1. Is There a Sixth Sense?
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chapter 1 Is There a Sixth Sense? In the West, we often treat the domain of sensation and perception as definitively precultural and eminently natural, one of the most basic of the human psychobiological systems. That is the approach in fields of neurology, biology, physiology, psychology, and even philosophy. Research in these disciplines usually compares human sensory perception to the sensory systems of other mammals or to the perceptory abilities of reptiles and birds (e.g., Schone 1984; Baker 1981; Lowenstein 1966).1 Such research assumes that all humans possess identical sensory capabilities and that any cultural differences we might find would be inconsequential .2 Perhaps, as a result, we have few ethnographies that document and compare the sensory orders of different societies.3 The goal of this ethnography is to present a society where the senses are understood quite differently than in our own and, through this comparison, to illustrate that our own approach is only a folk model. Ultimately, this book will argue that sensing, which I will define for the moment as “bodily ways of gathering information,” is profoundly involved with a society ’s epistemology, the development of its cultural identity, and its forms of being-in-the-world.4 In elementary schools in what we might call mainstream America, students learn (at the beginning of the twenty-first century) that hearing, touch, taste, smell, and sight are senses, but they do not learn to categorize balance as a sensation or a sense. Yet balance is clearly treated as a sense in contemporary textbooks from such disciplines as biology, psy3 chology, and medicine (e.g., Lowenstein 1966; Aronoff et al. 1970; Barlow and Mollon 1982). A sense of balance even has a corresponding “organ”—the vestibular organ, or the labyrinth of the inner ear—as the other five senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling) have theirs. By the time American students are in college, knowledge of the senses has not expanded much beyond what they learned in grade school. For a number of years prior to writing this book, I conducted exercises with my undergraduate classes, having them first name and describe the various human senses or sensory systems. Typically each group rattled off the classic five, and then someone inevitably raised the prospect of there being a sixth sense. By “sixth sense” did they mean balance? In my mind that would be one possible and somewhat logical extension of our basic taxonomy of five since we could point to the eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin, and then the cochlea or the macula (in the inner ear) as the physical organs that form the basis of our classificatory system. However, by “sixth sense” my students never meant balance. They almost always were referring to something called ESP (extrasensory perception)—some kind of extrasensory ability that subsequent discussion usually condensed or transformed into the term intuition, once again removing it from our popular taxonomy of sensations. By contrast, when I went to Anlo-land in West Africa, the home of Anlo-Ewe-speaking people (pronounced AHNG-low EH-vay), several individuals emphatically conveyed that—within their own cultural traditions —they were not aware of any clearly delineated taxonomy or system for the senses. Still, I consistently observed practices that signified cultural valuation of certain subjective and bodily modes. For instance, I often heard caregivers expressing to infants, “Do agba! Do agba!” which was an imperative statement encouraging the babies to “Balance! Balance!” They did this when infants were just beginning to hold up their heads and sit up without support, but the attention to balance continued with toddlers and beyond. “Head-loading” (walking with items balanced on top of one’s head) was a common practice among people of all ages, especially women. Anlo-Ewe people considered balancing (in a physical and psychological sense, as well as in literal and in metaphorical ways) to be an essential component of what it meant to be human.5 Anthropologist Thomas Csordas has suggested that “the answer to the question of ‘what it means to be human’ is the same as the answer to the question of ‘how we make ourselves human’” (1994c:vii). How does balance figure into the ways in which we Euro-Americans make ourselves human? What cultural value do we place on balance, and why does it not 4 Is There a Sixth Sense? quickly emerge in our ruminations about a possible sixth sense? Balance is clearly important to many Euro-Americans (being...