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Darlene Forde's picture

society helps to determine which receptors (inboxes) we use?

Does society help to determine which receptors (inboxes) we use and whether we interpret them?

Francesa brought up a very interesting and fascinating concept. “Why don’t humans have receptors to “sense” such things as earthquakes and natural disasters? Is the ability to sense . . . merely dormant in our brain? Do we have the potential to “relearn” or “regain”?

Earlier this semester we discussed whether people/society can change genetic population. I argued that not only can we participate actively in such genetic control, but that we participate in this form of behaviour by allowing certain individuals to reproduce who would otherwise be unable to do so. For example, with the aid of science we can allow people who would not be able to reproduce normally (because of disease or genetic disorders, for example) the ability reproduce via artificial means. In this way, we have reconfigured our gene pool. Indeed, we could create a society in which only those who would be unable to reproduce unaided (“people with crappy genes) were allowed to reproduce, while those who would be able to reproduce naturally (“people with good genes”) were prevented from doing so.

In a similar way, I believe that we need to re-evaluate our ability to sense and interpret the world around us. Culture and society are an integral part of shaping the manner in which we use and interpret inboxes.

I believe that the “sixth sense” is merely a loose term applied to sensations that have been received by the body, interpreted by the brain, which do conform to traditional ideas of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing. It may merely rely on a different reliance on different sensation receptors. For example, we know that what we call taste is an experience that incorporates gustation, olfaction and tactile are the three components of taste, yet they involve at least three different types of receptors or “in-boxes”. What if the “sixth sense”—which allows individuals to predict behavior unexplained by our traditional five senses—is merely a combination of a wiring that we have learned to ignore? For example, when we wear perfume or cologne for extended periods of time we no longer smell it. Similarly when we are baking brownies, we notice the initial distinctive baked chocolately odour but overtime we no longer notice the smell. Yet when your roommate enters the apartment, she immediately gets excited because she knows it is “brownie night”. Have we become impervious to these inboxes either through prolonged use or because society refuses to recognize these interpretations as valid?

Many of us have had “gut feelings” that certain things were going to happen. One article in a Netherlands based journal Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Tandheelkunde, (loosely translated as) “A sixth sense: bone as mechanosensor” proposed that bones themselves are mechanoreceptors, sensitive to mechanical and physical change.[1] This suggests that the common phrase ‘I feel it in my bones’, may be accurate statement to describe a certain type of sixth sense. However, society generally does credit the bones as being a sensory organ. The mind/brain therefore may therefore break the association between feelings in the bones and the previous output. Therefore, the ability to make this connection, to experience this sense atrophies.

This example underscores the fact that we need to think more broadly and sophisticatedly about inboxes. For the most part we have considered external stimuli—primarily because these can be the easiest to measure and interpret. We have considered the puzzling case of outboxes or responses that do not appear to be the product of external stimuli. One article presented in the Journal of Internal Medicine entitled “The immune system as a sixth sense”, suggests that we need to be careful of our definitions of “inbox”. [2] In the article, researchers at the University of Alabama describe how the immune system and the nervous system “talk” to one another. These systems have “delineated hardwired and humoral pathways for such bidirectional communication”; in short we may now conceive of the immune system as a series of boxes with connections to the in and outboxes of the nervous system. In this way the nervous system may be “sense” threats to the body in the form of viruses and bacteria.

We have yet to develop an explanation for individuals who have the ability to anticipate natural disasters, or strange phenomenon, by the five sensory system model. It is clear that there are many internal and external mechanisms that may be at play. The ability to predict oncoming earthquakes may merely be a rare combination of a number of different types of sensory cells and neurons, both in and outside of the nervous system. But as with most important things there is still much work to be done on elucidating these mechanisms.


[1] Burger EH “A sixth sense: bone as mechanosensor” Ned Tijdschr Tandheelkd. 2002 Aug;109(8):312.

[2] JE BLOCK. The immune system as the sixth sense. J Intern Med. 2005 Feb;257(2):126-38. Review.

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