What is a Special Sense?

Daniel Liden

A special sense is a sense that has a specific organ devoted to the purpose of receiving the sensory input that leads to perception. Vision, for example, is a special sense because the eyes are specifically devoted to receiving light input which is converted into understandable visual information in the brain. Touch, the primary general sense, does not have a devoted sensory organ but instead interprets a variety of sensory signals through receptors inside and outside of the body. One of the major distinctions between the general and special senses is the mechanism through which the sensory data is communicated to the central nervous system.

The vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for the special sense of balance.
The vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for the special sense of balance.

Each special sense has a dedicated nervous system pathway that communicates the relevant sensory information to the central nervous system. The special somatic afferents (SSAs) are those nerves that are dedicated to the specialized senses of vision, hearing, and balance. Specifically, the optic nerve is responsible for the specialized sense of vision while the vestibulocochlear nerve is responsible for hearing and balance. The special visceral afferents (SVAs) are responsible for carrying sensory data regarding taste and smell. The special afferent nerves specifically related to taste and smell are the olfactory, facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves.

The nervous system is a crucial part of the sensory system.
The nervous system is a crucial part of the sensory system.

The general sense of touch, which includes the perception of pressure, vibration, pain, heat, and relative location of the various parts of the body, is governed by the somatosensory system. As opposed to the specific nervous pathway that would handle a specialized sense, these various forms of touch are processed by a vast system of receptors and nervous pathways throughout the body. These receptors are highly prevalent within the skin and are also found within muscles, joints, bones, various internal organs, and many other locations. The sense of touch is perceived and processed by a wide variety of organs and nervous pathways and is not tied to a single sensory organ, marking it as a general rather than special sense.

The special sense organs tend to form during the early stages of embryonic development, but the full development of some of these sense organs takes years. Human eyes, for instance, continue to grow and develop for roughly the first eight years of a child's life. Additionally, newborns tend to be able to respond only reflexively to sounds, though the capacity for more complex sound comprehension develops quickly. The specialized sense of taste, on the other hand, is at its most acute at birth but tends to diminish later in one's life. This is also true of smell.

The iris, lens, retina and optic nerve are just a few parts of the visual system.
The iris, lens, retina and optic nerve are just a few parts of the visual system.

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Discussion Comments


I think it is easy to take advantage of our special senses until we have some kind of problem.

One of my good friends had a rare form of sinus cancer and both her vision and sense of smell have been affected by this.

More than once through all of her treatments, they told her she could lose her vision. Since all of her treatments and radiation, she has developed early cataracts, but other than that is so thankful she can still see with both eyes.

Her sense of taste has never returned, and probably never will. Even though she can't smell an onion, she will still tear up when cutting one.

She still has her sense of taste, but can't smell anything. Until this happened to her, I had never given it a thought what it would be like not to be able to smell anything.


I have heard several older people complain that their sense of taste and smell is not what it used to be.

My dad is in his 80's and because of age and some medical procedures, he no longer has much of a sense of taste.

When you don't have much of sense of taste, it is easy to lose weight because the food you are eating just doesn't taste very good. He has lost about 50 pounds over the course of the last few years because he doesn't have much of a sense of taste.

The only time I have experienced a loss of taste is when I am struggling with a bad cold. I never have a good appetite when I can't taste the food I am eating.


You don't realize how much you rely on your special senses of hearing and equilibrium until you begin having problems.

When I started having symptoms of vertigo and hearing loss, I wondered what was going on. The room would start spinning and I had a hard time keeping my balance.

I also experienced some migraine headaches with these episodes. These were bad enough that they affected not only my balance, but also my vision.

After several tests, I found out I had Meniere's disease which affects these special senses. I have had the best results with medication and lifestyle changes.

I make it a conscious effort to reduce my stress level and make sure I get enough exercise. When 2-3 of your special senses are affected in a negative way, it can be pretty scary while you are figuring out what is going on.

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