why?