Why Five?

by Dennis Mathis

mathisAs a child of the sixties, I can easily work myself into a righteous fury about the lies I was taught in school. Fifty years later, I’m outraged I was being taught the world as we know it consists of three particles — neutrons, protons, electrons — at a time when the Standard Model was already on the launching pad. Quarks and muons saturated the universe, apart from the void in our textbook.

At least someone could have said, “Well… reality is more complicated.” Maybe my high-school physics teacher did say that, but Mr. Meister was a vanishingly soft-spoken man.

The first time I heard the creative-writing dictum, “Put each of the five senses on every page,” it struck me as the kind of bowtie-and-pipe prescription a writer would be smart to distrust.

I suppose, given time, I could have thought of lots of reasons why deliberately cycling through five senses on every page, a fine idea in theory, would be terrible in practice. Wouldn’t it jangle like the line endings of a sestina? When there are other balls to juggle, going a page or two without a regular dose of something aromatic or scratchy isn’t unforgivable, is it?

But my thinking never got that far. What really bothered me from the first irritating instant was, Why only five? It felt like I was being cheated.

Let’s be clear — I am, and always have been, a zealot about packing-in the stuff of the senses in fiction writing. The senses are what inform us about reality, what’s true. If they’re not there on every page, it’s a lie, even as fiction.

But why stop at five? Has that number really not changed since the time of Aristotle and my own ridiculous high-school biology textbook?

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, fingertips (or, to be fair, skin in general)… But at even the most physical level, it’s not true there are five sense organs. There’s probably only one organ: the nervous system. Visual-spectrum photon receptors, olfactory receptors, sound wave receptors, vibration detectors, and taste buds are just that, buds on the branches of a system rooted in our skulls like an upside-down geranium.

A new hyper-detailed neurological atlas identifies 862 different structures making up the human brain. What are the odds that only five of them are about detecting reality?

Consider the vestibular system, a labyrinth of canals in the inner ear that has nothing to do with hearing. It contains a drop of fluid that acts as the bubble in a carpenter’s level. It establishes a Platonic horizon and enables us to gauge the rightness around a center of gravity of not just ourselves but (by a kind of inner-outer projection) also distant objects. It gives us (6) a sense of plumb. We look at a teetering boulder and gasp.

The skin covering the outside of our bodies is easy enough to picture as one contiguous organ. It defines the barrier between the body and the external world with the exquisite precision of less than a hair’s breadth. Try it. Put one of your hairs on a hard surface and roll it with your fingertip. Better yet, put it in your mouth. Yuck. Now you perceive a hair as big as a tree branch, and your reflex is to spit it out because it’s a detached and decaying former part of you. Our outer layer perceives not just that something else exists, but that it exists outside and is distinctly other, not me. Tight in our skin, we have (7) a sense of self.

But there’s also the network of nerve endings inside our body. We know when we have to go to the bathroom, when we’re sleepy, when we’ve got a fever, a pulled muscle, a broken tooth. We have proprioception, (8) a sense of a body’s inner self.

If you’ve ridden a roller-coaster, you know our internal organs also provide a sense of where gravity or centrifugal forces are tugging us. We have (9) a sense of up (muscle effort required) and down (muscle effort released), the Y-scale dimension.

Like smart phones with accelerometers, the sloshing of our organs gives us (10) a sense of momentum in any of the spatial directions.

Normally we have two eyes, two ears, two sets of finger-pads, two nostrils, and a tongue that at least some of us can curl up in the middle. Our sense organs are arranged symmetrically about a vertical axis, and our nature sees itself reflected in the outer world. We have (11) a sense of symmetry.

Smack down the middle is straight ahead to the far horizon, the default for where we intend to move. Eye muscle or foot muscle exertion diverted away from that central objective gives us left and right. We have (12) a sense of direction along the horizontal X scale.

Because we have two eyes, when their inputs get integrated up-stream we have parallax perception. The brain compares the two inputs, performs some hard-wired trigonometry, and we have (13) a sense of depth, the Z scale.

Sesame Street: This is near, this is far. I know my coffee cup is not as big as the refrigerator.

My wife holds up tonight’s leftovers and an empty Tupperware and says, “Will this fit?” I tilt my head like a dog to acquire more parallax observations… and then confidently tell her, “Yes.” (Confident, because if I’m wrong I get to eat what doesn’t fit.) We have (14) a sense of capacity, of proportion.

We have a sense of gravity, a sense of profundity, a sense of distance, a sense of emptiness.

Real-time MRI studies indicate there’s a region of brain cells dedicated to modeling the space around us. Perception of the X, Y, and Z coordinates implies not just a sense of direction but of (15) position. I am here, now, but I’m moving that-away.

Now? We have a sense of time sequence, an awareness of one thing pre-existing and downstream-affecting another. We have a sense of the “delta” between two observations, which apparently implies something about cause and effect. If we register a bird first in our bad eye and then in our good eye, we extrapolate that the bird was moving on a vector along the X scale. We have (16) a sense of the predictable order of things.

In the flow of events, we seem hard-wired to perceive a special case, a moving cursor that separates what is realized from the predicted, intended, or speculative. We have (17) a sense of now.

Our vision, according to the trial-and-error findings of early motion-picture technicians, seems to have a refresh rate — the cycle of perception, processing, storage, and return value of a visual observation — of about a thirtieth of a second. Below that threshold, we perceive motion as continuous. Above it, we perceive a flicker, a break in cause-and-effect continuity. Our sensory refresh rate implies we have (18) a hard-wired sense of cycles ticking like metronomes.

A dot on a circle rolling along a time vector draws a wave; a perception that spikes in consciousness, subsides, and then registers again. We have an awareness of widely separated or differing situations recurring, being part of the same thing, (19) a sense of pattern, continuous or interrupted, in time or space.

Our senses are capable of tracking multiple self-contained patterns simultaneously. We perceive the difference between uniqueness and similarity, between one and more than one. Up to about six or seven, we can perceive at a glance exact small numbers, the same as crows. Beyond that, we have a sense of “many” up to about the Biblical code-number of 47, where “more than many” kicks in. We have (20) a sense of quantity.

Part of our brain, the frontal lobe, seems to extrapolate event order beyond what has been perceived, the dividing line called “now.” This part of the brain gives us (21) a sense of subjunctive, unrealized possibilities. It feeds back into the sensory system a stream of what-to-expect quasi-perceptions.

We have a sense of what is normal, predictable, according to a short or perhaps very long pattern, and we have a sense when something is out of the ordinary, varying from that heartbeat wave. We register, probably quicker than our full processing cycle, when input “does not compute” and the brain returns an alarm. We have (22, 23, 24) a sense for the irrational, the absurd, and the potentially threatening. We react with wariness when our perceptions and pre-conceptions diverge.

We have an awareness when our circuitry is torn between two avenues of processing — and, strangely, there is something about this contradictory type of input that tickles us. “Did you hear about the magician who walked down the street and turned into a restaurant?” Our normal processing is hung for an instant on a superposition of possible interpretations of “turned into” and, so long as we don’t perceive a threat, our central consciousness happily cries out, “There are delicious possibilities here!” We have (25) a sense of humor we feel proprioceptively in our diaphragms and our cheeks.

Aware of overwhelming predictability but perceiving a rare exception, we have (26) a sense of hope.

We are creatures of claws and rumbling stomachs and swelling sex organs, and beyond the perception of what we require, we reach out with (27) a sense of desire.

We are aware of self, and we project that awareness onto other similar perceived beings in the “not me” realm. We know (28) empathy, a brief perception of being someone else. Our biological imperative to survive, reproduce, and nurture — in humans, all of this involves bonding and cooperation — kicks in, and we (29) sense love, flowing this way and that.

Somehow, we have (30) a sense of beauty. A rock that’s comfortable in the hand, the curve of someone’s hip, and a bent piece of metal all register somewhere in us as having the same attribute.

That woman’s face is perfectly symmetrical. She has a pleasing face, radiant with youth. She is pretty.

But this other woman, with an off-kilter quirk to her smile, one sad eyebrow, her hair parted on the left and tucked behind one ear… this woman who leaves the cap off the toothpaste and one sock on the floor and says “electrizity”… is beautiful and my love.

We perceive our selves, and we compare the evolving delta value between where we are and what we are driven to be. We have a sense of what we should be, and when the divergence is small, we have (31) a sense of pride and honor, the proprioceptional configuration of puffed-out chest and upright spine. When the divergence is extreme, we have a sense of shame, the curled-inward configuration of a dog with its tail between its legs, the reflex to avoid eye contact — and for humans, the dilated capillaries of the face and neck, the all-too-definitive blush we share only with birds, who might be remembering they were once dinosaurs.

We recognize ourselves reflected in other people, we feel their eyes on us. We have (32) a sense of kinship and community, tight or tenuous.

Unless something has distorted our natural processes, we have a sense of whether we should or should not apply our power to affect another being. “Have you no sense of decency, Senator, at long last? Have you left no (33) sense of decency?”

By my count, that’s not five but thirty-three senses. And I’m just getting started.

Your assignment as a writer: Work as many of them as you can into every page.


Dennis Mathis once had a bright future as a novelist, but he got distracted by computer systems. He threw away his unfinished first novel in 1984 and spent the next twenty years in publishing production and corporate communications. In 1994 he created a Fortune-20 corporation’s first public website, and for the next decade developed digital media and database systems for numerous high-tech startups.

Since 2006, Dennis has been an independent developmental editor and writing coach, working with both established and novice authors of fiction and nonfiction. You can learn more about him at www.closereaders.com/dennis_mathis.php.