October 12, 2011
Distant Ancestors Had 6th Sense

Not all (or perhaps any) 6th senses are supernatural.

ITHACA, N.Y. People experience the world through five senses but sharks, paddlefishes and certain other aquatic vertebrates have a sixth sense: They can detect weak electrical fields in the water and use this information to detect prey, communicate and orient themselves.

A study in the Oct. 11 issue of Nature Communications that caps more than 25 years of work finds that the vast majority of vertebrates some 30,000 species of land animals (including humans) and a roughly equal number of ray-finned fishes descended from a common ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.

This ancestor was probably a predatory marine fish with good eyesight, jaws and teeth and a lateral line system for detecting water movements, visible as a stripe along the flank of most fishes. It lived around 500 million years ago. The vast majority of the approximately 65,000 living vertebrate species are its descendants.

What this brings up: The idea of enhancing us to have additional senses. Also, existing senses can have ranges and sensitivities extended. Imagine being able to hear much higher frequency sounds. Those who could do this could even work out ways to talk to each other without being heard by the rest of us. Imagine vocal implants for generating higher frequency sounds.

What's more appealing? Seeing a wider range of colors, hearing a wider range of sounds, or perhaps sensing magnetic fields? Or do you have some other type of sensory capability you'd like to have? A wider range of visual focus? Sound filtering built into your ears to hear conversations in noisy areas?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 October 12 09:53 PM  Transhumans Upgrades

Phillep Harding said at October 15, 2011 5:27 PM:

I used to have a higher frequency range hearing than usual, and could not stay in the same room with a CRT type TV, and I had to keep an eye open for those ultra-sonic, motion detector burgler alarms. Electrically amplified music sounded horrible (still does) because I could (still can, just not as well) hear distortion others could not.

Take it from me, hearing with a higher frequency range is no picnic.

ASPIRANT said at October 15, 2011 6:41 PM:

I wish to be able to see the gravy rainbow


Micah said at October 15, 2011 8:38 PM:

There's been stuff done with using the brain's plasticity to add senses... lodestones in the finger to sense EM fields, directional belt to sense true north, etc.

rob said at October 16, 2011 5:29 AM:

Oh, not first. Micah's right, these guys did little magnets implanted in a finger to feel AC current. Seems a bit silly at first glance, but there are jobs where being able to sense if a wire is live or not could keep you alive.


bbartlog said at October 16, 2011 6:35 AM:

Unfortunately, comparison of mammalian senses also suggests that there is a limit to the total amount of sensory input we can handle (due to brain space or brain architecture constraints). Humans, unusual among living creatures, have trichromatic color vision (most mammals are dichromats). But this is not purely 'extra', rather, analysis of the brain suggests that we had to lose a large portion of our olfactory acuity in order to accommodate the richer visual signal. Which is why dogs and pigs, for example, can smell so much better than we can. In turn, there are a few monochromat mammals: cetaceans. They gained new powers of hearing (sonar, such as the dolphins have), but it certainly *looks* like they ended up having to sacrifice part of the visual channel in order to manage it.

Brett Bellmore said at October 16, 2011 6:38 AM:

360 degree vision would be nice, but an actual sense of direction would be better.

My first inclination would have been the ability to see polarization in light. But I typically wear polarized sunglasses, so mission accomplished. And it's actually kind of a pain, what with all the displays designed for people who can't see polarization.

Randall Parker said at October 16, 2011 6:49 PM:


One way to get around the limits on cognitive processing of inputs would be sensors that could shift their range. You'd lose some light frequencies while gaining others for example. Imagine being able to do dynamic range shifting just by thinking about it.

Jacob Clean said at October 17, 2011 3:28 AM:

This is a marvelous theory. I wonder what it would be if we had inherited this sense!

Lono said at October 17, 2011 8:01 AM:


I agree - I have similar issues - I can also still hear that ring that only teens are supposed to hear.

Thankfully I am probably not as sensitive as you - but it has always been highly distracting for me - and only of little benefit from time to time.

I imagine being more sensitve to magnetic or electric signals would drive me bonkers.

I reccomend we keep these augmented "super" senses in our wearable attachments - although I might consider always on enchanced night vision if it was an option.

Brett Bellmore said at October 18, 2011 4:14 AM:

Me and my brother used to torment my sister, back when we were kids, with a high frequency noise generator. She'd be all "Make them stop that noise!", while my parents would be asking "What noise? We don't hear anything." Great fun.

After due consideration I think I'd go for a rather more subtle sense. IIRC, research has shown reliable indicators of when you're making a big mistake, the ability to determine when affective frames are overriding rational ones, and to detect all sorts of cognitive problems. If I had something monitoring my brain activity, and cuing me into when I was likely being less objective than I might like, or shouldn't have rethought something, it could be marvelously helpful.

Parker Bohn said at October 18, 2011 4:22 AM:

Technologically extended senses will quite likely become common and integrated into our lives. In a sense, you could say that phones have already extended our hearing, and internet devices have also extended our sight.

But let's admit that there are a lot more than 5 senses.
Wikipedia lists 9 (with a 10th category for 8 more 'internal senses').

Phos said at October 18, 2011 1:00 PM:

With additional range of spectrum for eyesight, perhaps multiple sets of filter eyelids would be useful. Or a way to activate/deactivate different sets of rods and cones as desired.

I appreciate the observation that different senses come with a cost. Besides just the energy cost, there is a possible processing cost.

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