Most of the time I forget that my mother lacks a sense of smell. It’s only when I complain about something stinky or comment on a delicious smell that I remember she isn’t sharing the experience with me. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother has never had a sense of smell, or at least none that she can ever remember. As a child, I often wondered how she might imagine the sensation of smell. Would she do it by analogy to her other senses? Would she be able to do it at all?
I returned to these musings from a different perspective recently when I read a scientific paper about trout. Trout, along with other migratory species from salmon to sea turtles and certain types of birds, enjoy a sense that we lack: magnetosensation. These animals perceive magnetic fields (including that of the Earth) and can use this information to orient themselves and navigate. The study’s authors found magnetic cells inside the noses of trout, each with tiny iron-containing crystals attached to their cell membranes. Thus, when a trout changed direction relative to the Earth’s magnetic field, these miniature magnets would presumably tug on the cell’s membrane in a way that the cell could detect and signal to other parts of the trout’s nervous system. The evolution of these wonderful little biological compasses may have been necessary for migrating animals to evolve on our planet and happily roam, return, and repeat.
So today I put myself in my mother’s shoes (or nose) and tried to imagine a sense I didn’t have. What would it be like to feel magnetic fields? I tried to embrace the role and be the trout. I closed my eyes and imagined my little trout self swimming around within a magnetic field that changed as I moved. How would that feel for the trout? My imaginative efforts were rewarded with a strong percept – flashes of tingling across the surface of my skin that mirrored my changes in direction. In essence, I could only imagine magnetosensation by analogy to somatosensation, the sense of touch. And this is almost certainly not what magnetosensation feels like to a trout. Not only do they already have a sense of touch akin to our own, but they also detect magnetic fields with their snout rather than their whole body.
It makes sense that I imagined a foreign sensation by analogy to one I know. Each of our senses has dedicated processing areas in the brain. Without a brain area developed for magnetosensation, it may not be possible to do any better than imagine it by way of the senses our brain can process. Or maybe it’s possible for people with more imaginative imaginations than my own. If you give it a try, please let me know what you come up with! And the next time you find yourself staring down a trout, tilapia, tuna, or salmon on your plate, spare a moment to appreciate that it has experienced a realm of sensations beyond your imagination. And then – bon appétit!
Photo credit: sharkbait
Eder SHK, Cadiou H, Muhamad A, McNaughton PA, Kirschvink JL, & Winklhofer M (2012). Magnetic characterization of isolated candidate vertebrate magnetoreceptor cells PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1205653109