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Senses - John C. Kirk

Jun. 21st, 2008

08:42 pm - Senses

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There was an article in Tuesday's Metro ("The sweet smell of success") about Steve Pearce, an "aroma alchemist". One line in particular caught my eye: "Your sense of smell is your most important and powerful sense but we've created an environment based on vision and colour." I think that "powerful" is a bit tricky to define, because it's different for each sense. For instance, I can see stars that are billions of miles away, whereas maximum smell range seems to be about a mile. However, it seems reasonable to compare the senses on their importance, whether that's specific to each person or general for everyone.

So, which is my most important sense?

* Smell: this is obviously out, since I can't.

* Taste: I like being able to do that, but if I couldn't then it wouldn't be a disaster; my "eating experience" relies on texture as much as tastebuds, and it might help me to lose weight if I didn't enjoy eating sweet foods.

* Hearing: Again, I like being able to do this, so that I can listen to music and talk to people. It's also useful for safety, so that I can hear if someone/something is approaching (e.g. a car). This ranks higher than taste, but I could still do without it; I could communicate in writing with other people (something that I often do already), read subtitles on TV, and check both ways before I cross a road. Also, I wouldn't have to put up with loud noise late at night.

* Sight: My gut reaction is to say that this is my most important sense, because I use it so much. I paid for laser surgery 9 years ago so that my eyes would work better, and I've never regretted that. I read a lot, and it would be frustrating to slow down to the pace of spoken words; also, it would be a lot harder to do IT work if I couldn't look at a screen or inside a case. More generally, it would be a lot harder to do simple things like cooking food or going to the toilet.

* Touch: Having said that, I think that touch is actually the dark horse candidate here. One key issue is safety; if you couldn't feel it when you trod on something sharp or touched a hot surface then you'd get injured a lot (as happens to people with leprosy). From a practical point of view, there are lots of common tasks that I now do by touch (e.g. typing) and I'd have to watch my fingers all the time. Sports like snowboarding and surfing would be right out, because they rely on feeling subtle changes in the surface and then reacting to them. I'm also thinking about a character from the comic Rising Stars: he was invulnerable, but couldn't feel anything, so the only pleasure he could get was from eating. How many pleasures rely on touch? I'm not just talking about physical intimacy; there are everyday things like taking a shower or sitting in a comfy chair.

So, what do the rest of you think?

Poll #1208610 Senses

Which is your most important sense?

Sight
2(50.0%)
Hearing
0(0.0%)
Smell
0(0.0%)
Taste
0(0.0%)
Touch
2(50.0%)

Who is better qualified to judge the importance of a sense?

Someone who has it
3(75.0%)
Someone who doesn't have it
1(25.0%)

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Comments:

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From:stagknight
Date:June 21st, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
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Trying to classify a "most important" sense is a bit of a waste of time, in my opinion - you can classify for pleasure, information, or survival (or something else I've missed).

However, I'd say that, personally, smell probably ranks 4th on my list of commonly recognised sense on the 'importance' list - it's okay for pleasure, but doesn't rank highly on the information or survival scales.

Oh, and:
From a practical point of view, there are lots of common tasks that I now do by touch (e.g. typing) and I'd have to watch my fingers all the time.

For the more practical activities, kinaesthesia (your sense of where your body parts are and how they're moving) is probably enough. Touch does register high on the survival scale - there's a very rare congenital disorder in which people cannot feel pain and they tend to suffer really horrible injuries if they're not very carefully looked after - even teething can result in children biting off their own fingers, for example.
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From:overconvergent
Date:June 21st, 2008 10:29 pm (UTC)
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I think that loss of sight would change my life most, but you are right that loss of touch would also mean big life changes; it makes you much more likely to damage yourself by mistake or carelessness.
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From:gaspodog
Date:June 21st, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
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I think the second question in your poll is too short... I think there would be a big difference in qualification to rate sense importance between somebody who had never had a sense and somebody who had it and then lost it.

To my mind, the people best qualified to comment on the importance of a sense would be those who have lost a sense, but can still remember having had it.
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From:bazzalisk
Date:June 23rd, 2008 10:46 am (UTC)
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Yeah, that's what I was going to say, too.

Curse you Robbie!
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[User Picture]
From:johnckirk
Date:June 23rd, 2008 10:56 am (UTC)
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That's a fair point (to all who mentioned it). However, it's a bit tricky to define; how long do you need to have lost the sense before it counts? For instance, if you wore a blindfold for a couple of days (similar to what I did after my laser surgery), would that qualify you to rate the importance of sight, or does it need to be longer term than that?

In the case of smell, a common misconception is that you can't taste anything if your nose is blocked (e.g. during a cold). I've elaborated on that elsewhere, but basically I disagree; I can taste things, because I'm used to "listening on low volume", i.e. my tastebuds aren't being drowned out by my nose. However, I don't know how long it would take for you to adjust to that if you lost your sense of smell later in life.

So, I decided to keep the poll simple, rather than having a sliding scale of time between "never lost it" and "never had it".
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From:rileen
Date:June 22nd, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
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I think someone who had a sense and then lost it might be best qualified.

Not sure which sense is the most important - I agree with the first poster that it'd make some sense to further classify according to different situations/scales.
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