Episode 22: Learn How to Assign Senses to Your Species
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create your species’ senses, from the five basics to other real senses humans and animals have, to sixth senses (second sight).
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to make the five senses interesting and options you have for using them
- Why a species might have special senses
- Other senses that humans and real animals have on Earth and how to add them to your species
- The different sixth senses and how and why you’d want to use each in a species
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Episode 22 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-two. Today’s topic is about how to create your species’ senses, from the five basics to other real senses humans and animals have, to sixth senses (second sight). Unlike the other episodes of this podcast so far, this material is not discussed in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
The Five Senses – Sight
We’ll start by talking about the five senses. The first up is going to be sight. Our default choice is to make the sight ordinary, just like us, or we can make their sight much better or worse than our own. So, for example, we could decide to have their eyes see much farther than we do, with clarity, or maybe we can decide that they can read really small print without any aid. We might also want to give them night vision if they are a species that’s nocturnal, or if they’re one that lives underground where there’s not a lot of natural light. As I’m sure you’re aware, night vision basically makes it seem as though it’s much brighter, almost like there’s a full moon. This could have a consequence, as well, where turning on the light is suddenly blinding to them, or maybe even daylight is that way naturally.
It’s often a good idea to give a disadvantage when we’re also giving them an advantage over us. That makes it seem like it balances out. We could also decide to give them infrared or heat vision that would let them see heat signatures. This is something that could also be useful at night or underground. Something like a forest-dwelling species, like elves in fantasy, might also find that helpful because there are so many things in the forest that it would be hard to see things unless some of them are giving off a heat signature that can be detected to help those items stand out for them. The ability of prey to hide behind underbrush would basically be eliminated.
We could also give them supernatural sight, like the ability to see spells that are active, and the ability to see spirits without any assistance. We could also give them the ability to see into other realms, or maybe just the openings into those realms. A normal person might need a spell, but this species can just detect these things automatically.
We might also want to give them the ability to detect energy fields, like different types of radiation, without having to use a technology to see this. This is obviously something that might be more useful in science fiction than fantasy. Then, of course, there’s the infamous x-ray vision, like Superman, but I’m not sure that this is really practical or likely, and it could have a huge effect on that species’ attitude about modesty and clothing. The concept of modesty might be completely lost on them.
Now, eyes that have any of these special features, we often want to give them a different look to them so that people can tell, just by looking at the species, that their eyes are different and have another capability. This is especially useful in a visual medium like TV and film. One way to do that is to give an unusual pigment to the iris or to create different shaped pupils.
I’ve listed a lot of things we can do with eyes, but you certainly don’t want to do all of these. That would be overkill. You probably only want to give one special ability to a given species. In fact, in an entire setting, you might only want to have one species with unusual sight capabilities.
The Five Senses – Hearing
Let’s talk a little bit about hearing. Once again, we can make this ordinary, just like humans, or we can give them the ability to hear much fainter sounds, or even have them be bothered by sounds that we would consider to be not that loud, but to them it’s deafening. We can also give them the ability to hear sounds that are farther away than something that we would hear. We could also increase their frequency range so that they can hear sounds that are lower or higher that we would not even notice. They might also have the ability to tell which direction a sound is coming from in conditions where this is not so easy, such as a big hall where there’s a lot of reverberation. Sometimes, in the wilderness, it might be hard to tell which direction a sound really came from. We might have a general sense, but maybe this species has a much more specific sense.
Another issue that we can have in a place that’s pretty noisy is that sometimes we can’t isolate a sound, such as the person that’s talking directly to us. We might be hearing too much noise from other people and we just can’t focus on that person that we want to hear. So, maybe this species is better at that. This is more likely of a species that spends a lot of time in such a place, such as, maybe, dwarves because anywhere underground is probably going to have a lot of echoes to it.
Now, this one isn’t particularly exciting, and it may not even be that useful to us, so we should try to figure out what might benefit our story when we’re trying to think of any of the senses that I talk about in this episode. Maybe their ability to pick up a new language is improved because they have a better ability to pick apart the separate sounds into syllables and words. That’s another skill, and a very useful one. Maybe they can even understand what animals are trying to communicate to us with the way they make various sounds. And, of course, they could have supernatural talents, like the ability to hear spirits, voices or even other people’s thoughts. That last one seems to be more of a mental trait than an actual hearing trait, but it’s still something we can consider.
The Five Senses – Feel
When it comes to their sense of feel, once again, is this better or worse than humans? Maybe they’re supersensitive or hyperaware of certain sensations, or the opposite. And they may have a higher or lower pain threshold, which could certainly be useful in battle. Most of us probably think it would be great to not be able to feel pain, but I remember seeing a story a long time ago about a little girl who could not feel pain. As a result, she made herself go blind. Why did that happen? Well, because she kept sticking her finger up to her eye and scratching her eyeball with her finger. She was too young to understand not to do that and she did it so many times that she literally made herself go blind. There were other issues, too, such as hurting our self, but not feeling it. So, therefore, she didn’t know and her parents had to constantly check her for injuries because she would never tell them because she was totally unaware of it. Anything going on with an internal organ might also be a problem because that usually causes pain if there’s a problem. But if you don’t feel that and nobody can see it, you’re going to have no idea.
Another sense that we could give them is the ability to feel changes in atmosphere and pressure. As a result, maybe they would be able to tell that a storm is coming. They might also be able to sense vibrations. That could possibly work as an early detection of earthquakes. They could also possibly sense temperature changes more quickly, or be immune to them. I can tell you that, as someone who rides a motorcycle, when I go through a cool spot at 60 miles an hour, I definitely feel that. So, even a flying species, if it’s moving that fast, would probably be able to feel that more than I would if they’ve got a super sense for it.
Another thing we can do is have different parts of their body be more sensitive to either pain or pleasure. If memory serves me right, the Ferengi from Star Trek have these really large ears and they enjoy having those be stroked. We can do something similar.
The Five Senses – Taste
When it comes to our sense of taste, this is a hard one to make useful in a story because, unless our characters are eating or drinking something, or they’re going around licking a lot of things, we’re not going to have much use for this. However, we could decide that their tongues are more or less sensitive to various kinds of tastes, or that those tastes last longer or shorter for them. We could also reverse their tastes so that foods taste differently to them. Maybe something that’s sweet to us is sour for them, and vice versa. I think the only use we might have for such a thing is for someone to exhibit disgust at a meal, and inadvertently offend the host.
Something that might be more interesting is the ability to tell what ingredients went into something that they are either eating or drinking, with some level of accuracy. This could be especially important if something like a poison has been used. Maybe there’s even a potion and they can basically reverse engineer the ingredients of that potion by drinking just a little bit, or just tasting it. Obviously, with a poison, you wouldn’t want to ingest a lot of it, but, of course, a lot of poisons, you need to consume a certain amount for it to have an effect on you.
The Five Senses – Smell
The last of the normal senses we’ll talk about is smell. We can, once again, make this just like us, or better and worse than us. Maybe a smell lingers longer, or they can smell something that is fainter that basically originated farther in the past. Then there’s the idea of the bloodhound being able to follow a scent for a long time. Maybe they can smell something that we might not notice, and this is important. For example, we can smell smoke and realize that there’s a fire. Maybe they can smell something else and realize there’s a different kind of danger present. Maybe they can, once again, reverse engineer a scent from a food or drink and interpret the ingredients. They might even be able to tell how many people have left a scent in a room and, from that, they could tell how many people were present at a meeting. If they know the scent of those people, maybe they can tell who was present. They might also be able to tell which direction each person left from that room.
So, that concludes our talk about the basic senses. After this, we’re going to talk about some other ones you may not have ever heard of.
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Other Senses – Electroception
So, we’ve all heard of the five senses, which were made famous by Aristotle a long time ago. But, as it turns out, modern scientists actually think we have a whole bunch more of them. The first one we’re going to look at is electroception. This is the ability to sense electrical fields. On Earth, this is almost exclusively aquatic life. They’re the ones who can do this. If you watched enough nature shows about ocean life, you’ve probably run across this. Now, the reason it’s only in the water for the most part is that water conducts electricity much better than air or solids, which you’re probably aware of.
With this sense comes the ability to do electrolocation. In other words, this is finding objects in either the dark or in muddy water. This is almost like sonar in the sense that different types of objects reflect back electricity, or a lack thereof. So, for example, a rock is not going to show anything, but a fish will. So, if you’ve got a fish that has this electroception, it is going to be able to tell that there is a living thing there, versus something that’s not alive. Another way that this is used is to avoid predators by sensing that they are near and stopping their own motion so that they don’t give off their location.
There are two types of electroception. One of them is called active. Basically, that means that the animal can generate a small electric field that isn’t much bigger than they are. For example, if you’ve got a fish that’s two inches long, then maybe this field extends two inches from them in every direction. The other is passive, and that’s just the ability to sense electrical fields. All living organisms give off that energy. So, if I hold very still in the water, an animal that has this passive electroception would be able to tell that I’m there, even if I’m not moving.
Something else we can do with this is electrocommunication. Basically, what these animals do is they change the wavelength that is generated and use that as a way to signal other animals, which can be for mating or for a territorial display to make themselves seem like they’re more intimidating to scare away a dangerous animal, such as the electric eel. As a side note, the electric eel is able to generate a much stronger pulse, which is used to stun animals, but it’s not enough to hurt us. However, we can always give that ability to a water-dwelling species of ours so that they can hurt, and maybe even kill is. For the most part, if you’re going to use electroception, you probably want to use it for a water-dwelling species and not try to give it to something that’s on land.
Other Senses – Nociception
Then there’s nociception, which is the ability to detect pain. I alluded to this earlier. There are basically three major categories of pain. One is mechanical, which is something like cutting or crushing pain. Then there’s thermal, which is heat or cold. And then there’s chemical, which is any kind of toxin. This is a sense that we definitely have. We have it most strongly in our skin, followed by our joints and then in our internal organs. And we have responses to pain, which can include a pallor or sweating, nausea and, in more extreme cases, fainting. A way we can use this with our invented species is to change the reaction or the degree of these. We’re basically looking to make them different from us in some way.
Other Senses – Time Senses
And then there’s our sense of time, which we obviously have. But things can go wrong with this. In science fiction, with space travel, we can definitely leverage this. Our time sense has to do with estimating time intervals, and the duration of them, and whether events are simultaneous or not. There are some temporal illusions, and one of them is called telescoping. This is when we recall that events happened farther in the past than they really did. Another problem we can have is that sometimes we overestimate how short an interval is, or the opposite of that, underestimating how long an interval was. The most practical example of this that I’ve seen in films is when a witness to a crime is having trouble remembering how much time really passed.
Another interesting temporal illusion is that if a lot of things happen in a short period of time, we can perceive that as there being more time passing. But if almost nothing happened in a short period of time, we will overestimate how much time has passed. It goes back to that expression: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Well, if you’re having a lot of fun, you can think that much more time has passed than has actually occurred. On the other hand, if you’re really bored, time can seem like it’s really dragging out.
You’re probably familiar with science fiction and space travel and the concept of time dilation. This means that two observers think that a different amount of time has passed due to them being different distances to a gravitational field, or their velocities relative to each other are quite different. Faster than light travel does not cause time dilation. Now, this is fictional, so that’s really just a theory, but we’ve got jump drive, warp drive and hyperdrive – which I talked about in a previous episode – and none of those cause this. On the other hand, slower than light travel is real and, if the velocities are high enough, this can cause time dilation. But we could decide that the species we are inventing is basically immune to this effect. Maybe they’ve even programmed their devices to counteract it as well.
Other Senses – Magnetoception
Another interesting and real-life sense is magnetoception. This is the ability to detect a magnetic field. This can be used for direction sense, altitude or location. This is one that we can not only give our species, but any of the animals that we invent. On that note, animals use this sense to mentally map a region. This is also why an animal can migrate really long distances without using landmarks, or even doing this in the dark so they don’t need to see where they’re going. Since humans don’t have that sense, or it’s very weak, we tend to use things like the position of the sun, or the moss growing on the north side of the tree in the northern hemisphere, or the opposite in the southern hemisphere, or an actual device like a compass. You could certainly give a strong magnetoception to one of your species so that they are like a living compass. Imagine how valued they would be by any traveling companions because they’re probably not going to get lost very often.
Other Senses – Magiception
The last sense I want to talk about is a fictional one. I’m just going to make up the name “magiception,” or, in other words, the ability to sense magical energy. This could definitely be useful in a world with magic. If you’ve got this sense, maybe you can tell what spell has been cast or how long ago it was cast. Maybe you can tell whether that spell is strong or weak, and whether it’s fading in strength. You may even be able to tell what type of magic it is if there is more than one type of magic in your setting. You may even have the ability to sense an anti-magic zone; somewhere where magic is not capable of being performed. You probably want to decide how far from the body this sense extends. Is it only a few inches, maybe a body length or even more than that? And how does their body react when they sense something here?
This is a possible trait for a species that is from a highly magical habitat because this would probably come in handy. Or maybe they’re a highly magical species that has been highly magical for thousands of years and, as a result, this sense of theirs has increased. Or they could be a species that has routinely been victimized by magic for thousands of years, whether that’s from their habitat or from others doing things to them.
My last note on some of these is that you generally only want to assign one unusual trait to one of your species because if you start giving them too many, it just starts to seem a little bit weird. We might also want to decrease one sense when we are augmenting another, again, for that sense of balance and fairness. We don’t want them to become overly powerful. And we may want to try to find a reason that they have that trait, such as it being caused by their original habitat.
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The Sixth Sense – Telepathy
It’s time to talk about second sight, which is also called a sixth sense. These include clairvoyance, telepathy, psychometry, precognition and mediumship.
Telepathy is the ability to communicate with the minds of others through thought instead of having to talk, use body language or anything like that. Despite what some might think, this is a fictional ability. It is often used in science fiction and fantasy, so you are probably familiar with seeing this depicted.
Before giving one of our species this ability, we may want to consider their habitat and their culture before deciding on it. Both their speech and their hearing being compromised might lead them to need an alternate form of communication. So, as I talked about earlier, when we give someone an augmented ability, like telepathy, we might want to reduce something else like, in this case, either their hearing or their speech to make them weaker in that area. This could make it naturally harder for them to communicate with other species who are not telepaths.
So, if they are pretty isolated, they stick to themselves, and they’re all telepaths, then when they interact with others, they’re going to have some issues. We don’t have to do that, but it’s one way to balance them out. I think if they can still speak and hear fine, then this implies that they still interact with other species quite regularly, or that they’ve only somewhat recently become telepaths and they don’t rely on this exclusively. The opposite is also implied. If they have suffered an impaired speech or hearing ability, that would suggest that they really are isolated and they’ve been telepaths for a long time.
A noisy environment might also put them in a position where they develop telepathy because it’s just easier to communicate that way. Another potential issue is that maybe predators use this for soundless communication so that it’s easy for them to sneak up on their prey, but they can still communicate with each other. We might want to decide if everyone in the species can do it or if it’s just certain individuals, and why that might be. Maybe people need to reach a certain age or have a certain experience, such as maybe the first menstruation for a woman, or maybe losing your virginity for either gender.
We should also decide if people can control who hears them, or are they an open book and pretty much anyone can hear them, the same way that if you were shouting in a loud room, everyone who’s present is going to hear what you’re saying. And then how far do they have to be from another person in order to do this? Is there a distance requirement? Can they not be more than 10 feet apart? Maybe they have to be touching each other. These are ways to give them limitations on this ability so that they’re not all-powerful and god-like.
The Sixth Sense – Clairvoyance
Clairvoyance is another second sight that we can give our species. This is the ability to witness future or past people, locations, events or objects. And no contact or association with that is needed. They can do it regardless of having never met those people, been in that location or touched that object, for example. However, if we are looking for a limit, we can change that and decide they have to have some sort of association. Distance is also usually not considered a factor with clairvoyants, but we can also add that as a limitation. And I do think that between worlds, this would be a reasonable limitation. But, on the other hand, we might want to have someone who is so incredibly powerful as a clairvoyant that they can even do this across worlds. This is something that’s probably going to come up more in science fiction than fantasy.
In one of the recent Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker basically projects himself from across, maybe, the whole galaxy, but this act is basically his final act because it essentially kills him. Or, at least, it appears to have killed him. We won’t really know until the next film comes out. This is a pretty severe limit to put on someone, and we could decide, instead, that it just weakens them. Although, of course, in the case of Luke Skywalker, he was doing that across such vast distances that it makes sense that this would be an even more serious toll. But we might want to decide that there are things that need to happen before someone can do this, such as maybe a ritual, or maybe they have to do it at a certain time of the day or month, or maybe the stars have to be aligned a certain way. Maybe they need to be submerged in some sort of special liquid, earth or even a gas, or possibly use drugs in order to enhance the ability to do this.
Now, there are some limitations that seem to be baked into the idea of clairvoyance, and one of them is that they cannot control how much they see when they are doing this far sight. They also can’t control how long they see an event. So, they might not see the entire thing from beginning to end. They might only see, maybe, the middle of this. Therefore, this is open to interpretation, so what they learn is compromised and they have to figure out the context of this without really having that. Maybe this leads to misunderstanding. So, that is definitely something that could happen to any of us if we were only seeing part of a story.
If we’re trying to decide what species should have the ability to be a clairvoyant, then one that doesn’t travel much is a good option because maybe they use this as a way to learn about the larger world that they seldom visit. So, a species that lives underground is a good choice, and so is one that is underwater.
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The Sixth Sense – Psychometry
Another sixth sense we can talk about is psychometry. This is the ability to learn information about an object upon contact with it. These objects are thought to have some sort of energy field that can be sensed. The things that can be learned are, maybe, who owns that object or who last touched it. We can also decide that they can tell how it came to be where it is. Maybe they know its origins or what its future demise is going to be. We might also decide that they can sense the role that this has had in past events, present events or maybe even future events if any of these are going to be significant. As with all of these senses, we might want to limit just how many of those options I just listed they can actually do, and how accurate their sense really is.
Then there’s the question of how things are learned when they touch it. Do they see images in their head? Maybe they hear sounds. Do they just get vague impressions or can they sense the emotions that are around this object? We can decide that any or all of these are present, but they could also just be fleeting images or sounds that can be very jumbled so that it’s very hard to understand, or we can decide that it’s kind of like a perfect audio and video feed of a clip somewhere and we have perfect sight into what exactly is going on. Now, if we do that, I would recommend making it a very short amount of stuff that they can see. Otherwise, again, they just become extremely powerful.
When thinking of limitations, you really want to think of how this can impact your story if this person doesn’t get it right. What if they have some misinformation and the characters act on that and then that causes a problem? In general, that’s something you want to do to some degree or another because, otherwise, it’s just too easy for everyone.
The Sixth Sense – Precognition
Let’s talk about precognition. This is the ability to see events before they occur. Seeing an event after it has occurred is called retrocognition. We should once again place limits on the ability to interpret these events. One of the reasons for this is that the events may not occur that way after all, partly due to misunderstanding and the future not being set because, of course, we do have free choice and free will, and things may not turn out as someone thinks they will.
The last question to ask about this, again, is who might have this skill. A species that is likely to cause significant future changes might have some ability to predict how those are going to turn out. On the other hand, a species that is going to be especially affected by such changes might also have the ability. Maybe the future is putting out some sort of energy, like Armageddon is approaching, and this could result in the birth of a precog to warn people to prevent this calamity from happening. It’s almost like the Earth itself is going to give some sort of warning through the precog, and this person can then go on to warn people, and this disaster be averted.
The Sixth Sense – Mediumship
The last one I want to talk about is mediumship. This is the ability to see, hear and/or feel spirits with or without spells, rituals, drugs or devices. It basically means communication with the dead. There are different variants on how this can happen, but in this case we’re really just focusing on whether a species can do it. I will leave it up to you to decide on how they go about doing so. As with many of these second sights, if your species has the ability to do this, they are probably going to be somewhat known for this. So, decide if that’s something you want.
So, what species might have the ability to do mediumship? Well, if your species does not have a written language, or it’s only got a kind of protolanguage where it’s just pictograms or ideograms, and it’s not an alphabet or a logography, that means that they cannot pass down details about the past to those who are still living. Therefore, if we want to learn about the past, maybe we use mediums to contact people who were still alive back then and who are now dead.
Another justification for a species having a mediumship capability is that they might have a really complex afterlife, which is really difficult to navigate and get to the place where they’re supposed to be. Somewhere like heaven. So, we might need to be able to communicate with the spirits of the recently deceased to guide them to their final resting place.
And, as with everything, you’re going to want to place some limitations on the ability to do this, such as requiring rituals, an artifact from the dead or just anything to make it not so easy to do this and just contact anybody. You’re going to have to place a limit so that they can only reach certain people and they can’t get complete information. That just makes it too easy for them, and that means there’s no drama in our story.
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