What are senses?
Think about what happens when Mum or Dad tells you that dinner is ready – you can hear them asking you to wash your hands, feel the water and soap against your skin, smell what’s cooking, see your chair at the table and taste the food on your plate. You can do all of that thanks to your senses!
Senses allow us to observe and understand the world around us. There are five main ways we can do this: through sight (with our eyes), touch (with our fingers), smell (with our nose), taste (with our tongue) and hearing (with our ears).
Top 10 facts
- There are five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing.
- Our senses help us to understand what’s happening around us.
- Our senses send messages through receptor cells to our brain, using our nervous system to deliver that message.
- There are four kinds of taste receptors on the tongue – bitter, sweet, salt and sour.
- Some parts of the skin are more sensitive than others – this is because they have more receptor cells.
- We taste food using both our sense of taste and smell.
- It’s fun to experiment with your senses – for example, make a chart of what foods taste bitter, sweet, salty and sour.
- If you cup your hand around your ear, you’ll hear more things – this is because you’re helping your ear gather more sounds.
- Not everyone is able to use all five of their senses. If someone cannot see, they are blind; if someone cannot hear, they are deaf.
- We can use all five of our senses at the same time without even realising it!
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Did you know?
- Our tongue can have 2,000-8,000 taste buds on it!
- We need our sense of smell in order for our sense of taste to work properly – if you hold your nose shut while you eat, the taste won’t be as strong. It’s why food sometimes tastes plain when we have a cold and our nose is blocked up.
- Most of our ear is in our head – not the bit we can see!
- The part of our ear that we can see helps gather sound waves into our middle and inner ear. If you cup your hard around your ear, you can hear more – why not give it a try?
- Our ears have around 24,000 sensory cells.
- The smallest bone in our bodies is in our ears – it’s called the stirrup.
- The iris and retina inside your eye don’t look like anyone else’s, just like…
- …your fingerprints – nobody else has fingerprints like yours!
- The skin is the largest organ we have – it covers our whole body!
- If someone is not able to see, they are known as blind. They can learn a special way to read books by touching pages to read words made from little bumps in the page – this is called Braille.
- If someone is not able to hear, they are known as deaf. Sign language is a way of talking by using your hands, and this way deaf people can understand what you’re saying.
Can you spot these images in the gallery below?
- Hearing (an ear)
- Touch (holding hands)
- Small (the scent of roses)
- Vision (a human eye)
- Taste (an ice cream)
- An illustration of the five senses
- Short explanations of each of the five senses
- Pictures of what you can do with each of the five senses
- Individual pictures illustrating what the five senses are
The taste receptors on our tongue are organised with bitter at the very back, sour and salt in the middle, and sweet at the tip.
Our eyes use two kinds of receptor cells – cones, which help us see colour, and rods, which enable us to see at night by telling our brain what’s black and white.
Ears have three parts – outer, which is the bit we can see and helps to guide sounds into your ear, middle, where the sounds around us vibrate, and the inner, which receives these vibrations and turns them into signals that get sent to our brain.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you smell something very strongly (like fish at the fishmonger’s counter when you go food shopping with your mum), then after a few minutes the smell starts to go away? That’s because our nose has stopped sending signals to our brain, so our brain thinks that the smell isn’t really there anymore.
More than 75% of the taste of food that you’re eating comes from your sense of smell, not your sense of taste.
There are around 20 million neurons all the way up inside our nose in the area that detects smell.
Some parts of our skin are more sensitive than others, like our palms and fingertips, for instance. We can feel things more strongly there than we can on our back.
Words to know for your senses:
Auditory nerve – the nerve in our ear that carries signals to our brain to interpret sound
Brain – the centre of the nervous system; our brain interprets the messages it receives from our senses, and figures out how to act based on that information (for instance, it tells our hand to move away quickly if we touch something that’s too hot)
Cones – receptor cells in our eyes that let us see different colours
Nerve impulses – how messages are sent to our brain to interpret and act on
Nervous system – a network that transmits signals all over our body through special cells called neurons
Olfactory system – the system for our sense of smell
Receptor cells – these respond to stimuli and sends nerve impulses to the brain
Rods – receptor cells in our eyes that interpret black and white, and help us see at night
Sense organs – groups of receptor cells
Stimulus – something that causes a response – for instance, if you touch something that’s too hot, you will immediately move your hand away; the plural of stimulus is stimuli
Taste buds – receptor cells for taste located all over our tongue
Just for fun...
- Take a free online hearing test.
- Have a go at these challenging wordsearches about each of the five senses: Eye; Ear; Touch and the skin; Taste
- Put your taste buds to the test with some tasting experiments
- 'Taste' a smell test!
- Try some senses experiments at home.
- Use an interactive sound ruler.
- Try some experiments to find your blind spot.
- See your name in Braille.
- Create your own tongue map.
- Use a noise meter to listen to sounds.
- Complete a quiz about ears.
- Hear tiny sounds with a Super Sound Cone!
- See lots of optical illusions
Children's books about the senses
Find out more about your senses
Find out about supertasters and why they experience taste more intensely than other people
Watch a kids' video about the five senses and a video about how Information collected through the senses is processed in the brain
Some animals can see in the dark much better than we can! Find out about night vision in the animal kingdom
Watch an introduction to the five senses
See for yourself
- Try these fun experiments for the five senses.
- Look through the British Library's webspace, If Homes Had Ears, to listen to the weird and wonderful sounds in our homes, from the whistle of the kettle to the chirping of birds outside
- Learn all about animal senses.
- Look through the Dangerous Decibels online exhibit to find out more about the dangers of loud sounds
- There are lots of ways to help you experiment with your senses in this senses activities listing
- Try an interactive guide to the human eye to see how we see.