Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

My dad used to complain that my mother had “no sense of time…” And I understood. I was forever waiting for my dinner while my mum “just finished” a sewing project, a painting, or some crafting. My wife is the same.

Craft-orientated people like my old Mum, and my wife, get preoccupied by the creative project they are working on. It seems that they don’t have any “sense of time.”

Does this mean, though, that creative-people cannot “feel” the passage of time? Or does it merely mean that they are absorbed and distracted by their imagination and just want to get on with their project?

Sense in hand

And, anyway, sorry Dad, but is chrono-perception (the sense of time passing) a real “sense”? Or is it just a pseudo-sense like humor and fairplay. If it is a sense, what organ does it use? Would an alien from another planet require time perception? If an entity existed outside earthly time & space (for example, a floating spirit or a deity), would it require time perception? If an organism counts eons instead of hours to develop and grow (for example, endoliths that live for thousands of years on the ocean floor or huge inter-connected colonies of fungi) — do they need time perception or, indeed, any “sense of time” at all? And what might all these things have, if they don’t have a sense of time? What other senses do such things possess?

If you’re a fantasy fiction writer, these are exactly the type of questions you are expected to ask. Because these are the kind of questions that spark new stories and facilitate fruitful imaginings!

I spoke about fear on the Myth & Magic Podcast, Episode 73 (aired 17th March 2021) and how you should use the hormonal cascade to impart fear in your story. On that show I mentioned that our animal brains are capable of “slowing down time…” when we face deadly danger. Although this phenomenon (known as “chronostasis” — the immobilization of time) is actually a disconnect between normal visual sensations and perceptions rather than any special new ability or sense, nevertheless, chronostasis is interesting, because it requires us to focus on how we perceive our surroundings, using our most important sensory organs: eye, ear, skin, nose and mouth. But what if there are other receptors? What if we unconsciously use other organs to perceive “other” mysterious things? 

Well, it just so happens that we humans (most of us) do possess other receptors, and through these lesser known receptors, we do perceive other mysterious things! For example, most of us, if healthy, have a sense of balance. This is known as equilibrioception and, as in other animals, it prevents us from toppling over. The vestibular system (it’s a labyrinth inside your ear, so you can’t see it) does the work for us. When the sense of balance is disrupted, it causes dizziness, disorientation and nausea, which is why we feel queasy in a rocking boat, woozy after getting off a spinning roundabout, and why astronauts must be trained to deal with the sick feeling of weightlessness in space

We also have a number of other interoceptions (these are sense receptors located within the body, mostly organ-based and, like the vestibular system in the ear, they cannot be seen). For example, most of us can sense when we are “full up” after a big meal, conversely most of us can sense when we’re hungry. Also, most of us sense pain. We also have a vomeronasal organ V.N.O. for short that (weirdly) is also present in snakes and lizards and which we think (though nobody knows for certain) is used to sense chemical cues (pheromones) and might explain some of our curious mating behaviors.

Other animals have “exotic senses” and these are quite exciting: for instance, some snakes can “see” the body-heat of their prey, some bats can sense infrared light, and some birds can sense ultraviolet light. Some shrimp can perceive polarized light and multispectral images (it’s quite possible they see colours we humans wouldn’t recognise!)

Magnetoreception is the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate and some birds and herding animals possess this sense. While echolocation (used by bats and whales) allows an animal to interpret reflected sounds (in the same way that sonar works in submarines).

Sharks and rays (some whales as well) detect electric fields (electroception) though their skin and, as far as we know, the platypus does this as well. These creatures are likely to use the sense of electroception to hunt in very dark waters. Hygroreception is the ability to detect changes in humidity in the atmosphere and some insects use this sense before constructing shelters.

Head Sense

Your responsibility, as an ingenious fantasy fiction writer, is to mingle, merge or just “think up” new exotic senses for your human-like characters or, even better (in my opinion) dream-up fabled creatures that come equipped with extraordinary & fantastical senses.  

To steer you in the right direction, I suggest the following approaches:

1: Think about why your fantasy creature needs such “power” in the first place. Is it going to be used for hunting? Will it be used to escape or camouflage itself? Will it be used to communicate with others of its kind? Is it used for mating rituals? Does it require the exotic sense so it can successfully achieve some other super-normal talent (for example, dragons might require some sense of altimetry (so they can judge how high to fly) and maybe they’ll need some sort of ion-detection sense (like an in-built smoke-alarm) so they will wake-up if they accidentally spit fire in their sleep!

2: Think of how the new sense might be contained within the physical body of the entity (within a highly specialized organ, perhaps, or a part of the brain? ) How will the animal/entity maintain the good health of the sense? Will it require a specialized diet? Will using the sense require practice? (Humans need to learn balance, for example, before using a surf-board or riding a bicycle, don’t they?) Does the sense grow stronger (or weaker) over time? We know, in humans, that sight fails as we age and taste buds are never replaced. Perhaps all exotic senses diminish through a lifetime? But what if some senses develop and grow as an entity ages? What if the animal develops a strange new sense later in life?

3: Think of synonyms for existing and better known senses. For example, see = distinguish, hear = understand, taste = acquire, smell = inhale, and feel = calibrate. Compile your own set of synonyms for better-known senses because you’ll need them for component 4 of this exercise…

4: Now for the fun part! Add your synonym (the word you came up with in component 3 above) to something that’s weird and either magical or scientific (don’t forget all the other main points though: your imagined creature/entity must require the new sense for a tangible purpose and it must somehow be contained within a body). Here’s my list of ideas:

Neil Mach’s list of exotic senses:

  • electrostatic distinction : an entity “sees” electrical charges
  • baryon comprehension : an entity “hears” interactions between atoms
  • ectoplasmic acquisition : an entity “tastes” spiritual energy
  • crystallographic inhalation : an entity “smells” crystal structures in solids
  • hydrothermal gauging : an entity “feels” the onset of hydrothermal activity
covid senses

Hooray! it’s now time to think up your own exotic senses!

Work out how they might be used in your creature/entity (or your human like character). Consider the positives / negatives of possessing such exotic senses and how your narrative might alter if your protagonist (or antagonist) possessed such an amazing skill! Good luck. Let me know how it goes!

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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