We Have Fifty-Three Senses? But I Can Barely Handle Five!

“Ecopsychology is situated at the intersection of a number of fields of inquiry, including environmental philosophy, psychology and ecology, but is not limited by any disciplinary boundaries. At its core, ecopsychology suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well being; that the needs of one are relevant to the other.”

—International Community for Ecopsychology


“We have 53 senses? But I can barely handle five!” This comment from one of my workshop participants got me thinking. How did we learn to think of more support and connection as overwhelming? Perhaps we simply weren’t taught to experience our sensory connections with Earth as real or valuable.

The root of the misconception lies in how overwhelming our lives are when we operate with just a few dominant, ungrounded senses. That workshop participant assumed the more senses used, the greater her exposure to stress via over stimulation.

Just the opposite is true.

Think of each of your five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight) as a rock in the foundation that supports your home. Five stones won’t allow an addition off the main house, nor will they support the weight of a second story. A storm might push your home off such a minimal foundation. The more senses you awaken and use the more support you will have in all your endeavors. More is better. The more sensory support you have, the less stress you”ll experience. When stress does sneak up, your sense-ability’s wisdom naturally helps you understand the source of your stress and guides you to what is needed to feel alive and whole again.

Sensory ecopsychology, a branch of ecopsychology, focuses on how the quality of human life is directly linked to the quality of one’s relationship with nature via the senses. Michael Cohen, a leader in the field of ecopsychology, has devoted 40 years to teaching and researching this science, also known as organic psychology.

Late on a winter evening, I was on my way home from Albany, New York. On the thruway entry ramp, I was struck by an urge to pull over. I honored this urge and stopped—even though my mind pointed out there was no problem. As I stepped out of the car my feet touched down on black ice. Cars drove by ignoring my waves to slow down. I sat in the car for 20 minutes watching car after car pass my warning flails and lights. Each passing car’s brake lights lit up at the curve of the ramp just before sliding out of control. Why did I stop and why did they not? Perhaps the drivers were preoccupied—thinking about work, listening to the radio or simply unable to find a rational explanation for subtle sensory communications like the ones I’d experienced.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission conducted a study and discovered the average American spent 95 percent of adult life indoors. We are designed to experience our sensory connections as a part of the natural environment, yet the walls of our cars, homes and work places literally cut us off from ourselves. The foundation and anchor to life—our multi-sensory nature—is often muted by walls.

Think of a time you have been really thirsty. Recall a hot day when you took a hike and forgot your water bottle, or maybe you were stuck in line somewhere after eating a bag of salty chips. That sense of thirst is real, just as real as the water that will satisfy it. This is a sense, the sense of thirst. You can’t see, taste, touch, hear, or smell it, but it is real. Without this sense we would not know when our body becomes dehydrated.

We Need Nature

Healing our senses is not only essential to life, but to our happiness as well. Our exquisite sensory nature helps preserve our species and keeps us aware of being a part of the web of life. Our sensory connection to Earth’s diversity of life insures healthy food, air, water and companionship. When the connection is compromised, we as a species make political, environmental, scientific, and social decisions without the input of nature, and outcomes are often not sustainable.

Depression, anxiety and obesity are at epidemic proportions in the U.S. We are facing unprecedented environmental challenges, directly linked to human activity. More often then not, these are the symptoms of the disruption of our primal relationship with nature. Distress is the courier, communicating the message of a broken connection to this essential relationship. Rigorous scientific studies indicate that self-esteem and cognitive function increase, and depression and symptoms of attention-deficit disorder decrease, in those who spend time in intimate contact with the natural world. We make better choices when we are aware of being a part of, rather then apart from, nature.

Cohen breaks down these 53 senses and sensitivities into four categories. Just to give you a quick idea as to your vast sensory potential, I’ve listed a few senses under each category below. You can find the full list in Cohen’s book Reconnecting With Nature.


“The radiation senses: sense of color, sense of moods and identities associated with color, sense of temperature.
“The feeling senses: sensitivity to gravity, air and wind pressure, and motion.
“The chemical senses: hormonal sense, such as pheromones, hunger for food, water or air.
“The mental senses: pain, external and internal, mental or spiritual distress, sense of self, including friendship, companionship and power, psychic capacity.

These many senses are the real stuff that feeds our body, mind and soul. Senses and sensations usually feel alien to a modern person brought up closeted from life’s sensory connections. Reason is a sense unique to our species; however it is no more valuable than the other 52 senses. Alone, this sense can be our own worst enemy and the guard at the door of our closet. It might be scary to venture out, especially given our cultural attitude about nature being wild, primitive and destructive.

That winter night, I was able to honor my senses by acting on them. I sensed the freezing temperature on my skin as I got into my car, and the quality of the street lamp’s light reflecting on the road. My car’s motion felt a bit different than expected, affecting my sense of balance as I steered. I might have sensed stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) from drivers that had driven and slid on the ramp before I arrived.

As I made these subtle sensory connections I felt a healthy surge of adrenaline before stopping the car. The adrenaline alerted me to my sense of fear and dread of injury. Acknowledging the fear, even though I had no logical reason to be experiencing it, heightened my sensitivity to the subtle cues and I made a good decision. Once stopped, my sense of reason put some of the sensory input together and I confirmed my suspicions by placing my foot on the black ice covering the road surface.Take time to honor your senses. Experience the senses nature designed for our survival. See how you can ally your dominant cognitive senses of thinking and reason with the true sustenance only your multi—sensory self can provide.

Recommended Books
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Brown (Sierra Club Books)
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books)
My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization by Chellis Glendinning (Shambhala)
Reconnecting with Nature: Finding Wellness through Restoring Your Bond with The Earth by Michael J. Cohen (Ecopress)

CONTACTS: Project NatureConnect; International Community for Ecopsychology; A Natural Sense

MARLOW SHAMI, M.S., is a nature-based therapist, teacher and author. She conducts workshops, and publishes the quarterly e-zine NaturalSense. Her specialty is the healing connection between humans and the natural world. You can subscribe to the free NaturalSense e-zine at www.anaturalsense.com.