Scientists Believe We Have More Than 5 Senses. What Does That Mean for Highly Sensitive People?

A woman looking thoughtfully to the side with the words, “Scientists Believe We Have More Than 5 Senses. What Does That Mean for Highly Sensitive People?”

Research suggests humans may have up to 33 senses, not five. How many of them could impact your high sensitivity — and sensory overload? 

We’re all familiar with the classical five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, and their impact on our day-to-day lives. Bright lights, noisy spaces, rough clothes, peculiar tastes, and strong odors can send some of us reeling. But what about our other senses? Scientists now define as many as 33 distinct senses, depending on how they interpret what counts as a “sense.” 

When I discovered I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) I started wondering what the impact of our sensitivity was for these other senses, only a few of which were known to me. Highly sensitive people can be defined as those whose brains are wired to spend extra time and resources to process information more deeply than others. This deeper processing gives HSPs many advantages, but also means they get overstimulated easily by excessive sensory input. 

But do all 33 of the human senses contribute to that sensory overload equally? Personally, I experience effects from at least 11 possible senses, including the classical five — and some of them are more prone to overload than others. That makes me wonder: How many more of these senses affect HSPs? And how you can manage that overload if it’s coming from senses you may not even be consciously aware of? I decided to dig into the research to get the answers.

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The 6 ‘Extra’ Senses That Stress HSPs the Most

While not all researchers agree on all 33 senses, there are at least six additional senses (beyond the classical five) that are widely agreed on. Personally, I can vouch that all six of them do contribute to my moments of overstimulation, often in surprising ways. They are:

1. Equilibrioception (Sense of Balance)

You may think of balance as part of your sense of touch. In reality, it’s controlled by a completely different system. Your sense of balance is managed by the vestibular system in the inner ear, which operates independently of your ability to feel things that touch your skin. In fact, equilibrioception doesn’t require touching anything at all; it’s an internal sense of orientation. This system helps you determine your position and movement, specifically the movement of your head, in relation to gravity. You can think of it as a natural gyroscope. 

Balance — and imbalance — can contribute heavily to feelings of physical overwhelm. Looking back on my childhood, I can’t count the number of times I got sick on carnival rides, in cars and buses, and on boats (even when I didn’t realize they were on water!) If you ever get motion sickness, that is your reaction to the sense of balance in action.

Avoiding situations that cause motion sickness in today’s world is difficult. We all have to get somewhere and usually by some moving transportation system. Tips for preventing motion sickness include being the driver, sitting up front in a car or bus, or sitting over the wing of the airplane; avoiding reading while in motion; staying well hydrated; and closing your eyes or sleeping. Of course, there are also over-the-counter medications and ginger supplements may reduce motion sickness as well.

2. Proprioception (External Body Awareness)

Your sense of proprioception, found in the fibers of your muscles, is what allows you to move your hands and feet without having to see them. It is knowing where the parts of our body are in space without visual clues. This helps you play instruments, sports, and ride bikes. It’s well known that many musicians are highly sensitive people. According to the book Sensitive by Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman, many top athletes are, too. This connection makes sense; the keener your awareness of proprioception, the higher your potential for kinesthetic intelligence or control over your body’s movements. 

Still, HSPs are often called “stay back and watch” people. We are not eager to engage our bodies in activities where we are unsure how to use them, or we where will become overwhelmed by the experience of keeping track of our limbs as they fly through dance poses or karate moves. For many of us, our proprioception’s main job is keeping us safe. Thus, we hang back unless we have practiced enough to know exactly where our bodies are going to end up. 

Soothing proprioceptive sensations might include a weighted blanket, yoga, or fidgets such as a stress ball, kneading putty, or rubbing a favorite material. These can be useful not only for proprioceptive overload, but also for reducing the anxiety associated with most other overwhelming sensations as well.

One other way to reduce stress related to proprioception is to regularly practice a sport or physical art form — whether it be yoga, dance, or soccer. This is because HSPs’ problem is not a lack of body control, but a greater awareness of the limits of our skill as beginners than other people may have. Routine daily practice helps you gain confidence and control in your movements. For HSPs, that can actually make you the most coordinated person in the room (or on the team) rather than the least. 

3. Interoception (Internal Body Awareness)

Interoception is sometimes seen as a system of senses including those that indicate hunger, thirst, tiredness, the urge to go to the restroom, and the largely unconscious need to maintain oxygen levels, blood pressure, and a reasonable heart rate. In other words, interoception consists of the senses that keep you alive.

Do you find yourself hangry much? Does exhaustion wear you down? Do you ever need to pee so urgently that you get agitated? These are some of the signs that your interoceptors are on overdrive and are influencing your emotions.

Being aware of your body’s needs is important to maintaining your physical and emotional balance. Begin to recognize the early signs of hunger or thirst if you have squashed them as part of trying to reduce your oversensitivity. In this, a little bit of prevention goes a long way: carry your water bottle with you everywhere, and consider eating at set times each day so that you never put off doing so. Likewise, pay attention to the indications of overwhelm and subsequent exhaustion that comes with dealing with sensory overload, crowds, and emotional situations. Simply put: use this sense to learn to take care of yourself — whether that be calming rapid breathing or putting away screens so you can get sleepy at bedtime. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

4. Nociception (Sense of Pain)

Your sense of nociception becomes active when your body has been harmed or is in imminent danger of harm. Prior to that, other senses may relay heat, cold, or pressure, but not until it reaches a critical point do your nociceptors (pain receptors) react.

In HSPs, they may react sooner or more strongly than in non-HSPs, giving you an early warning of danger. This is a good thing! The downside, however, if that you may feel pain from things that wouldn’t hurt others, or may feel pain more intensely than others do. This extra sensitivity is the characteristic “very sensitive to pain” item on HSP self-tests.

Pain is no joke. Even if it is just a little pain to someone else, it can be overwhelming to me. Be it my physician sticking a needle in me or my dentist cleaning my teeth, I always have to tell doctors that I am hypersensitive to pain. I’ve also learned to cause myself some (non-harmful) distracting pain in another place to help alleviate that pain, for example, digging my fingernails into my hand to avoid noticing the pain of a blood draw. After any major medical procedure, I try to describe my pain as clearly as possible in order for the proper pain medication to be administered. And I repeat it again and again if necessary until I am in a place to be able to manage what I am experiencing.

One of the most important ways to use your sense of nociception, however, is preventatively: take all pain seriously. If there is a tiny twinge in your knee as you crouch down, assume it’s important and see a doctor now, not after it gets worse. Many people are not “blessed” with this early warning sense of pain and would keep overusing their knee until it’s truly damaged; since nature gave you the chance to catch it early, take that gift — however unpleasant it may be — and use it to avoid injury. 

5. Thermoception (Sense of Temperature)

Your sense of temperature works both internally and externally to keep us functioning properly. For example, this sense signals the brain for you to shiver or sweat to help maintain the appropriate temperature for your internal organs. It also detects the skin temperature through nerves there to prevent burn or frostbite, or just to keep us comfortable.

Have you ever turned the air conditioning up a few of degrees, then down a couple of degrees, then up just one more degree to find that perfect temperature? Non-HSPs may not be down-to-the-degree sensitive to air temperature changes, but just that one degree can make the difference between comfortable and sweater for me.

“You can always put more on, but I can’t take any more off!” While that might be true, I can only put on so many layers before I am unable to move comfortably. Winter time in my house is a fight over the thermostat. Summer time, too. Who knew you could be cold all year round? (Thanks, excessive AC!) I’ve started investing in warmer thin clothing that I can use throughout the year to keep the chill off and still be able to layer a sweater or flannel over to adjust my temperature. Summer heat outdoors can also cause challenges for me as heat exhaustion seems to set in more readily than with other people, requiring me to keep a hat and lightweight, light-colored clothing handy on my journeys through nature.

Remember: if you don’t do anything about uncomfortable temperatures, your body will do it for you, and you may not like its solution. For example, the reason your ears, fingers and toes get cold in the winter is because your body is willing to sacrifice them by conserving heat in the core of the body to protect your vital organs. (Putting on one sweater is likely to do more to warm up your fingers than all the gloves in the world!) So do everything possible to take your body’s warnings seriously and adjust temperature or layers as soon as possible. You may even consider wearing socks to bed at night, which is proven to improve sleep quality. Why? Because it means your body can rest instead of working overtime to keep your extremities warm. 

6. Chronoception (Sense of Time)

Our sense of time only shows up on some lists of human senses, but with circadian rhythms and a mental perception of time passing, there are plenty of researchers who do identify it as a sense. This sense influences your eating and sleeping times and gives you a feel for the length of time of other tasks.

In HSPs this is the time rush we experience when many tasks are coming at us in a short amount of time. We may know there is plenty of time to complete these tasks (or not!), but the flurry of them overwhelms us in the moment due to our time sensitivity. This is the famed “time anxiety” that plagues so many overwhelmed HSPs. Likewise, there are occasions when time stretches out and a few minutes feels like an hour or it shrinks and an hour passes and it feels like a few minutes!

One common suggestion to combat time anxiety is not to wear a watch. While that might work for some, being on a computer all day, I have a clock staring at me all the time, reminding me how quickly or slowly time is passing. Setting my schedule, taking breaks, making lists and prioritizing tasks all help to reduce the overwhelm. Have a system before you need it. When things are coming at you one after another, how will you handle them? A list of priorities? A pile of post-its? Keeping everything in your head? (Not recommended!) There are some great books on organizing tasks and getting things done that can minimize some of the overwhelm, but perhaps the most important advice for HSPs is: cut it back. Say no to more requests where possible, develop boundaries around your time, “single-task” as much as you can, and build empty space into your schedule

Do Humans Have Thirty-Three Senses?

The exact number of senses that humans have depends on which researcher you ask. If we do have 33 senses, however — the highest estimate — we have only covered 1/3 of them here. How many others do we struggle with overload from and how many can we temper with timely strategies and prevention? The answer likely varies from one highly sensitive person to another. What is true for all of us, however, is that you don’t have to live your life avoiding Life — nor avoiding your senses. Instead, develop an awareness of your own unique early-warning signs for overstimulation, no matter which sense it’s coming from. Once you do that, you can ask for what you need before things get out of control. And you can start to live free over overstimulation and enjoy a more comfortable life — in a richer sensory world. 

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