From the Editor: 84.3 Science of the Senses

Imagine waking up one morning unable to see. You strain your ears to try to listen for any clues, but you hear nothing. You sniff the air, expecting the smell of breakfast to waft into your room, but you smell nothing. You cannot even taste the morning breath that comes with a long night of sleep. In panic, you sit up and feel around with your hands only to discover that you cannot feel the bed that you crawled into last night. You realize that you have lost all five of your senses and essentially have lost your connection to the rest of the world around you.

Sound. Sight. Touch. Smell. Taste. These five senses are easy to use every day but difficult to fully comprehend. Why can dogs hear pitches that we cannot? What allows us to perceive the intricate visual signals necessary to tell two identical twins apart? What causes us to itch and identify exactly where our bodies itch? How can we distinguish the smell of coffee at Starbucks from the coffee at Blue State? What causes us to have a craving for sweets? Why do some people have “joined perception” and smell in response to touch or feel in response to sight?

To elucidate the complex processes in our bodies that make these five senses possible, researchers use an arsenal of advanced and innovative techniques from all areas of science. From computer science to surgery, from molecular biology to psychophysics, professors from various departments here at Yale University have conducted groundbreaking research in the efforts to understand how we perceive our surroundings and, in turn, change the world around us.

Featured in this issue is Professor Steven Zucker from the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Departments, who uses neurophysiology and mathematical theory to investigate the complexity of visual functions. Specializing in the sense of touch, Robert LaMotte, a Professor of Anesthesiology and Neurobiology, uses psychophysical methods in humans to study the perception and mechanisms of itch. Professor Rhea Paul of the Yale Child Study Center studies methods for speech induction in nonspeaking preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders. The efforts of these high caliber scientists from all fields of science attest to the complexity of the five senses that we use every day.

I hope that this issue of the Yale Scientific Magazine introduces us all to the fascinating abilities of the human system to connect us to one other and to our environment. Until we can fully understand the inner workings of the five senses that give us the tools to pursue our goals, our true potentials cannot be achieved.

Gennifer Tsoi