More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle (supposedly) came up with the “five senses” model that we all learned as children — sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. Somewhere along the line a “sixth sense” was thrown in for good measure to explain all the unexplainable feelings we have. Current research, however, suggests there are more than twenty senses, including senses that used to be considered touch such as itch, pressure, ability to sense heat and cold, tension, pain, hunger, thirst. All of these have distinct sensors, which separates them from touch.
Other essential senses that have not been included with the five major senses until now are equilibrium, proprioception, and time.
Equilibrium, of course, helps us keep our balance, and allows us to perceive body movements, such as acceleration, direction changes, and gravity.
Proprioception tells us where each of our body parts are in relation to our other body parts. (Alcohol dims this particular sense, which is the basis for the hand to nose inebriation test.)
And time, as you might have guessed, gives us a sense of the passage of time.
As with all senses, these three essential senses diminish with age, which is one of the reasons we lose our balance more easily when we grow older, and have less ability to sense where we are in relation to our surroundings.
The very aged often have trouble defining where they feel pain, sometimes pointing to the left side when the pain is actually on the right side, and sometimes unable to pinpoint the pain at all. Because they no longer have a sense of their own body’s geography, they only know they hurt, not where they hurt.
I always thought that as we age, time seemed to speed up because an hour is a much smaller ratio compared to the time we have lived than when we were children, but apparently, that isn’t true. Or if it is true, it isn’t the whole truth. Numerous experiments have demonstrated that people are born with the ability to detect accurately the passage of time. When people are in their twenties, they can sense within three seconds when three minutes are up, but by the time we reach our sixties, we are pff by forty seconds, so compared to our sense of time, the actual ticking of the clock seems faster. Just another sense that loses its effectiveness when we age.
What shocked my father so much about the last three or four years of his life is how different he felt. For more than ninety-three years, he always felt the same. Not as strong or energetic as he was in his twenties, perhaps, but he always felt like himself. But then, as these additional senses wore out, along with his sight, hearing, taste, he began to feel not like himself at all. Which makes sense if he no longer could tell where he was in relation to the world or even to his own body. He also became obsessed with time, constantly looking at the clock, always feeling as if he were late for . . . something. It used to make me feel sad and a bit frustrated that at his advanced age he could not relax enough to just let time pass, but apparently, that was something he physically could not do.
We writers are always told to set the scene and involve readers with the use of sense descriptions, and now that we have plenty more senses to choose from and to torment our characters with, those descriptions could be even more compelling than when we had a palette of only five senses.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.