The Real Sixth Sense

By 13Window Posted Wednesday Jan 17, 2007

Filed under: Personal 50 comments

On Friday I had an inner-ear infection. I’ve never had one before. I’ve heard people complain about these, but I always figured it was like an earache, only – I dunno – maybe it hurt more or something? Turns out inner ear infections don’t hurt at all. At least mine didn’t.

What happened was that my inner ear (both ears, I guess) stopped working, and I lost all sense of balance. And I do mean ALL.

Every kid has spun around in circles until they were so dizzy they couldn’t stand. This was the same feeling, only it was more intense, and it was constant. It was actually kind of scary, since I couldn’t stand or sit up. I wasn’t sure how long it would last.

The slightest movement would make me nauseous. It was like my ear was telling me I was spinning, but my eyes were telling me I wasn’t. I found that if I lay on my side in the dark and didn’t move, and if I had a fan blowing on me, then I wouldn’t be nauseous. It was like my inner ear was saying, “Hey, we’re spinning!” and because I could feel the moving air and I couldn’t see the room, I could just go with it. “Yup, we’re spinning. Whee.”

It only lasted about 12 or 16 hours. Once I was able to stand up without throwing up it got to be sort of amusing trying to get around the house. I thought, “I don’t need my inner ear. I can just judge balance by looking at the floor.” Sadly, this doesn’t work. I walked in a weaving side-to-side motion, and more than once made a left turn into a wall for no reason.

Which brings me to the following question:

Taste, Touch, Smell, Sight, and Sound. Why isn’t balance included in our list of senses? I promise you, life without balance is more debilitating than life without hearing. It’s way worse than life without smell. I would put balance just behind sight and touch in order of importance.


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50 thoughts on “The Real Sixth Sense

  1. Shayne Power says:

    That’s a really good question. I was going to say “it isn’t that sort of sense” but I suppose it is. We say ‘sense of balance’ and if a sense is something that we use to determine what is going on in the outside world then balance certainly fits (helps us “sense” gravity if nothing else).

    I had labyrinthitis last year and while not as severe as your symptoms it certainly messed things up a bit (I was supposed to be driving to the city – 9 hours away – at the time).

    Oh, and as a pharmacist who knows too much about this sort of stuff, painful ear infections tend to be in the middle ear. It’s when all the gluppity-glup and schloppity-schlop start pushing your ear drum out your ear canal that it starts to hurt.

    By the way, I’m just a new reader hear, I came for DM of the rings and stayed for the insightful posts and now the Narrow Gate as well. Keep up the good work.

  2. Shayne Power says:

    “a new reader _hear_”

    What an ironic typo!

  3. jdhays says:

    Taste, Touch, Smell, Sight, and Sound deal with external sources. Senses that deal with internal processes usually don’t surprise us and can be processed without “thinking” about them. It’s “Look out for that truck!” vs. walking.

  4. JFargo says:

    That’s actually not a bad idea. I think you should start a petition to get it added to the list of senses! I mean, sure, it would mean that we’d have to start calling the psychic sense the “7th sense,” and people just wouldn’t go for that, but I’ve lost my sense of balance too so I know just what you’re talking about.

    Good luck with that petition! :)

  5. saskwach says:

    Balance also deals with an external source. You’re balanced with relation to the center of the Earth. Just because it can be deceived into thinking that down is up because you’re on a roller coaster doesn’t make it less affected by external stimuli. Similarly, the way we process it doesn’t define a sense. In your “Look out for that truck!” example, you’re (presumably) using your various senses, vision, hearing, smell, at least, to send a signal to the reflex center of your spinal column to get out of the way. You don’t jump straight up because your sense of balance tells you where down is and your reflexes aren’t programmed to be stupid. I don’t know where I was going with that, but it’s totally a sense.

  6. Carl the Bold says:

    In a psychology class (why there?) I took as an undergraduate (from a guy who should be committed), we were taught that there were seven senses: the five that we normally consider ‘the five senses’, and sense of balance and sense of ‘body position’. The latter refers to the ability we have to know what position our body is in without looking. Seemed trivial to me and it seemed to me to be a subset of the sense of touch–your body feels that a quarter is round and hard when you touch it, and it feels that your elbows are bent as you type on the computer.

    I also would have put balance in the same category as touch for similar reasons, but I’ve never had an inner ear infection and no sense of balance, so perhaps I’ll keep quiet about that.

    Last thing: Animaniacs have a song about the senses which includes about 50 different senses and is well worth listening to. Here are the lyrics:

  7. Eric J says:

    I believe the term you’re looking for is proprioception.

  8. Mark says:

    Like Carl the Bold, I also had a psych class where they taught us 7 senses. The vestibular sense is the sense of balance, and the kinesthetic sense is the perception of body position. The kinesthetic sense is indeed a strange one, but I think it’s a valid distinction because you don’t need to feel anything with your hand to know where it is (i.e. close your eyes and wave your hand around, chances are that you know exactly where it is intuitively).

  9. Roy says:

    Yeah, I’ve long held that there are at least seven senses- the five standard senses, plus balance and orientation.

    I don’t agree that it’s touch that lets me know where my arm is. The sensation associated with touching something is very different from the sensation of knowing where my arm is. I don’t know where my arm is because of the nerve endings. It’s… I don’t know… different.

    Convincing, I know. Heh.

  10. Spider says:

    Balance is actually the sense of touch (or at least a dirivative of it). When you pick something up and get a sense of it’s weight that is part of the sense of touch tactile oobservation. Balance, when it is working, is based on gravity, just as the weight of objects is dependant on gravity (and mass but that’s another topic). This is a wierd way to think about it, but you lost your balance because your inner ear lost it’s sense of touch.

  11. Shamus says:

    Roy: I used to think the same way, although I’ll add this experience…

    When I was a teenager I used to fall asleep with my arm behind my head. This would pinch offf some nerve / bloodflow whatever. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and my arm would be totally numb from the shoulder / bicep down. When I woke up, I’d have no idea where my arm was, or what this hard thing was behind my head. (It was my hand.)

    I’d grope around with my left arm, trying to figure out where my right arm was. Then I’d try to move my right arm, and feel the movement on the back of my head. This happened several times, although after a while I got used to it and was able to locate my arm right away.

    In this case, it does seem like touch is the same thing as orientation, although I wouldn’t call this 4am disorientation conclusive proof of that position.

  12. Deoxy says:

    I’ll back Shamus up on the “body perception is touch” thing, and for exactly the same reason (though only twice). If your arm is numb (it’s lost it’s sense of touch), then the sense of where it is is gone as well, hence “body perception” is just a part of touch, or at least 100% dependent on it, which works out as the same thing.

    And yes, balance is touch as well. One clarification: the inner ear doesn’t necessarily lose its sense of touch (though I assume that could happen as well). There are at least two othr mechanisms I know of that cause the failur of balance: pressure (where the sense of touch is maxed out in every direction, thus making it impossible to know which way gravity is, as the pressure is already off the chart EVERY way) and changes to the liquid content (the changes to which are what gets felt). That second can be a bit gross to think about (just like most bodily functions, really), in that the liquid could simply become to gunky to flow anymore, sticking to the one portion of the ear (yuck). Theoretically, if the liquid in your inner ear all leaked out (for whatever reason), you would have the same problem, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a case of that.

    One last thing: “smell” and “taste” are actually the same sense as well, just being performed on different mediums (air for smell, liquid or solid for taste)… Actually, most of taste IS smell, we just don’t usually realize it. Having suffered from severe sinus infections much of my life, I can attest to that: when my nose was completely stopped up, food tasted very, very bland.

    So really, “the psychic sense” would only b the 5th one.

  13. Gothmog says:

    Shamus, I’ve had a similar ear infection- but only with one affected ear. I was stationed in Hawaii at the time and is was quite a hassle to get a friend to take my to medical- the whole world felt like it was in a permanent 45 degree angle- no matter which direction I turned, I felt like I should be falling over to my right side.
    I’m glad to hear you were only affected for 12 hours- I didn’t get better for 4 days! All I could do was prop myself up on a pillow in bed and listen to the TV. My eyesight kept tracking involutarily to the right as well (remember rolling down a hill as a child? What it did to your vision? I had that to the right for four days), so reading, surfing the internet, watching TV was out of the question.

    Happy that you’re feeling better!

  14. Deoxy says:

    Well, technically, sound is also touch. Almost forgot to mention that one. So only 3.

    Pressure, chemical composition, and light. Those are the things we can sense.

  15. Matt says:

    The sense of how your body is oriented is independent of touch – your brain has a whole network of little neurones at all the joints of your body that tell it precisely what angle everything is at.

    Otherwise simple motions would be pretty hard without looking to make sure that you’d moved enough.

    There is a disease that reduces/disables this sense and causes people to not associate “that hand on the desk” with “my hand” – they sometimes stand and watch as something dangerous or painful happens to the part in question and dont connect that its going to affect them until the pain starts.

  16. Robin Z says:

    Okay, so we’re back up to four – can we add in a ‘time sense’ to make it five normal ones again?

  17. Nick says:

    I would think the sense of orientation is related to the sense of touch myself. It seems your brain “learns” your body quite innately over time, and given feedback based on touch receptors and information about what muscles are being used to, say, hold your hand at a certain position, this “sense of orientation” is basically your brain unconsciously calculating where every bit of your body is placed.

    One experiment to try is to close your eyes, have someone move your right hand to a certain position, and then you move your left hand to meet the fixed-in-place right hand. I would suspect that your left hand would basically do a near bee-line to the right hand. Now try the same experiment with your right arm numbed nearly completely. I wonder what would happen then?

    Now imagine if your brain was swapped with another person’s body. I’d imagine the first severe problem is the completely different feel of muscle usage that would severely disrupt this sense of orientation.

    Balance could be thought of the same way, it’s sensing the force of gravity on certain parts in the inner ear, much like your sense of touch can feel pressure being placed on your fingertips as you type on a keyboard.

  18. ShadoStahker says:

    In any case, the five basic senses are the senses that allow us to percieve the outside world.

    Balance and the “knowing where your arm is” allow us to percieve ourselves.

    I don’t think they should be included, though they are related.

    Besides, if all that was required to be a sense was that it was debilitating to lose it, “legs” would be a sense.

  19. Rich says:

    Anyone interested can feel just how Shamus felt by squirting cold water into your ear canals. It changes the density of the fluids in the balance organs of the inner ear and you get that same spinning effect.

    I know this because as a child I used to have ear wax build up problems. The blockage would sometimes be very painful. When it got bad I would go to the doctor to have the wax removed. One particular night, the doctor didn’t have any hot water and had to irrigate my ears with cold. He told me to lie down until the spinning stopped. I got out, “What spi…”, and fell on my ass. It lasted for a few minutes and was very uncomfortable.

  20. Rufus Polson says:

    The sense of orientation isn’t touch. And incidentally, not all animals have it–apparently dogs don’t, for instance. But they do have a sense of touch. We probably evolved it because we’re the kind of animal that has to worry about it a lot, and our climbing ancestors even more so.
    It does operate through the nervous system–but it uses different nerves. If your arm is asleep, both sets of nerves are going to be affected–that just means they’re both in your arm, not that they’re both the same.

  21. Julia says:

    There are senses that are more “internal”, and those are the neglected ones.

    Proprioception and balance are very important, but not understood well until relatively recently. The “5 senses” thing probably dates waaaaay back.

    (I had a friend with a double inner-ear infection — it came on at work, and it was incredibly miserable, from the description. And it lasted longer — I’m glad that Shamus only had it going on for 16 hours!)

  22. karrde says:

    All I know about the five senses is that some Greek Philosopher delineated the five senses, and we’ve been stuck with that list ever since.

    Probably Aristotle gave us that list. He didn’t know how the senses worked, so he had no idea that taste and smell were strongly linked, and balance was so instinctive that he didn’t know it was a distinct sense.

    In the realm of Kinetic Sense, I’ve had that experience with the arm “falling asleep” while I was sleeping. However, my version of it had me laying face-down, with my arm extended upwards towards the head of the bed. The pinched blood vessel was probably the main one in the armpit.

    I woke up, with the impression that my arm was hanging down, straight through the mattress. After rolling over, I discovered that my entire arm had “fallen asleep”, and my Kinetic Sense for the arm had disappeared–so my brain was convinced that the arm hung straight downwards.

  23. bkw says:

    I feel obligated to link to the lyrics of the Animaniacs song “The Senses” :

    The last verse:

    Dot : There’s a sense of humor
    A sense of doom, or
    A sense of awe, sense of timing.
    Yakko: The sense of a word
    A sense of absurd
    Like trying to do all this rhyming!
    Dot : There’s incense
    Wakko: And horse sense
    Yakko: And common sense, it’s true.
    Dot : Sense of wonder, sense of beauty
    Wakko: Sense of honor, sense of duty
    Yakko: A sense of doubt, a sense of danger
    Dot : A sense of fear, when you meet a stranger
    Wakko: A sense of style, a sense of worth
    Yakko: A sense of direction for knowing the earth
    YW+D : A sense of dread as we’re singing this song
    That it’s starting to turn out completely all wrong
    And it’s time that we end it because it’s too long
    ‘Cause it just doesn’t make any sense
    No sense
    It just doesn’t make any sense!

  24. Long, long ago when I was in high school, one of my classmates was stone deaf. Her parents made her wear big clunky hearing aids that looked ugly, but they didn’t do any good; she couldn’t hear a damned thing.

    She was a smart girl and did well in school. And to the extent that I got to know her she was pretty nice. One time some of us were hanging around in the art gallery, a room in the library we used as a student lounge, and someone brought up that thing that from childhood where you leaned over, pointed to your toes, spun around several times, and then stood up and tried to walk.

    Of course you can’t. You’re dizzy as hell and stumble and weave. It’s funny to watch.

    Karen tried it. It had no effect on her. After she straightened back up, she was able to walk normally. She tried it several times (her choice, not ours; no one was trying to mock her or make her do it) and it never had any effect on her. I think it’s because her inner ear was fused, or maybe she didn’t even have one.

  25. Roy says:

    Well, technically, sound is also touch. Almost forgot to mention that one. So only 3.

    Pressure, chemical composition, and light. Those are the things we can sense.

    You forgot temperature.

    There’s a difference between saying “these are the things we can sense” and “these are how we sense them.”

    The five sense aren’t what we sense- they’re methods of sensing things. While taste and smell are certainly related, they’re not really the same. The nose picks up the smell of food, and that has a strong effect on how it “tastes” to us, but the information picked up by the nose isn’t the same as the information picked up by our taste-buds.

    Likewise, even though orientation and balance both use information that “touch” uses, the method isn’t really the same. I did a little reading, and apparently what we’re calling balance is called “equilibrioception” and it’s actually related to the ability to detect acceleration. Marine animals have this sense as well, and have actually developed a special organ to help.

  26. Paul T says:

    Inner ear infections are fun. you aren’t allowed to drive, can’t walk and one time in my case, can’t actually stand up at all.

    All the doctors have ever given me to counter it (I seem to get them once every few years) is the same stuff they give to people to stop sea-sickness…

  27. Mark says:

    “”smell” and “taste” are actually the same sense as well”

    Well, just because senses are related doesn’t mean they’re not distinct. Smell and taste are distinct. There are a number of arguments for separating them, not the least of which is that they have different receptors. They are, however, intimately related, which is why people with sinus issues also have taste issues. All the senses are related – they’re all input into our brain, and our brain uses all that info to compile a model of the world. This is why, for instance, Shamus’ fan trick in the dark worked. He turned off the lights to trick his visual receptors (eyes). He put the fan on to trick his sense of touch. That way, the information his inner ear was contributing to his brain wasn’t driving him as crazy because his other senses were corroborating the inner ear’s story. I’m no expert, but I still hold to the 7 senses theory. They’re all intimately related, and we don’t really know exactly how they work or why they work the way they do, and changing one can impact the others in non-obvious ways.

  28. CaptainBooshi says:

    The sense of orientation, or ‘proprioception,’ is actually very important, and seperate from touch. A good article explaining this is A good quote from the story is:

    “In many respects, the body of a PDD (Proprioception Deficit Disorder) victim becomes their puppet. Each movement must be carefully analyzed and put into motion; no longer can one trust the body to “just walk” or “just sit.” Thus, the movement does not look at all natural; opening a door becomes a laborious process of extend hand, tighten each finger, rotate knob, extend arm, raise foot, lower foot, and so on. Meanwhile one must not become distracted from the other foot, and who knows what is happening with the body parts not directly involved in the current process.”

    In fact, getting drunk messes with this sense, which is why common actions are so difficult after a number of beers.

  29. ngthagg says:

    I used to have a problem where when I was sitting down my right foot would fall asleep. When I would walk on it (before the pins and needles set in) I could feel the joints moving inside my ankle, but had no sensation of touch on the exterior of my foot.

    I have messed with proprioception by overdoing exercise. My legs were tired and sore enough from jogging that they did not contract the muscles in the proper order when walking. I spent half a day walking in a really jerky fashion until I happened to hit on the correct method again. A very weird experience.

  30. RHJunior says:

    Actually, there are more senses than that… ten in total.

    Sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, temperature, pain, pleasure, balance, and Proprioception (the ability to tell the location of various portions of your anatomy— how far your hand is from your face, what angle your elbow is at, etc.)

  31. Ryan says:

    This is discussion has been fascinating. I’ve never examined or thought about most of my senses in this detailed of a manner – except for vision, as mine is quite poor.

    I stumbled upon this site due to DM of the Rings, and have thoroughly enjoyed, as well as many other of the posts here. I’ve enjoyed everyone’s comments, in addition to Shamus’ writing.

  32. David V.S. says:

    someone brought up that thing that from childhood where you leaned over, pointed to your toes, spun around several times, and then stood up and tried to walk.

    We did a different game. Hold one arm straight out at shoulder level, pointing forward but a bit diagonally across your body. Take the other arm and wrap it around the first arm and then back to grab the ear on the same side as the second arm’s shoulder. If you let your arms hang a bit, the weight of the first on the second (and thus your ear) will knock out your balance pretty well, especially for little kids.

    I still challenge preschool-age kids to try to spin around ten times with their arms like this. Most can’t, but enjoy trying.

  33. mom says:

    body orientation is a sense that has little or any depemndance on touch. Amputees experience pain in amputated limbs and they also have a sense of the “position of the limb. I once read of a man who often turned sideways to go through doorways because his amputated arm ( I think it was lost in an accident rather than by surgery, but I’m not sure) was raised above his head and set akimbo.

  34. mom says:

    O, and I saw a report on TV not long ago about a phenomenon called , well I forget what it was called, but some people have mixed senses. They experience music, for instance, as both color and sound. Not in a poetic way but actually. Another person could “taste” words he heard. Ironically he was a cook. The words for some foods “tasted” awful. Another group of people saw color in words on a page or especially numbers printed on a page. Scientists studing this phenomenon believe such “mixed senses” are common in children but the effect goes away as we mature. For some people, evidently, the brain contues to blend these senses. I felt it was an eviable condition, especially the woman who experienced music as colors. The man who tasted words kind of had my sympathy, though. A perfectly harmless word could taste quite foul to him. I sort of remember sensing color in numbers. It seemed as though once I noticed it, ( I was leaning to count)it went away.

  35. ubu roi says:

    Add me to the list of folks with ear infections that messed with my balance. It wasn’t fun at all.

  36. LafinJack says:

    I totally need an inner ear infection now. My life will not be complete without one.

  37. Roy says:

    mom: That’s called synesthesia. Mark, as I recall, doesn’t SeveNine have synesthesia? Someone that Mark and I know does.

    RHJunior, I’m not sure I agree with your list. Sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, balance and proprioception all seem right. I hadn’t really thought of temperature or pain as distinct from touch, but apparently they use different receptors than touch, so that could make sense. But pleasure? I’m not sure how that’s a sense at all. Pain is our nerves registering damage or near damage to tissue… what is pleasure? Pleasure seems a little more abstract than that.

    I sort of feel like we got ripped off, though. I want some of the extra sense that animals have- echolocation, electroception, or magnetoreception.

    1. Andrew says:

      I’ve seen a few articles and videos about blind people who actually did learn echolocation to some degree. Enough that the best of them could mountain bike, apparently, which is impressively more than most of us seeing people can manage.

  38. Mark says:

    Roy, I’m pretty sure Seven does have synesthesia, but I don’t remember any of the details of it (he is a musician, so maybe it has something to do with sound and color).

    Now that I think about it, my psych class definitely included pain and temperature, though I don’t remember pleasure being a distinct sense…

  39. Shamus says:

    I sort of feel like we got ripped off, though. I want some of the extra sense that animals have- echolocation, electroception, or magnetoreception.

    I’d settle for being to see a little ways into the infra-red end of the spectrum.

    And the ability to fly.

    And laser eyes.

    Stupid X-factor gene.

  40. THU'FIR says:


  41. THU'FIR says:

    p.s. not sorry about the caps

  42. Roy says:

    Laser-beam eyes, and chainsaw hands.

    I think Seven said that numbers all have colors, and that one of the reasons he’s able to do fairly complicated math in his head has to do with how the colors interact, or something of that nature. Or, maybe I’m talking out of my butt. That’s possible.

  43. DocGuyver says:

    Steven Den Beste – Your friend from school must have had deafness secondary to an abnormal/underdeveloped/UNdeveloped Cranial Nerve VIII, which is what brings in the input from both sections of the inner ear, the Cochlea, a little spiraling bony organ that is filled with fluid and “feels” the movement of waves through a special fluid with special “hair cells” that are affected by distinct sound frequencies, and the Semi-Circular Canals, which pick up the movement of fluid when your head moves and acts kind of like a cross between an accelerometer. If she wasn’t getting any input from Cranial Nerve VIII, then the movements won’t affect her balance.

    Fun Experiment: Have a friend (or little sibling) sit in a chair that spins, and spin ’em around in circles for a while. Then stop them abruptly and look at their eyes. They’ll be moving back and forth horizontally, because while their heads are still, the fluid in the horizontal Canals will still be spinning, telling the brain that the head is still moving in a circle, and the eyes are reflecting that. Just make sure they don’t get motion sick easy first…

    (BTW – Just discovered this place via DM of the Rings. Fun stuff!)

  44. christopher says:

    I have also been sflicted with the same condition of no balance.
    I have made great advances in the 15 years that I have been facing and taking on this challenge. I currently am relearning how to snowboard and I ride my bicycle as much as possible. this is the first account of another person having the same thing.

  45. Qujoe says:

    I just found your bog last week and have been making my way through the archives. I know this post is now a little old but I thought someone might find this interesting about proprioception. I think someone likened it to touch and it most definitely isn’t. From another site I frequent: DI!


  46. Dana says:

    > I'll back Shamus up on the “body perception is touch” thing,
    > and for exactly the same reason (though only twice). If your
    > arm is numb (it's lost it's sense of touch), then the sense
    > of where it is is gone as well, hence “body perception” is
    > just a part of touch, or at least 100% dependent on it,
    > which works out as the same thing.

    I am WAY after the fact on this one, but this reasoning is completely unfounded. It could just as easily (if not MORE easily) be the case that numbness simply cuts off the sensory inputs of BOTH touch AND kinesthetics.

    Even if they are separate systems (which I think it most reasonable to think of them as being), they still both need to transport their information through the same nerve paths. Your reasoning is analogous to saying, “With the river dammed, neither fish nor boats can travel downstream, therefore fish are boats.” :)

  47. kamagurka says:

    The list of senses is broken anyway. Think about it. Temperature, pain, body awareness, acceleration. We can sense all these things.

  48. Barbs says:

    What about a discussion on the what might be the sixth sense?

    Might it be the sentient thing where we are able to perceive intuitively or to sense something with in our framework – our mind, body and soul? Just like the Inuit Indians in the frozen lands like Alaska, Greenland and Iceland.

    They could not read much of there ambient universe because of the weather conditions. They were taught to read it in an intuitive sense by their tribes people/community. The weather may have reduced there capacity to experience their sense of smell and their ability to touch, hear and see landscape. They would have needed this sixth sense of Perception in order to survive. We can sense we have this sense to a certain degree can’t we?

  49. Julian says:

    Maybe someone has said this, but thera are more “unofficial” senses than the Five Great Old Ones. Balance is one of them. The other is pain, since pain receptors are different than other tactile receptors. The other one I can think off the top of my head is something like “spatial awareness”. It’s the sense that allows you to know where your body parts are. That’s why you can, for instance, scratch your back although you can’t see your back, your hand, or exactly where it is that your back itches.

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