Mind & Body

Your Most Important Sense Depends on the Language You Speak

What's the sense that you can describe with the greatest accuracy? We're going to go ahead and guess that you answered "sight." And then "hearing." Maybe "taste" or "touch" is next, with "smell" coming in at the bottom. How can we predict that with so much confidence? It's not because that's how the human mind works. It's because you're reading this in English. According to research, the sense you consider most important depends on the language you speak.

A False Hierarchy of Senses

In Aristotle's Metaphysics, the ancient philosopher suggests a certain hierarchy of the senses (based on the false assumption that we only have five). Sight is at the top, he said, followed by hearing, smell, touch, and taste. You might disagree with him about the specific order of those senses — smell, in particular, is notoriously hard to describe in English — but you're probably pretty comfortable saying that sight and hearing are the two senses humans use most frequently to understand the world they navigate. Unfortunately, you'd be completely wrong.

It's hard to say what the true hierarchy of the senses is, especially since almost every study of the subject has focused almost exclusively on Western cultures. In November, a new study set out to map what's called the "codability" of various senses in different languages and cultures.

Codability refers to how accurately a language reflects the world. If every participant in a study used the same word to describe a particular sensory experience (like a shape, color, smell, or sound), that word's codability score would be a 1. If every participant used a different word to describe that experience, the score would be 0. The higher the score, the more accurately the word conveys sensory information.

Spearheaded by an international team led by Asifa Majid from the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics, this new project targeted 20 largely unrelated languages from around the world, including a few nonverbal sign languages such as ASL and BSL. The researchers tested these languages' codability of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and two different facets of sight — shape and color.

In English, as predicted, color got the highest codability score, followed by shape. But only five other languages put either of those visual senses at the top. In fact, taste came out as the overwhelming winner, earning the high score in 11 of the 20 languages examined. Not only that, but only four languages featured a sense perception with a score above 0.75 — and all four were taste. In Lao, taste earned a 1, the highest possible score. Every single Lao-speaking participant used the exact same words to describe each and every taste perception.

The hierarchy of the senses across languages according to the mean codability of each domain, with the presumed universal Aristotelian hierarchy on Top. There is no universal hierarchy of the senses across diverse languages worldwide.

Making Sense of It

It's fascinating how a sense's power to describe the world doesn't necessarily reflect human biology; it's more of a reflection of the speaker and where they come from than anything else. In another study led by Asifa Majid that came out earlier this year, researchers learned that this isn't even necessarily a matter of language. This paper had a much narrower focus. It was aimed at the Semaq Beri and the Semelai, two distinct cultures on the Malay Peninsula. Although the Semaq Beri are largely hunter-gatherers and the Semelai are a horticulturalist society, they share an environment and their languages are closely related.

This study didn't run such a wide gamut of sense perceptions, focusing instead on smell and color. And some pretty stark differences stood out, even among these close neighbors. The horticultural Semelai earned a codability score of 0.46 on color recognition, but only a 0.03 for smells. That's pretty comparable to the English scores for those same senses. But while the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri scored slightly worse for colors with a 0.3, they blew the Semelai out of the water with a 0.26 for smells. That suggests that codability isn't just about the language that you speak, but the culture that you're raised in.

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The senses aren't just biological. They have a fascinating cultural history as well, and you can learn all about in Diane Ackerman's "A Natural History of the Senses." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 4, 2018

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