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Sensing the world around us


Explanations > The SIFT Model > Sensing the world around us

The outside world | Five senses: the interface  | Preferences: the first filter| The really inside world | So what


We have five senses with which to sense what is happening in the world around us, although these are not equal. In particular, what we see dominates the other senses, closely followed by what we hear. Touch, taste and smell are significant in specific circumstances (such as eating), but for change they are seldom of interest. This stream of input into our brains is guided by our attention, which turns our heads and moves our bodies, as well as being able to create a narrow or broad focus.



The outside world

The outside world is full of people, machines, trees and much, much more. Or at least so we have inferred. Actually, all that is really there is space, time, energy and matter (and even that can be debated). Everything else is an interpretation that comes later during the inference activity whereby we create meaning from the four basic inputs.


As far as we can tell from our senses, there are three dimensions of space. This can be seen via the light energy which reflects off surfaces. It can be heard through echoes (bats see with their ears). It can also be sensed by touch, as we feel the shape of the world around us.


Time is a mysterious thing, because we do not directly sense it. We actually create our sense of time internally. This makes it a very flexible perception that can be manipulated during interactions with other people.


Energy includes heat, electromagnetic energy (light, microwaves, radio, etc.), the kinetic energy of movement, chemical and nuclear energy. Sound is really waves of kinetic energy as air molecules strike our ears.


Matter is the physical atoms and molecules of solids, liquids and gases. Matter gives off heat energy that we can detect through touch. We can smell gases and taste solids and liquids. Strangely, the closer we get to understanding matter, the less we find is actually there. Atoms are hollow, as are electrons: all that seems to be there is more energy. 

Five senses: the interface

Attention: the shining torch

Our attention is like a torch, shining into areas where we are interested. We move our body, turn our head, and in doing so we focus and limit what is available for our senses.

There are two zones of attention: the real zone of close is very small. For example at any one time we visually focus on only a spot about an inch in diameter. We also have a much broader zone of awareness, although much of this is actually filled in later by our very helpful brains.

Men and women tend to be different in the focus of attention they follow. Men typically will focus on one thing at one time. For example when they are watching a football match, their ears will seem to 'turn off'. Women can do more things at once, watching a television program whilst holding a conversation and maybe even doing some knitting. This is not a item of gender bias: it comes from the different way our brains are wired.


Vision is often a the primary sense as we get much useful information about the world around us from what we see. It is also complex and requires a lot of neural processing to turn it into useful information.

What we can see is limited by spectrum and intensity of electromagnetic radiation to which our eyes are sensitive. Too bright a light hurts, although we can see with surprising little illumination. 


Sound is usually the second most important sense as we not only detect things around us but very importantly use it for our major form of communication: language (without which, we would arguably be little better than our chimpanzee cousins). We also use little noises in our communication, perhaps throwing back to our animal past.

Our hearing is limited to frequencies at best from about 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Above about 100 decibels sound is no longer useful: it is only painful.


Touch is how we connect with the world around us, and our hands are one of our most important organs in this area.

We sometimes communicate with each other through touch, although this can be very intimate activity. Touching another person can be a sign of affection or (if it is rougher) a very clear indicator of dislike.

Something that we often do not notice is that we detect our emotions through touch. When we feel happy, angry or sad, these appear literally as bodily sensations, such as tingling or tension in the skin or deeper muscles.  


Taste is little used in communication, although it can have a strong pleasure element. It is well known by sales people that careful conversation over a good lunch is a powerful persuasion tool.


Smell is closely related to taste. In fact much of what we call taste is actually smell (which is why things become tasteless when we have a cold). Smell can be very evocative of emotions from disgust (at someone with bad breath or who breaks wind) to pleasure (from pheromones to perfumes). Smell is also the only sense that is wired directly into our cortex: all other senses are filtered through the mid-brain. Some of our earliest memories are around smells, and the smell of baby talcum powder will send many people into paroxysms of nostalgia.

Our sense of smell is so powerful, we can detect as little as one molecule. Excessive smell can be overpowering, as skunks know very well.

Preferences: the first filter

All senses are not equal for each person and we all have different balance of preferences for each one. Perhaps these preferences are learned in childhood, as we find greater value in visual or auditory signals and then naturally pay more attention to these, at the expenses of our other senses.

The extent to which we can gain information from a single sense is illustrated by those who have lost one sense and compensate through another. Blind person often have remarkable hearing and the deaf see things that many others do not.

Common preferences 

Some people have a preference for visual signals (and will hence direct their attention this way). This is probably the most popular preference, as the world is literally always in your face. People who are blind are more impaired and have more problems adapting than those who have lost their other senses.

Other people are more attuned to the sounds around them, often in particular the intonation of others' voices. They may find more pleasure in music and are able to distinguish finer note divisions.

Other filters

Touch, taste and smell, although evocative typically contain too little information to be a preference channel for communication. Nevertheless, we each have levels of preference for each of these. These senses do come into their own, but more in specific circumstances, such as at meal times.

The really inside world

One of the most amazing capabilities of our minds is to recreate the outside world inside our heads. Through memories and our imagination, we reconstruct old and construct new images and sensations.

It's all the same

The even more amazing thing about our imagined worlds is that we often cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Yes, of course there are many times when we know that we are actually thinking about future possibilities or having fanciful daydreams. Yet much of our memories as remembered are actually reconstructed from a few recalled key points. We also react to other people based not on what they actually intend, but on what we have imagined for them. 

In and out during communication

When we are talking with other people, we alternate between the outer world and our inner world. Outside we are sensing and then interpreting it back inside. In the deeper inside world we are wondering what they really mean, forecasting what they will say next, sizing them up or maybe even daydreaming about a completely different problem.

It's only inside

There is a school of thought that says the outside world does not exist, and that we invent it for our pleasure. What we do know is that we are trapped inside our bodies and what we do interact with is not what is outside but the interpretation of the noise from our senses that we create on the inside. 'Reality' is, effectively, a constructed concept.

So What?

So find out what senses to which they may most attention and then provide a proportionate amount of information to those senses.

You can even reach from one sense to the other. For example, to a person who has a visual preference, you can use words like 'look', 'see', 'bright', 'blue' and so on.

Use smells subtly. Always make sure you do not smell unpleasant (ask a friend). Use a good cologne. Use breath freshener if necessary, although beware of over-use. Subtly means that the other person should not consciously detect your smells, other than perhaps an occasional pleasant whiff.

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