We do not have 5 senses.
We don’t really know for sure how many we do have.
The classic 5 we always hear about (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell), are a bit too vague for really counting as just ONE sense each. It’s about what each of them tells you. “Touch” can mean pressure sensing, temperature sensing, texture sensing, etc. And that’s just leaving aside things like Proprioception, the ability to sense where your body is in relation to itself. (Close your eyes and put your hand in front of your face without touching it. How can you tell it’s in front of your face? Proprioception is how!)
Today, I’m going to talk about one of these senses, or at least the use of them:
We mostly just think of it as the way bats, whales, and dolphins see the world, forming a sort of “radar” image in their heads of just the general outline of where everything is. You may picture it like just being able to “see” except everything’s the exact same color, if you even stop to consider it at all.
Indeed, that’s how a lot of people treat it. A blind man’s version of sight. But it’s so much more.
Echolocation doesn’t just show you your surroundings. For certain species, it can show them what’s inside of their surroundings as well. Ever hit a wall or door or box to see if there was something on the other side or if it was hollow? Same basic principle. With a strong enough sound, and precise enough hearing, some animals that use echolocation can actually get a sense of where your bones and organs are inside of you.
Now imagine a creature like that using that knowledge for precisely aiming their blows.
Admittedly, I don’t believe it goes very deep at all (it’s surprisingly hard to find info on the level of detail Dolphins get from this). But this would also let them have a very different mental picture of what their surroundings are supposed to “look” like, than most everything that DOESN’T have echolocation.
What looks hidden to you or me may seem different to a dolphin or bat.
Unless you happen to be good enough at echolocation yourself. Yes, that’s right, humans can learn echolocation.
(I kid you not, Toph Beifong is on the Wikipedia page for it)
There are even websites devoted to teaching the blind and visually impaired to see using sound. Made with the help of blind people who have hobbies like basketball and mountain biking.
Now, granted, you won’t be nearly as good at it as bats, dolphins, whales, etc, and probably won’t be able to do some of the things they can with it. But with enough practice, it is entirely possible for humans to learn. Which means it’s possible for really creative and dedicated NPCs to have learned.
Picture a monastery where one of the techniques all the monks learn is echolocation, or perhaps many underground-dwelling civilizations have started to make heavy use of it for times or places their eyes aren’t as useful to them. (Hey, pretend as we might, humans are a part of ecology too, and not just an outside force. “How does the hunting pressure from echolocating humans affect the prey’s adaptations or preferred habitats differently?”, for example.)
Going the extreme route with that, you can do a little research on echolocation and the physiology of species that rely on it to create realistically designed eyeless beasts and monsters that hunt while sounding like the Predator.
There are limits to it, too. In the same way you can’t see when it’s way too bright out, really loud noises can drown out echolocation. But even more uniquely, because reflecting sound in one direction is easier than light, you can also make things harder or easier to spot simply by if they’re facing one way or tilted another.
All in all, I think it’s something that deserves a mention when we talk about senses. Different animals process the information about the world around them in very different ways, and they may seem strange or even alien to us, but that’s honestly what I love about them.
There’s even a term for that: Umwelt. But that’s probably best delved into in a later post someday.