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This is the on-line version of the “Abcderium of Extra/Sensory Powers,”1 which makes up the final chapter of The Sixth Sense Reader (2009). The Sixth Sense Reader is the final volume in the Sensory Formations series from Berg Publishers of Oxford. Earlier volumes in this series dealt with the senses of vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. All these senses correspond to bodily organs: the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, and the skin or flesh.  It is an open question whether the sixth sense has any corresponding organ, because everything depends on how you define it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sixth sense as:

“A supposed intuitive faculty by which a person or animal perceives facts and regulates action without the direct use of any of the five senses.”

This definition does not do justice to the rich history of this notion, for there are many other powers besides intuition that have been called the sixth sense (as discussed further below).  The OED definition is also problematic for the way it treats “the five senses” as self-evident while characterizing the sixth sense as a “supposed” faculty, as suspect. The notion that human beings possess five senses is far less settled historically, cross-culturally or scientifically than this definition presumes. “The five senses” are no less putative, no more real, than the sixth. If anything, they are more symbolic for numbering five. Five is the “symbol of harmony and equilibrium, and symbol of man (who possesses five extremities: head, arms, legs)” (as noted by Jean-Didier Bagot et al. in L’ABCdaire des Cinq Sens). The numeral six does not carry the same symbolic weight (at least not in the Western tradition). It lacks the connotation of completeness.2 These symbolic considerations go much further than any physiological considerations3towards explaining why the sixth sense seems supernumerary — and is forever condemned to play the role of supplement.

Most of the entries in this Abcderium have been mentioned in the body of The Sixth Sense Reader. They are based on explicit characterizations of the faculty or form of percipience in question as the—or, a—sixth sense, seventh sense, eighth sense, etc., by a given author, or within a particular culture or historical period. For example, as noted in the “The Revolving Sensorium” (the introduction to The Sixth Sense Reader), speech was explicitly identified as the sixth sense in Raymond Lull’s Liber sexti sensus, which dates from the fourteenth century; Franz Anton Mesmer appropriated the term and used it to designate animal magnetism in the eighteenth century; Sherrington extended this label to the newly discovered power of proprioception in the 1890s; since the 1930s, the sixth sense has come to be synonymous with extrasensory perception (ESP), and so on. Looking across cultures, we find that “mind” is regarded as the sixth sense in the Buddhist tradition, that the liver is considered a percipient centre in many cultures, that the genitals are thought to possess a sentience of their own in diverse societies (i.e. they are sense organs not just sex organs), and so on.

In some cases liberties have been taken, such as listing a “film sense,” which comes from the book of the same name by Sergei Eisentstein (1942)  Though he never refers to the “film sense” as a sixth sense, Eisenstein is clearly describing a new, synaesthetic  modality of perception produced by cinematic experience. Marshall McLuhan would have approved of this inclusion, for he saw all media as “extensions of the senses,” and therefore generative of new forms of experience. Hence the inclusion of media in our list, and also hallucinogens – another source of excess sensation.

The eighteenth century was something of a watershed in the history of the senses in view of the number of new senses that were put forward for discussion during this period, such as a moral sense, which was dubbed the sixth sense; the sense of beauty, which was named the seventh sense; and a public sense, which figured eighth. While these senses obviously merit inclusion in our list, so do the seemingly familiar senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, for the understanding of their capacities varies widely across cultures and in different historical periods. In premodernity, for example, the sense of smell was believed to be able to sniff out sanctity and sin, while in our own time the Desana of Colombia hold that it is possible to smell emotions.

The fluidity of the bounds of sense in any given cultural-historical context is the reason for the slash in the term extra/sensory as used in the title of this chapter: it is important not to prejudge what falls within and what lies “beyond the five senses” (the slash, being moveable, makes the suspension of judgment possible). The use of the term power, rather than “organ” or “faculty” is motivated by similar considerations. Powers can be acquired, though they may appear to be innate, and they can be developed, so their exercise always signals the role of technique in human perception.

Abcderium of Extra/Sensory Powers

Animal Magnetism (Mesmer); Anomalous Cognition; Anpsi; Balance; Beauty; Being stared at (Sheldrake); Blink (Gladwell); Body (Cashinahua and other); Bones (Andean and other); Clairalience; Clairaudience; Clairgustance; Clairsentience; Clairvoyance; Coenesthesia; Common Sense; Common Sense, The (or sensus communis); Cosmic Consciousness; Déjà vu; Direction; Dowsing; Dreaming; Echolocation; Electroreception; ESP; Film Sense (Eisenstein); Genital; Gut Feeling; Hallucinogens; Hearing; Heart; Honor; Humor; Imagination; Inner Senses (Medieval); Instinct; Internal Senses (Eighteenth Century); Interoceptive Senses (Nineteenth and Twentieth Century); Intuition; Jacobson’s Organ; Kinaesthesis; Liver; Magnetic; Mass Media; Memory; Mimetic Faculty; Mind (Buddhism); Moral Sense; Navigation; Occult; Pain; Paroptic Vision; Pineal Gland; Plant Psi; Precognition; Premonition; Pressure; Proprioception; Psychokinesis; Psychometry; Public Sense; Quintessence; Remote-viewing;  Second Brain (Gershon); Second Sight (Scottish); Sight; Smell; Speech; Spiritual Senses (Origen, Swedenborg); Synaesthesia; Taste; Telepathy; Temperature; Third Ear; Third Eye; Touch; Trance; Unconscious (Freud); Vibration; Visionary; Whiskers; Wind (Navajo and other); X-ray; Yogic; Zen Meditation

One of the advantages of making the Abcderium available on-line is that it can expand, interactively. Readers are invited to submit documented suggestions for additional entries to senses@alcor.concordia.ca. Proposed new entries will be reviewed and may be incorporated into subsequent versions of the Abcderium. More cross-cultural examples would be especially welcome.

Every two weeks or so this site will be updated until all of the terms in the section marked “Entries to Follow” have been defined and moved to the “Index.” In this way a picture will emerge, gradually, of the whole range of powers of perception and uses of the senses that fall outside the normative vision of the sensorium enshrined in such works as Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses or E.Bruce Goldstein’s Sensation and Perception (any edition). These two texts – one by a poet, the other by a psychologist – have contributed massively to stultifying our understanding of how the senses function by naturalizing and psychologizing perception respectively. The purpose of this abcderium is to show that there can be no “natural history” of the senses – particularly not of the sixth sense — only cultural histories.


1.     An Abcderius is “an Enlightenment-era format that uses the stochastic variable of the alphabet to generate categories for thinking” according to Caroline A. Jones, writing in the introduction to Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (2006). In the case of the Sensorium Abcderius, the emphasis is on the generation of categories “for thinking the body through its technological mediations.” Where the present work differs from Sensorium is in the attention it accords to the “techniques of the senses” – or “ways of sensing” — which exist before and alongside the technological mediation of perception. I should note that another influential model for the elaboration of the present Abcderium was L’ABCdaire des Cinq Sens (1998) by J.-D. Bagot et al.

2.    The numbers one and two are loaded with symbolic meaning   So too with three as in “the Trinity,” four as in “the four seasons” or “the four temperaments,” five as in “the five senses” or “the Pentateuch,” and even seven as in “the seven ages of man” or “the seven deadly sins.” Six is not so blessed. What more can one say of it? That it is “half a dozen”? True. That it crops up in the expression “to be at sixes and sevens”? This usage is interesting for the way it suggests an element of instability or disarray, of confusion rather than completion attached to six; but surely this connotation derives from the oscillation, not the numeral. That it has to do with “the number of the beast” (666)? This usage is also interesting. Plainly six is not asymbolic. But nor is it cardinal in the same way five or seven are. “Life” or “the universe” do not hinge on it. Six is a subordinate number, a prime example of the supernumerary, the suppemental.

3.     For an interesting example of physiological reasoning applied to the delimitation of the sixth sense see T. Neil Davis, “A Sixth Sense?” Alaska Science Forum article # 352 http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF3/352.html