The Truth Behind a “Sixth Sense”
When people use the term “sixth sense,” they usually think of the ability to see apparitions and spiritual entities, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 movie starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. This idea is widely accepted and certainly cinematic, but does it function as a literal sixth sense?
The ability to see and effectively communicate with those who are not of this plane of existence has become a widespread definition of this term. However, the truth of the matter is not necessarily an added sense, but rather an interdimensional connection involving the five existing senses. The addition of another sense could lead to a similar perception, but would probably lead to an entirely different experience.
What would constitute as a sixth sense? One idea is the extra perception of heat, much like a pit viper. A viper’s pit organ detects infrared rays (which are given off in nearly every heat-releasing reaction), which maps out a thermal reading with an approximately one-meter radius. However, this ability is directly linked to the part of the snake’s brain that interprets touch, temperature, and pain, so it would technically be an extension of the sense of touch and not a new sense (source).
Do any senses exist that are not associated with one of the five other senses? Many fish and a few mammals have developed a kind of sixth sense. Electroreception is the ability to perceive different electric stimuli. The two methods of electroreception are active and passive. Active electroreception is much like how an electric eel detects prey: it sends out an electric impulse and detects how the generated electric field distorts and changes based on surroundings. Passive electroreception is the perception of electric fields generated by other organisms. However, this sense is found almost exclusively in semi-aquatic or aquatic species because water conducts electricity much better than air (source). Because humans generally spend most of their time above water, it would be practically useless. Even though having this particular sixth sense would qualify for our definition, it would have little or no effect on the behavior of those who had it.
If humans did develop a sixth sense, the most likely scenario would be a genetic mutation that would start on an infinitesimally small scale, likely a single human being. This particular specimen, whom for this article’s purposes will be called “Patient Zero,” would grow up being able to receive stimuli and messages that no other person could. All social constructs in human society are based on the five original senses. To add another sense into the mix would undoubtedly cause much confusion for Patient Zero. He/She would have a plane of understanding that could not be shared or empathized with. Because no other person could interact with Patient Zero on his/her unique plane of understanding. This will most likely end in one of two ways. On one hand, Patient Zero will learn to “tune out” this sixth sense and live a normal life using only the five senses the rest of humanity is given. On the other hand, the unique qualities of Patient Zero’s sensory experience may drive him/her to madness because of the lack of understanding. Patient Zero would not be able to communicate the experience of having a sixth sense simply because the social construct of language is tailored to only five senses. The only words that could describe something like that experience would be “perceive,” “detect,” “sense,” and their associated derivatives. Other members of society would likely deem Patient Zero crazy and possibly administer similar treatment as schizophrenics.
Another thought about this theoretical sixth sense is the question of how would such a sense manifest itself? The brain would undoubtedly have to be altered. If this new sense is truly separate from every other sense in the body, then it would need an added lobe on each side of the brain that would help in this perception process. The chemicals associated with such perception would likely be a new type of organic chemical hitherto unheard of. A new sensory organ would have to develop on the body somewhere, likely on the head somewhere, like most of the other senses. One possibility is a facial pit much like that of a pit viper, which would just need nerves leading directly to this new area of the brain instead of the touch receptors.
Another possibility is an added dimension of emotion. Each of the five senses has a facet of emotion associated with it. People give off visual cues to their emotions and behaviors, sound-based cues (like spoken language) are used to communicate emotion, emotions can change based on olfactory and taste-related cues, and emotions can be expressed based on how harshly or gently someone touches nearby objects. If another sense is added, then a whole new set of cues is available to create or alter emotions. This could make life even more confusing for Patient Zero. If he/she cannot communicate these new emotions or emotional cues effectively, that could also lead to the idea from before about being treated for a schizophrenia-related mental illness.
There are many more facets that would change if a new sensory experience were added to the human body. It is possible that those affected would live extraordinarily different lives than the rest of humanity, but until Earth has its own Patient Zero, all of these scenarios are merely up to speculation. This essay should not be taken as fact, but as a vague hypothesis of the possible outcomes involving this idea.