Senses from the Bottom Up (Consumer Understanding #7)

Mar 16 2011

Making sense of the world

It’s time to get ‘tasty’ and come over all ‘touchy feely’!  The senses are our connection to the outside world, through which we build a store of memories to help us predict and control our futures.  The unique value of the human mind is that it makes our behaviour context sensitive, and the context is determined by what we sense around us.

Classically there are five senses, and these are the ones I will focus on, but in fact our senses are more subtle than this.  Although we refer to smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch, several of these senses comprise of multiple feedback systems and ultimately they are all integrated within our brain and checked for patterns which we have experienced before.  For example, vision is built from motion, colour and luminance (brightness), while touch includes pressure, temperature, pain, vibration and movement (called proprioception, which works via nerve endings in our muscles and joints).  And not forgetting that our ears help us keep a sense of balance as well as hear the rhythms of life!

Primal and emotional

Smell is the oldest of the human senses, originating in chemical detection systems found in our early ancestors.  It’s the only sense which has a straight line to our emotions, with the olfactory bulb directly connected to the limbic system (the centre of our emotions).  Although we are very poor smell detectors compared with other animals (for example, many of our pets), the system is still sophisticated and we have the ability to detect 10-20,000 different odours, meaning that most of us don’t have enough vocabulary to describe each of the smells we can come across!

Dumb waiter

By contrast, our sense of taste is limited to five varieties, although our experience of food comes from the combination of taste and smell (with smell dominating).  As well as sweet, sour/acid, salty and bitter, umami (Japanese for tasty) is the fifth taste.  Each of these tastes again reflect a basic detection (or warning) system for the things we bring into our bodies: sweetness indicates an energy source, saltiness comes from mineral salts which are important for body regulation, umami from protein rich food.  On the warning side, sourness is associated with food which is unripe or ‘off’ and bitterness with many of nature’s more poisonous creations.  New born babies already know which of these to approach and which to avoid (and we all have to learn to love the bitterness of beer and coffee).

The rhythm of life

Despite much publicity, the Mozart effect doesn’t exist (I would love to believe it is that easy to become more intelligent).  However, it is true that music has a profound influence on our physiology and, in the case of Mozart and others, music which makes us happy makes us more creative, and faster and more accurate at mental tests.  If you go to the gym, you will notice that music with a faster beat influences the pace of your exercise (you run faster).  Retail stores use these effects commonly, to make us get in and out more quickly in a fast food restaurant, or to linger longer (and spend more money) buying wine for our dinner guests.

Our ears help us to keep balance and to monitor movement and acceleration, but their most important function is to help us keep tempo with the rhythm of the world around us.  Some experiments have shown that the way we interpret music is directly related to the way we evaluate time.  Hearing helps us place events in the outside world into order, and therefore to understand cause and effect.

The dominant sense

Vision dominates the other senses, accounting for more than two-thirds of all sensory processing in the brain (and by some estimates about half of all the brain’s activity).  It has been demonstrated that what we see also dominates our memory of events.  For example, the majority of your audience’s memory of your next presentation will be based on what they see (your body language etc), and less than 10% on what you actually say (the words you speak and show).  As mentioned earlier, vision works from a number of feedback loops, integrating information about motion, shapes, colours, lines and gradients into an object recognition system which we will discuss further in the next article in the series.

Above all, vision has evolved to recognise other people, and their feelings.  We are all experts at facial recognition (and emotional coding), and are drawn to faces immediately when we see them in our environment.  We recognise faces much more quickly than any other objects, and even very young babies prefer looking at facial drawings which are anatomically correct (and can spot their mother’s face on video within 4 days, which is pretty impressive given that their visual perception is still relatively under-developed).  Even with very little information we are able to ‘decode’ the key features and spot a face.

The touch of reality

Your body’s largest organ (by some stretch - pun unintended) is the skin, which encompasses the whole body.  Touch is the only sense which puts in direct contact with the outside world, and our mental sense of our body’s map is vitally important to navigating the world.  Along with hearing, touch is the first sense to develop in the womb, and young babies grow faster and healthier if more regularly touched.

Touch comprises a number of different sensory systems, and information is processed in an area of the brain known as the somatosensory cortex, which contains a  whole map of your body.  Importantly, the amount of brain processing devoted to each area of your body depends on the density of touch receptors, with some ‘vital’ areas much more dominant than others (including hands, feet, lips and tongue among others).  These areas will create much greater impact on your customers perceptions of products, so marketers take care about how you design your brands (why are Apple’s touch screens so much more ‘sticky’ than a keyboard?).

The subtle senses

The senses are our connection with the world around us, the people we love, the objects we treasure and the pleasures we experience.  Smell is a direct route to our emotions, while taste simply helps us eat the right things (and drink the right things too once we train it).  Our ears help us sense the rhythm of life, and our eyes connect us to our fellow humans and their feelings.  Finally, our skin helps us to keep touch with reality.

In the next post we will explore how the senses integrate from the top down, and why our expectations play such an important role in framing our experience of the world.  If you would like to learn more about the senses, join our training workshop here.


A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman (1991)

See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses by Lawrence Rosenblum (2011)

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer (2008)

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (2010)

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