Less than half a second—that’s how long it takes for a fastball to travel from the pitcher’s mound to the waiting batter. It’s so quick, in fact, that one Yale physicist said it was “clearly impossible” for a baseball player to hit a barreling three-inch ball with a small stick. You can see why Ted Williams, the legendary slugger, called it the “hardest single feat in sports.”
But that’s just what happens on baseball diamonds all over the world every single day. Even children can crack a line drive off a deftly thrown pitch.
How? Hidden superpowers, senses that every human has beyond the basic five. Those powers come into focus every time the batter lines up at home plate with the bat slung over his shoulder. He knows the exact position of his hands and legs, even though he can’t see them. When the pitch leaves the pitcher’s fingers, his practice-trained brain tells his tensed arms when and where to strike. At the same time, fluid in his ears rushes around to ensure that he keeps perfect balance as he spins his whole body into the swing.
Then, crack! The ball explodes off the bat and soars into the air.
Such awareness of the world is not just for play. Our body’s ability to gather feedback and respond instantly can be a matter of life and death. Just ask someone who has stumbled down a flight of basement stairs in the dark, or a driver whose car has suddenly veered out of control.
Now, when certain foods disagree with our stomachs or we suffer a random (and very painful) Charlie horse, we might disagree that our sense of self is good for us. But God puts the exclamation point on what it means for us to be fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your whole body comes wired for exploration and survival. You are a sensing machine, designed to gather information about the world around you without even having to try.
Making Sense of Sense
Before we dive in to see just how many senses we have, we need to stop a moment and consider something we rarely think about. What exactly is a sense? Just as our bodies take care of our breathing without much conscious effort, we don’t often stop to think about how we know things about our environment.
From your cranium to your metatarsals (that is, your head to your feet), every square inch overflows with systems that take in information and send it to your brain. Your senses pick up on light rays, vibrations, chemicals, gravity, and more so that your brain can translate them into a comprehensive picture of the world.
Even something as simple as chowing down on a steak dinner or playing a game of tag engages millions of cells throughout your whole body to keep you in the know.
Now, all that may seem pretty straightforward: a sense is a system designed to gather a specific kind of information for us. But as we’ll see, you’ve been blessed with more than five of these systems.
The scientific-sounding names for these senses, like “ophthalmoception,” don’t exactly roll off the tongue (and aren’t often used). But they do give us an important clue about their function. The Latin root -cept means “taken” or “seized.” Tack on the Greek word for the body part, such as eyes (ophthalmo-), and you get the picture. The eyes seize light rays.
Other body parts seize sound waves (audioception), smells (olfacoception), tastes (gustaoception), and touch (tactioception). What else is there?
Proprioception: Know Thyself
You never lose track of your body. Your keys end up hidden in couch cushions, your glasses find their way to the back of the nightstand drawer, and the file you need on your computer disappears into the yawning abyss of your hard drive. But not so with your body. Every moment, you know exactly where your arms and legs are. You don’t have to look around to find your hand before you grab your drink, for example.
That’s touch, right? Well, not exactly. Touch involves gathering information about the world outside our bodies. Our skin and hair must come into contact with something foreign before we call that touch. But even floating in empty space with our eyes closed, we’d still know the position of our bodies and how they’re moving. That’s because we have proprioception, which comes from proprius (one’s own) and cept (seize). In other words, we have captured information about our own bodies.
Proprioception is no simple feat. Your brain gathers information from your skeletal striated muscles (bundles of spindly muscles connected to your bones), your tendons, and your joints. Each of these body parts contains nerve detectors, called proprioceptors, specifically designed for the job of measuring what’s happening all over your body.
Scientists believe that the data from all these proprioceptors gets zipped to another kind of receptor, called stretch receptors, which identify “stretch.” They let your muscles know how far they have flexed, and they also send this information up to the neurons in the inner ear. In fact, it’s up there that we’ll meet another one of your senses.
The Pinocchio Illusion
Your body relies on many different sensors to give you a picture of your place in the world around you. (This sense is known as proprioception, or “sense of self.”) Sometimes you can trick those sensors by giving confusing signals—with hilarious results. In this activity, your nose will grow over a foot long!
Try It Yourself
All you need is a friend, a chair, and a vibrating massager from the bathroom (used to relax your neck and other muscles). Sit in the chair and touch the end of your nose with your finger. Close your eyes, and ask a friend to turn on the massager and press it against the muscles in your upper arm (your biceps). After a few seconds, you’ll notice your nose growing up to three feet long!
How Did That Happen?
Your muscles have sensors in them to detect how far they are stretched. When you touch them with a massager, it tricks these sensors into thinking the muscles are stretching. Your biceps then tell your brain that your arm is extending. But at the same time, your fingers tell your brain that they are touching your nose.
The brain believes two things are happening at once: your arm is extending and your finger is still on your nose. The only way both could happen at the same time, your brain logically deduces, is for your nose to grow!
Equilibrioception: It All Balances Out
Do you want to know something else amazing we humans do? We don’t fall over. Even standing on one leg with our eyes closed, or walking and chewing gum at the same time, we usually don’t grow disoriented and collapse. Put us on a rocking ship or a swaying bridge, and our legs and feet will constantly shift to keep us upright. We usually don’t even have to think about it.
You can thank our sense of equilibrioception. While our eyes help us see what’s happening and touch allows us to feel terra firma (not to mention proprioception that keeps our legs in the right place), balance actually comes from a system tucked inside our inner ear.
Deep inside your ear, if you could look, you’d find the vestibular (or balance) system. First, there’s a group of three semicircular canals that sense motion along the three axes of 3D space. You may remember these axes from geometry days: up/down, left/ right, backward/forward.
As you move, fluid rushes through these canals and pushes on tiny hairs that let your brain know which way you’re moving. It’s similar to a bubble balance used to hang pictures straight—just much more complex. Every time you nod your head or tilt to the side, these miniature waves in your inner ear help you keep your balance.
Not far from those semicircular canals are two circular otolithic organs. The old saying “rocks in your head” can help you remember how these organs function. Each one contains microscopic calcium stones (-lith means “stone”). As you move or accelerate, those stones tumble around and disturb hairs in the organs. The tiny rockslide lets your brain know how to respond and keep you upright. Sometimes ear infections and other illnesses can gum up these features, and you might just find yourself needing the next sense.
Your body combines different sensors to help you stay in balance, including your eyes and the inside of your ears. (The sense of balance is known as equilibrioception.) If one of these sensors is not active, such as your eyes, it’s harder to regain your balance.
Try It Yourself
This activity doesn’t require any equipment. Just stand up and spin around for thirty seconds with your eyes wide open. How balanced do you feel? Now close your eyes (or put a blindfold on) and do it again for thirty seconds, keeping your eyes closed even after you stop. Does it take any longer for you to regain your sense of balance?
How Did That Happen?
Inside your ear is a liquid that sloshes around when you spin. Normally your eyes help you to regain orientation even before the liquid stops sloshing around. But if your eyes are closed, your brain must wait for the liquid to settle down.
The liquid flows through a semicircular canal with hairs that sense the liquid’s motion and then tell your muscles how to keep your body upright. You aren’t born with this sense of balance but must learn it by practice. Your eyes play an important role.
Nociception: A World of Pain
No sense makes us think more of Adam’s Fall than nociception. Every pinch, cut, scrape, and painful accident reminds us just how far we’ve come from the perfect world Adam and Eve enjoyed before they disobeyed God. Even if we don’t enjoy pain, we can be glad that God equipped us to respond to it.
Unlike touch, which involves the flex and stretch of skin, the sense of pain derives from another unique system for gathering information. Some of your nerves end in your skin or at critical internal spots like the surface of your bones, joints, and organs. Most of these nerve endings, called nociceptors, connect back to the lower part of your spine. They’re like tripwires that feed into a central hub. When something painful trips the wire, the nociceptors send an electric pulse to your spine, which then transmits the warning to your brain. All that happens more quickly than it takes you to read the first word of this sentence.
What’s more, God designed our nociceptors to respond only when a certain threshold is crossed. They know how much stress each part of your body can take before they need to alert you. For example, your calloused hands may be fine when you brush sandpaper across them, but a tender spot on your arm or a bruise will alert you if you bump something as soft as a pillow.
Even though God’s perfect creation did not contain the pain we now experience, we can be glad that He installed our pain sense. It alerts us to danger before we suffer further injury. We sense a pinprick and jerk away long before the pin gets lodged in muscle or bone! So, every time you jerk in pain, you can celebrate those nociceptors as a sign of God’s grace—and you can also celebrate their close cousins.
Thermoception: Your Body’s Thermostat
Don’t sweat it. God knew we’d live in a world with volatile temperatures that swing from sweltering summer afternoons to frigid winter nights. So He decked out our bodies with just the right tools to know when to grab a parka or find a pool. While sensing temperature may seem like a part of touch (that is, touching the air with our skin), thermoception is actually a system by itself.
Like our pain sense, thermoception depends on a series of nerve endings, called thermoceptors, that sprout up all over our bodies. They’re mostly concentrated in our skin (especially on our faces), cornea, tongue, and bladder. That works out well. We can tell the outside temperature no matter what clothes we have on, and we can test the temperature of food before we swallow it.
We have two different types of thermoceptors: one for warmth and one for cold. Their location often determines which role they play. For example, we have a high number of cool-responding receptors in the corneas of our eyes. Scientists think that when our tear fluid evaporates and cools off our eyes, the thermocepters send a signal to our brains that makes us blink to keep our eyes moist. Pretty cool, eh?
Cold Is Hot, and Hot Is Cold
Your body does not have a mercury thermometer that senses absolute temperature on a Fahrenheit or Celsius scale. Instead, it compares changes in temperature. (This sensing ability is known as thermoception.) So, major changes register more easily than subtle changes.
Try It Yourself
You need three large bowls that are big enough for both of your hands. Fill one bowl with cold water and ice, one with hot water, and one with lukewarm water (room temperature).
Place one hand in the cold water and the other hand in the hot water. Let both hands stay in the water for at least one minute until they feel comfortable. Then place both hands into the the lukewarm bowl. One hand feels cool and the other one feels warm!
How Did That Happen?
Your body perceives relative temperature, not absolute temperature like a mercury thermometer. We quickly become accustomed to the surrounding temperature, no matter how cold or hot (within reason). Yet we are very sensitive to the slightest change in temperature, as small as 0.2°F (0.1°C).
Even More Sense-Ational
These are just four extra senses. Depending on how you tally them, we could have up to twenty or more.
When you study the human body, you really get the sense that a Creator had to have been involved—and an unquestionably wise one at that. He equipped us with system after system of hidden powers that help us prosper in our fallen world. From liquid, hairs, and stones that keep us from falling to nerve endings that protect us from injury, we’re wired to thrive in our world. God knew exactly what we’d need.
So the next time you’re sitting in the stands cheering on that little leaguer to “keep your eye on the ball,” be a little more understanding. He’s trying to do the “impossible.” Thankfully, God has given us all sorts of talents, both visible and invisible, to do the impossible. With a little practice and patience, we can do wonders. Yet every time it happens, don’t fail to tell the person next to you where the credit is really due!