In Search of the Lost Sense.
By Scott McCredie.
Illustrated. 296 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.
In the early 1860s, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then a brash Harvard undergraduate, wrote an essay criticizing Plato, whose classifications of ideas he found ''loose and unscientific.'' Holmes sent a copy of the essay to Emerson, whose books, he later said, had ''set me on fire.'' He soon received in return a nugget of stern wisdom. ''I have read your piece,'' Emerson replied. ''When you strike at a king you must kill him.''
I recalled this bit of advice recently while reading Scott McCredie's spirited first book, ''Balance,'' which opens with the gutsy Holmesian salvo ''Aristotle was wrong.'' The error in question is Aristotle's contention, advanced in his treatise ''De Anima'' in the fourth century B.C. and perpetuated ever since by kindergarten teachers around the world, that there are five, and only five, human senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. McCredie has made it his mission to crack this bit of dogma by elevating balance into the sensory canon, on the basis of its evolutionary antiquity (540 million years, give or take), its necessity for well-being and survival (it is likely impossible to live without), and its surprising relationship to human cognition. Balance, McCredie argues, ''may prove to be the most primary -- as in primordial, life-sustaining, essential -- of all the senses.''
Broadly speaking, McCredie is right. Scientists now agree that the classical five senses are not the only avenues through which we gather information about the world around and, equally important, inside us. Aristotle failed to specify proprioception (the sense of how our body parts are positioned in space relative to one another), equilibrioception (the sense of linear acceleration and head position), thermoception (the sense of heat and cold) and nociception (the sense of pain). Some scientists include hunger and thirst on the list of senses, so that the matter of how many we have, while undoubtedly more than Aristotle suggested, remains unclear.
Should balance be added to the list? McCredie, a journalist, makes a vigorous case, but he never answers the question of just what a ''sense'' is anyway. Whereas a conventional sense like hearing relies on a fairly straightforward chain of events -- the transformation of molecular movement into nerve impulses -- balance is a ''multimodal'' faculty. Indeed, it is perhaps best thought of as the sum total of other senses. In order to keep track of our bodies in space and counteract the substantial force of gravity, the central nervous system is constantly gathering, integrating and coordinating information from three separate sensory inputs: specialized cells in the joints and alongside muscles that tell us how our limbs are positioned, the vestibular organs of the inner ear that tell us how our head is moving and, of course, our eyes. This three-part scheme is necessary because two-legged creatures are rather awkwardly engineered. As McCredie puts it: ''The act of balancing a mass as large as a human body over a base as small as two human feet is exceptionally demanding. It's roughly equivalent to trying to balance a triangular object on one of its points; the natural tendency is for gravity to push it over.''
If in the end McCredie fails to convincingly argue for balance as a distinct sense, he deftly sketches the scientific terrain, pulling together information from topics as far afield as marine biology, Galenic medicine and aviation. The outsize star of his book is the celebrated tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, who ''possessed arguably the most precisely honed balance of any human in the 20th century.'' The centerpiece of the Ringling Brothers circus in the 1930s and '40s, Wallenda began refining his skills as a child in pre-World War I Germany, eventually performing tricks for money in restaurants and bars. In 1970, at the age of 65, he traversed a 1,000-foot-long tightrope across the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, performing two headstands in strong winds before a crowd of 20,000 people.
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Daniel B. Smith is the author of ''Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination.''
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