The sixth sense

Mount Holyoke College’s André White discusses the complex sensory systems that bring the world into our brains with National Public Radio’s Short Wave.

By Keely Savoie Sexton 

Vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell — the senses everyone learns about in kindergarten — rely on complex anatomical structures and receptors that allow us to perceive the world around us. But that’s not the sum total of the sensory suite, according to André White, assistant professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College. 

White spoke with Madeline K. Sofia and Emily Kwong of National Public Radio’s Short Wave podcast about the complexity and importance of the six — not five — senses. While the five senses are well known, they were first described by Aristotle in 300 B.C.E., and the science of sensing has come a long way. 

To the familiar five, White adds our sense of balance and movement, which is controlled by the  vestibular system in the inner ear.

Without a vestibular system to analyze our movement and coordination, basic activities would be nearly impossible. Sports and dancing would be out of the question.

“It would make life a lot more boring,” White said.

All sensing organs have specialized cells and receptors within them that process information about our environments. These sensations are then translated into electrical impulses that are consolidated in our brains and provide a clear picture of the external world. 

Listen to the full podcast