Barry Smith serves surprises for Radio 4’s daily sensory snacks

Monday 20 March 2017
Barry Smith (right) with SAS honorary graduate Heston Blumenthal, a guest on 'The Uncommon Senses' series


Why would people agree that lemons are fast, while bananas are slow? Do we really have ‘sixth senses’ for things that are... not of this earth?

These and other questions will be explored by School of Advanced Study philosopher and senses expert Professor Barry Smith in a new BBC Radio 4 series, The Uncommon Senses, starting this week. It also features sound artist Nick Ryan and chef Heston Blumenthal, who is renowned for being dedicated to the investigation and development of the multi-sensory experience of diners.

For thousands of years people thought we had 5 senses; now it's believed we have up to 33. The Uncommon Senses, made up of ten episodes, each lasting 15 minutes, journeys into this extraordinary world of sensory perception.

The first five parts (Series 1) run every day this week, from 20 March, at 2.45pm:

Making sense of the senses (Monday)
The multisensory world is a strange place once you look at it closely. Heston Blumenthal explains why a drink tastes different depending on which hand you hold it in; Barry Smith takes us on a plane to show how balance effects vision, and how the sensory dulling effects of air travel can be altered by tasting spice.

We discover how the senses interact with other constantly in ways that can be surprising and strange. And we try to answer the question: why does everyone agree that lemons are fast, while bananas are slow?

Interoception (Tuesday)
In this episode: Eerie premonitions? Do we really have a ‘sixth sense’? Maybe we do, but there's nothing supernatural about it. Philosopher Barry Smith explores ‘interoception’, the mysterious sense we all experience, and asks why it often feels so spooky. From infrasonic pulses to interoceptive heart-beats, there is more going on in our bodies and minds than you might think.

The predictive brain (Wednesday)  
The brain has a more pro-active role in sensory perception than you might think. Rather than passively waiting for sensory input, like a blank slate waiting to be written on, the brain is constantly second-guessing what it expects from our senses. Sometimes, it gets it wrong, and the world becomes a very confusing place.

Dinnertime: a multisensory extravaganza! (Thursday)  
Welcome to the most multisensory experience on earth: dinner time! Food keeps us alive, makes us happy and powers everything we do. So it should be no surprise that many of our senses are geared towards helping us find a good meal. With guest Heston Blumenthal, Barry Smith delves into all the ways our senses are enhancing or changing the experience of eating - and in some very unexpected ways.

Smell, emotion and memory (Friday)
This session explores why smell unlocks the door to such vivid memories and emotions. And we discover that training yourself to improve your sense of smell might be better for ageing brains than crosswords and sudoku.

But you needn’t worry if you miss an episode - you can catch up with all of these first five episodes in a special omnibus edition on Friday night (24 March). It starts at 9pm and lasts an hour.

The second part of 'The Uncommon Senses' runs from 27–29 March as follows:

The Magic of Touch (27 March)  
We trust touch to give us an accurate picture of the real world – feeling is believing. But touch is not one sense, it is many, rolled into one. Pain, temperature, a tap on the shoulder, a caress on the arm; all of these require separate detectors on our bodies, and are routed differently to the brain. Philosopher Barry Smith guides us through our experience of touch, and through the strange condition of mirror-touch synesthesia explores the sensory roots of empathy.

The Eyes Have It (28 March)  
Barry Smith asks why our sense of vision is so much more important than the others; or at least, why it often feels that way to us. He explores some visual illusions which demonstrate that seeing is not always believing, and asks whether what we see can influence something so fundamental as who we think we are.

How to Stand Up (29 March)
This episode explores how ballet dancers can whirl around like spinning tops, and why the classic 'drunk driver' test works. And we examine the strange workings of the 3 senses involved in the simple task of getting to our feet: vision, vestibular, and proprioception, and ask what happens when they go wrong.

(Information kindly supplied by the BBC)