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There is a huge range of books about the senses for children, and chances are we read a lot of these books when we were little. The five human senses are also one of the subjects of our first science lessons. But as we grow among the rich sensory experiences the world has to offer, the mechanisms that enable us to access those experiences fade into the background – unless they are part of a field of study or a very specific profession that we choose for ourselves.
How we process different types of stimuli can be as fascinating as the experiences themselves. A knowledge of how the human senses work – and the effects of biological, genetic, environmental and cultural factors on them – opens our eyes to the individuality and fragility of our sensory perceptions, helping us to develop a deeper appreciation for the wonders of the world. around us. Here is a list of eight books that demystify the human senses and give their readers new ways to look at the world.
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
If you’re looking for a tour of all the major senses in one book, this is the one for you. Diane Ackerman takes her readers on a journey through time and around the world to explore how we perceive and interact with the world around us. The writing is lush and evocative, as you’d expect from a book about sensory experiences, and the book is a treat even when read in small snippets.
Oliver Sacks’ Mind’s Eye
In this book, pioneering neurologist and author Oliver Sacks delves into the depths of how we perceive and interpret the visual world. He weaves vision science with his own cancer experience, and that of others struggling with vision loss, into a compelling and intimate narrative.
How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch by Sushma Subramanian
This book is an exploration of the sense of touch – a vital means of our communication with the world around us, but which has been set aside because humanity placed more importance on the brain world than on the body world. It combines a discourse on the physiology of touch with personal experiences and interviews, and it examines the importance of the sense of touch in an increasingly digitized world.
Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good by Barb Stuckey
This book is a fascinating dive into the science of taste. Stuckey tells his readers how different senses work together to create our perception of taste, and how variations in biology and genetics make that perception unique. If you’ve ever wondered how we have such varied responses to the same type of food, this book is for you.
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Hearing by David Hendy
From drumbeats in a prehistoric cave to the cacophony of modern life – historian David Hendy looks back over 100,000 years of history to explore the role sound and hearing must have played in the evolution of our civilization. With its engaging prose and interesting insights, this book will give you a real (sound?) taste of what it would have been like to live in the past.
Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the Smells of the World by Harold McGee
In this book, Harold McGee will take you on an olfactory world tour, where you will encounter bewitching, smelly and banal smells. It also provides an accessible introduction to the chemistry and biology of smell and how we process olfactory stimuli.
In Sensorium: Notes for my People by Tanaïs
This memoir by Bangladeshi-American author Tanaïs is structured like a perfume, with base, top and heart notes. The book is an exploration of the author’s personal history and the cultural history of fragrances in the South Asian context, intertwined with an examination of social hierarchies such as race, caste and gender. Sensitive and beautifully written, it’s a must-read.
A Huge World by Ed Yong
This book is essential reading to truly grasp the narrowness of our anthropocentric worldview. Through an expansive exploration of the unique ways animal senses decode the world, Ed Yong shows his readers how the world still remains out of our reach. I really enjoyed the author’s first book, I Contain Multitudes, and this one was just as captivating and fascinating. For a closer look at the sensory world of dogs, the animals that probably live in closest contact with us, I also recommend Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.
Can’t get enough of popular science books? Check out our documentary archive for more recommendations. We also have a reading list for fragrance lovers!