The Science of the Senses: How We Experience the World
Our five senses—sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell—fuel our experience of the world. Not only is understanding how each of these senses works beneficial for gaining a better sense of our environment, but getting to know how our senses interact and work together helps to reinforce the idea that understanding the science of our senses can enhance our experience of the world around us. In this article, we’ll explore the science behind each of our senses and how they work together to give us the full sensory experience.
The Sense of Sight
The first of our five senses is sight. Sight is enabled by the eyes, which are organs consisting of specialized photoreceptor cells. These photoreceptor cells detect the particles of light called photons and convert them into electrical signals that are sent to the visual cortex, a part of the brain located at the back of the head. The visual cortex, in turn, uses these signals to create a representation of what our eyes are seeing. The light particles that reach the retina of our eye activate the photoreceptors, which then convert them into electrical signals. This process is known as phototransduction and is the basis of how our eyes work and how we gain our sense of sight.
The Sense of Touch
Our sense of touch begins with the nerves in our skin, which are responsible for transmitting sensations from the outside world to our brain. When an object touches our skin, it causes the nerves in our skin to send electrical signals to our brain, where they are then interpreted. Our sense of touch is composed of two special types of receptors located in our skin—mechanoreceptors and thermoreceptors. Mechanoreceptors detect any force or pressure on our skin, while thermoreceptors detect changes in temperature. These two types of receptors work together to help us detect and process physical touch.
The Sense of Hearing
Our sense of hearing relies on our ears, which pick up sound waves and turn them into signals that can be interpreted by our brain. Our ears are composed of specialized organs called the cochlea and the vestibular system. The cochlea works by detecting sound waves and converting them into electrical signals, which are then sent to the brain and interpreted as sound. The vestibular system helps provide balance and orientation to our body. Together, these two systems work together to help us process sounds.
The Sense of Taste
Our sense of taste is largely enabled by our taste buds, which are located in our mouth and tongue. Each taste bud contains taste receptors that are sensitive to the four basic tastes—bitter, salty, sweet and sour. When we consume something, the molecules travel to the taste receptor cells, which then convert them into electrical signals that can be interpreted by our brain. Our sense of taste is closely linked to our sense of smell, as our taste buds can only detect the basic tastes. The smell of the food helps to give us an overall sense of its taste.
The Sense of Smell
Our fifth and final sense is the sense of smell. Smells are composed of molecules, which travel through the air and eventually reach our nose. Inside our nose are olfactory receptor neurons, which are specialized cells that can detect these molecules. The olfactory receptor neurons then convert the molecules into electrical signals and send them to the olfactory bulb, where they are then interpreted as smells. Our sense of smell is closely tied to our sense of taste, as it helps to add more complexity and detail to the taste of the food we consume.
How Our Senses Work Together
Although each sense works differently, all five of our senses are closely linked and interact with each other in order to give us the complete sensory experience. For example, the smells we detect can trigger memories or emotions, while tastes can be enhanced or dampened depending on the smells we detect. By understanding how our senses work together, we can gain a greater appreciation of our environment and a better understanding of how we experience the world.
The five senses—sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell—all work together to help us make sense of the world around us. Each sense works differently and is dependent on specialized organs and receptors in order to provide us with the complete sensory experience. By understanding the science behind each of our senses, we can gain a better appreciation for how we experience the world and how our senses work together to give us the full experience.