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Sense of sight is the most important for humans, right? Your hierarchy of senses is not objective

Posted November 11, 2018

Humans have many senses – it’s a myth that there are only 5. However, there are 5 senses that traditionally are considered to be the most important – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Interestingly, most of us actually consider their importance in this exact order, but is it a universal concept? Scientists from the University of York say that it is definitely not.

Defining sight as the most important sense is not universal across all cultures. Image credit: Щербаков Сергей Владимирович via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Traditionally we tend to think that the sight is the most important sense for us – it gives us the biggest amount of information. However, scientists argue that that this idea is not universal across all cultures. In other words, while biological and evolutionary factors definitely are important, scientists think that the hierarchy of senses actually is determined by cultures. Said hierarchy was accepted in the science community, but now researchers think that it can be tested by analysing the way people speak about information. For example, English speakers tend to be able to speak easily about the things they are seeing, but the same cannot be said about some other cultures and languages.

Scientists conducted a large-scale experiment to analyse how easily people who natively speak different languages can talk about colours, shapes, sounds, textures, tastes and smells. Speakers of 20 diverse languages were involved in this study and scientists judged the hierarchy of sense by the way these people were able to communicate about information received using each of the senses. The basic idea is that if the sight is the most important, people should be able to describe what they are seeing quite easily. Or, if the touch is the most important, they should be able to describe textures very well and so on.

Of course, English-speaking cultures did not surprise scientists from York – these people had no trouble describing what they are seeing and struggled describing smells. In fact, only individuals from the hunter-gatherer group from Australia speaking Umpila were able to elaborately describe smells.  English-speakers were not great at describing tastes either, but speakers of Farsi and Lao had no trouble in that area. Asifa Majid, one of the authors of the study, said: “In a modern digital-led world, which typically engages sight and hearing, it could be worthwhile learning from other cultures in the way that taste and smell can be communicated, for example. This could be particularly important for the future of some professions, such as the food industry, for example, where being able to communicate about taste and smell is essential.”

Different cultures prioritize different things and depending on how different societies are constructed, they can be very good at describing tastes, but struggle with talking about things they see and vice versa. However, the language is evolving and who knows – maybe in the future we will have a food revolution and people will be very good at describing tastes and smells.


Source: University of York

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