Senses & Culture

We all share basic human sensory experience in common, but cultures across the world also exhibit fascinating variation. Get started to learn more!

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How do our senses interact with culture?

All humans broadly share the same physical sensory organs. But different cultures think about sensory experience differently, and talk about them differently.

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Colour & Culture

Because the physiology of the human eye varies relatively little, cultures across the world broadly share what are known as focal colours: in other words, the shade which represents rioja in Spanish is similar to the shade which best represents red in English.

But there is also considerable variation...

While focal colours are broadly shared across cultures, where we draw the boundaries of colour can often differ. For example, what English speakers would consider two different shades of blue, Russian speakers would consider two distinct colours. Watch the short video on the right, created by The World Is Our Thing, to learn more.

This variation goes beyond vision...

The way we percieve sound can be affected by the spoken language(s) we learn growing up - while infants have ultra-sensitive perception for different speech sounds, this becomes less sensitive in adulthood.

Let's do a quick demonstration...

Sound A

Sound B

Sound C

Listen to the three sounds on the right - which one is different from the other two?




Did you catch it?

Sound B is actually different from the other two - sounds A and C are like the m in mother, produced by putting both lips together (this is known as bilabial). Sound B is produced almost identically, except by putting the top teeth against the lower lip instead (this is known as labiodental). Listen again and see if you can catch it!

To be fair...

That one is very tough! The fact that those two sounds are so close probably explains why only one language has been documented which contrasts them in a systematic way: Kukuya, a Niger-Congo language with close to 40,000 speakers.

Different languages use sounds in different ways - humans can make hundreds of distinct sounds, and most languages only use a fraction of them. English has somewhere between 40-45 distinct sounds (depending on the variety).

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Cultural variation in the senses extends further...

Do you think differently about cultural variation in the senses?

Senses & Culture

We hope you enjoyed learning more about culture and sensory experience!

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