“Rethinking The Senses”

Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Philosophy & Neuroscience of Perception is an AHRC-funded Large Grant (Science in Culture theme). It brings together philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists to understand multisensory perception in everyday life.


Our everyday understanding of perception is that our sense organs enable us to see, touch, smell, taste and hear. The vocabulary of five distinct senses ramifies through descriptions of thought (“I see what you mean”) emotion (“I was touched by her suffering”) and aesthetics (“That’s not to my taste”).Traditionally, philosophers have also thought that the five senses producing distinctive, separate conscious experiences. Equally, until recently, scientists have also studied each of the senses in isolation. But modern neuroscience is radically changing our understanding. Each sense organ contains many kinds of sensory receptors (think of all the different feelings from your skin). Everyday experiences – watching a film, eating a meal, walking along the street – involve different senses, working together. But most remarkable is a mass of recent research showing highly specific sensory interactions, in which one sense modifies the experience of another. Imagine listening to a syllable (say /ba/) spoken over and over, while watching a video of someone mouthing a different syllable (say /ga/), you actually hear the sound differently. Equally, the voice of a ventriloquist seems to come from the mouth of a doll some distance away. Somehow, what we see changes what we hear, presumably through processes that normally help us to associate sounds and sights correctly.The traditional view that information flows in one direction from basic sensation to perception, memory and action, has also been overturned. Recognising a spoken word, a familiar face, or a favourite piece of music draws on previous knowledge. Perception is influenced by memory, expectation, emotion and attention. Further, since our head, hands and eyes are constantly in motion, the brain must somehow stitch together perception from a sequence of sensory “snapshots”.

A comprehensive account of perception needs to begin with the relationships and interactions between the sensory modalities that produce our awareness of the world and of ourselves in it. Although the science of perception is moving very fast, it lacks the conceptual framework that philosophical thinking can bring to understanding the relationship between brain processes and experience. Our plan is for philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists to work together in entirely new ways, including planning laboratory experiments together, to help us understand how the brain puts together different sensory information, under the influence of past experience and expectation, to create the seamless flow of conscious experience, to identify objects and events in the world, to give us an sense of our own body, and to enable us to control our actions.