Human Senses

Here's a collection of the known human senses to help bring your writing to life. Carolyn Gordon points out that that Flaubert was a master of description: He discovered the principle that nothing truly comes to life in fiction until it happens somewhere real in the mind of the reader, and he achieved reality in his fiction by appealing, in every scene and setting, to at least three senses. This doesn't mean you tell the reader that a character notices how a place smells or looks or tastes or such; instead, make the setting and characters come dramatically to life by engaging sensory information as it becomes relevant to the characters in the course of moving through their story.

The Classic Five Senses

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Touch

An Expanded List

  • Illumination level and type, including physiological reactions in the eye itself (the sensation of eyestrain).
  • Color, visible texture, shading.
  • Hearing: voice and noise timbre, volume, duration.
  • Hearing: ambient noise.
  • Smell.
  • Specific tastes, including salivation and where on the tongue they are received: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami.
  • Mouth feel; jaw, throat, and stomach response.
  • Balance.
  • Proprioception: joint position and interactions.
  • Kinesthesis: movement, muscle action, including internal muscles.
  • Direction, some humans more than others.
  • Physical touch: pressure applied, texture, temperature, physiological reactions such as itching, soothing, etc.
  • Ambient air temperature, humidity, and texture.
  • Ambient pain or sensory input: headaches, aches, headaches, dry skin.
  • Pain, ticklishness, and other intense or debilitating sensation; the sensations of coughing, sneezing, etc.
  • Physiological elements of emotional states: heart skipping, jaw pain and pain behind the eyes when trying not to cry, etc.
  • Physiological elements of wellness states.
  • Fatigue level: toxin buildup in muscles, blood pressure and pulse, blood oxygen content (out of breath, dizzy), cerebrospinal fluid pH.
  • Gastro-intestinal sensation: nausea, over-full stomach, G-I distress, cramping, overfull bladder.
  • Plasma osmotic potential (thirst).
  • Artery-vein glucose difference (hunger).
  • Lung inflation.
  • ...and many more! Pay attention to your experiences in life and how your body feels in response to environmental stimulus, health change, powerful emotions, physical injury, physical or emotional trauma, and so forth.

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updated 1/29/2016