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How Many ‘Sixth Senses’ Could There Possibly Be?

Scientists studying people with unexplained clumsiness discovered a silent sixth sense that’s missing in these individuals: proprioception is the awareness of where your body is in space. We use it constantly, but most of us aren’t even aware it exists.

Elsewhere, researchers showed that people may sense and react to magnetic fields, and they dubbed this the sixth sense.

Still, other researchers have experimented with teaching people to find their way using echolocation like bats or porpoises do. This ability can be acquired and used by humans. Fun! These scientists also claimed to have discovered a sixth sense.

Have you ever felt that someone was watching you—only to look up and discover that they actually were? The feeling of eyes on you is a possible sixth sense, and new evidence points to an unconscious network in our brains devoted to processing the gazes of others.

Many studies have tried to document the ability to sense what others are thinking. So-called ESP is a controversial candidate for sixth sense. (Wait, you knew I was going to say that? Cool!)

That makes five candidates for a sixth sense, and my intuition tells me there could be more. Speaking of which...

Intuition is a warning formed in the most ancient fight-versus-flight part of our brains. Researchers at the University of New South Wales recently demonstrated the phenomenon in the lab and proposed it as a sixth sense.

We have on our hands a list of six possible sixth senses. There’s something pleasingly symmetrical about that—which reminds me of the human attraction to symmetry: The equilateral triangle, the right angle, the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio. Scientists say that the golden ratio is embedded into our brains. A sixth-sense ability to recognize fundamental ratios and forms may be part of our neurological makeup.

An eighth possibility is emotional contagion— whereby strong feelings like fear, panic or excitement spread rapidly and unconsciously through groups. Sending and receiving contagious emotions is a strong sixth-sense candidate.

The entorhinal region of the brain is associated with direction-finding, and recent research suggests it may be home to a homing instinct—the sixth sense that tells you where to go if you’re lost. Strong in many animals, this sense may operate in us too.

Mammals have a vomeronasal organ (VNO) in their noses that detects pheromones and relays their signals to a dedicated section of the brain—a proven sixth sense. Our VNO is small, but it’s there and may be detecting pheromones subconsciously.

Why are couples less genetically related than an average sampling of the population would be? Because we unconsciously pick up olfactory cues as to who would make the best mate. Key to this is how dissimilar their immune system is to our own; evolution favors combinations of mates with different immunities. There are special receptors in the brain for this. So here’s a strange and interesting sixth sense: the ability to sniff out people whose immune systems are not closely related to ours.

Another sixth-sense candidate is our second brain: the mass of gut microbes in our digestive tract that researchers now believe influences thoughts and feelings. This microbiome produces neurotransmitters and it weighs more than your brain does. Next time your gut tells you something, you might want to believe it?

Our classic five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste—are just the obvious ones, but a lot more is going on behind the curtain of consciousness. It certainly stimulates the imagination to think about all the possibilities.

Which leads me to ask, what if imagining is actually a powerful sixth sense? We can think of it as sensing new possibilities. If they don’t yet exist, then we can’t detect them with our normal five senses. Only imagination can sniff them out.

I’m curious as to where the ‘sixth sense’ expression came from. A search for its origin reveals an intriguing fact: It originally referred to yet none of the senses enumerated above. ‘Sixth sense’ first appears in the work of William Whiston (Primitive Christianity Reviv’d, 1710):

“There is a sixth Sense, that of Prescience: for the other five Senses are capable only of Knowledge; but the Sixth of Foreknowledge; which Sense the Prophets had.”

His candidate for a sixth sense was seeing the future, which he called prescience. Psychology recognizes the importance of anticipation, although generally not attributing it to mystical causes. We are wired to anticipate possible futures, not just through conscious thought, but unconscious neuroscience too. There may be some sensory form of prescience after all, and it could emerge as a recognized ‘sixth sense’ in the future. If it does, let this paragraph be an instance of it. (To be read in ten years: I told you so!)

By the 1800s, sixth sense was redefined as sensing the presence of ghosts. People believed that by cultivating this sense through seances, they could communicate with the dead. Would it surprise you to know that around a quarter of people report having seen a ghost or felt its presence? Modern psychology even has a term for it: Felt presence or FP. So far, no one’s come up with a way to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, but our capacity to sense felt presences is real, and that makes it a valid candidate for a sixth sense, whatever it may actually be sensing.

That’s a total of fifteen possible new senses beyond the core five. Wow! Do we really have twenty ways of sensing the world around us?

You could almost knock me over with a feather at the very thought—but actually, you can’t because of a fairly obvious sense I’ve overlooked until now. The vestibular sense gives us our orientation and balance. We know which way is up, we just don’t stop to wonder how. It’s all because of a tiny sensory organ hidden inside our inner ear.

Make that twenty-one possible ways of sensing the world around us! Who would’ve thought? I may try writing a story about an amazing group of sensory superheroes, each having a highly developed sixth sense. (My strongest sixth sense is imagination, so of course, I’m going to put it right to work...)

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon. (C) 2021

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