How much more can we use our senses?
Tuesday, October 13, 2015 - 20:30

Are our senses limited when we are born, or can we train and improve our sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell? This program explores how we see the world, interpret the sensations around us, and explores whether we really know if our experience is the same as anyone else's.

We talk to a fighter pilot who conquers optical illusions in the sky, a master sommelier who can pick a wine’s vintage and origin from taste and smell alone, and a congenitally blind woman who uses echolocation to navigate the world.

In this episode of Insight, you’ll be able to put your sight, hearing and multi-tasking ability to the test. Join us for a fascinating exploration of perception and the human body. And see if you can discover your sixth sense. 


Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter, posting on our Facebook page

Comment: Eight days that changed my life 

Julee-anne Bell, who has been blind since birth, says she is now truly free to navigate the world after learning how to use echolocation. Read her story here.

6 ways to test your senses

Try these puzzles from perpeptual illusions to the McGurk effect. Click here for more.

Synaesthesia Research Group

If you have synaesthesia, and wish to find out more, please contact the Synaesthesia Research Group at Macquarie University. Email:

Episode recap



JENNY BROCKIE:   Welcome everybody, good to have you with us tonight. Catherine, you and your twin sister, Jennifer, clearly wear very bright colours.  You have Synaesthesia, tell us what that means? 

CATHERINE STRUTT: Coarsely it means mixing of senses.  So for us, we mix visual with colour, so we're known as grapheme Synaesthesia.  So for every, for ever letter and number we see a colour. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Do you see a flash of colour, how does it work? 

CATHERINE STRUTT: It's just, at the back it's just like a whoosh and then it's gone, it's just a little memory thing.




CATHERINE STRUTT:  Monday’s blue.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   Monday’s orange for me.

CATHERINE STRUTT: Tuesday orange.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   Tuesday’s are blue, an ocean kind of blue.

CATHERINE STRUTT: Wednesday’s a dark forest green.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   Wednesday’s a waratah red.

CATHERINE STRUTT:  I’m Catherine Strutt.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   And I’m Jennifer Strutt. One way that I can explain it to people that don’t have Synaesthesia is that it is like spending your days looking through stained glass windows, it brings a lot of extra colour to your life, to your day.

CATHERINE STRUTT: Sudden things can also bring on colour, so like a sudden sound or a sudden colour or a smell, and I remember one time I was at the dentist and I was getting a filling and you know when it gets right down and it hits the nerve, suddenly with that pain, that sudden instant pain, I saw a citrus strip.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   When we both play music, it’s not the sound that we get the colour from it’s the actual physical look of the letter, so if I’m playing in “F” I’m going to be playing in orange and then I’ll know that there will be a “B” flat chord and that will be yellow, so there will be a yellow chord and then there might be a green chord.


JENNIFER STRUTT:   A is red but sometimes black for me.


JENNIFER STRUTT:   No, B is like a pinky colour, dusty pink.


JENNIFER STRUTT:   C is blue for me, mine’s a sky blue though.

CATHERINE STRUTT:  Yeah, royal blue.  My husband calls us the rosellas, but that is just because we dress like rosellas I guess.

JENNIFER STRUTT:   Colour to us is so entrenched in who we are and what we do with it everyday.

CATHERINE STRUTT:  It’s just another sense really, I guess.



JENNY BROCKIE:   So is it with everything that you come across, I mean because everything has a name or, you know, a symbol, a number, like am I a colour? 

CATHERINE STRUTT: Yeah, because you're Jenny, because you're J, you're a grassy green because the first letter kind of determines the rest of the word, in some cases. 

JENNIFER STRUTT:   Catherine has something to show you. 

CATHERINE STRUTT: I've brought a picture. 


CATHERINE STRUTT: There you go, that's your name. 


JENNIFER STRUTT:  Because we don't often agree on our colours but in this case amazingly we do.  That's J-E-N-N-Y.

CATHERINE STRUTT: But the J goes across determines it's like a wash over the whole, like the first letter is a wash over the rest of the word. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   But how often do you have that colour in your mind while I'm talking to you?  Is it just when you first hear my name or is it the whole time? 

JENNIFER STRUTT:  Yeah, pretty much. 

CATHERINE STRUTT: When you're talking I'm not thinking, that word started with a T so therefore that's blue, that's just normal.  But hello, my name is Jenny, oh, that's the green lady. 

JENNIFER STRUTT: And if we forget, if we meet you again and we forget your name, you were green so we'll go, no, she wasn't, Jackie. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   But there'd be a lot of green people, are all J's green? 


CATHERINE STRUTT: Yeah, they're not just green, they're a certain green or they're not just red, they're a certain red. 

JENNIFER STRUTT: Or some letters will have like for me is mauve but then it's got a pink outline around the whole letter. 

CATHERINE STRUTT: And S for me is clear with a blue outline, that's the only letter that's clear I think. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And when did you first realise you had it? 

JENNIFER STRUTT: We thought that maybe it's just a communication, a twin thing, and then we tested it on our friends, you know, is four red for you and then we'd get the strange looks happening and then we thought we'll just keep out mouths shut and then, so we just kept it to ourselves.  But it wasn't until mid '90's, in my early 20s, that I actually discovered that there was a word and it wasn't just us, there was plenty of research. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Just fascinating.  And Helen you've got it too, haven't you? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   What happens when you feel pain? 

HELEN CAMERON:  Different colours depending on where the pain is or what the pain came from. So for example, if I get stabbing pains in my feet and those are like the colour of little red arrowheads with blue fire behind them in my feet. Or a severe head pain will be yellow, or stubbing my toe is like a black conjoin like thing. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, so they're quite specific?  So there's also shape and movement in yours? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   As well as the colour.

HELEN CAMERON:  I mean everything they were saying I experience as well but just completely different colours, it's really jarring to hear them say that you're green when you're obviously red. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What colour do you think I am? 

HELEN CAMERON:  You're very like very red with a little bit of rusty apart from the jade that kind of seeps through but the concept of you as Jenny is red. But the name Jenny is not always red, it's like you are red. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay. And do you have any sense of why I'm red? 

HELEN CAMERON:  I've no idea, no idea. 

FEMALE: To me you're yellow.  

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you've got as well?

FEMALE: Yeah, but mainly with sounds.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, anyone else like to add to this?  It’s like going through the rainbow here. So is there a downside to this, Catherine? 

CATHERINE STRUTT: Only when you get things mixed up, like for example a $20 note and $50 note, 2 and 5 are blue for me so I can easily get a $50 note and a $20 note mixed up and hand over the wrong thing.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Helen, downside? 

HELEN CAMERON:  Going to somewhere like the fish markets where the actual visual of the way fish smells or oysters is really horrible visual that I get. So it's a really unpleasant experience, it's actually heightened by that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Tom, you see the world differently too, don't you? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Tell us about that? 

THOMAS HAWTHORNE:  Yes, I'm severely red green colour blind. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, so how does that impact on your life? 

THOMAS HAWTHORNE:  Well, I was first, I first found out that I was colour blind when I was about four or five years old before I went to primary school and it sort of made sense to my parents at the time because I was, my brother at that stage was able to do 500 piece puzzles and I was flat out doing 28 piece puzzles. So it made sense to them but day-to-day it doesn't generally affect me but when I was 18 years old I'd sort of had a gutful at school by then and I wanted to go into the army. 

Did the attitude test, went really well there, did some of the medical assessments and then when they said oh righto, the colour blind test is next, I sort of straight up I knew I was done, went in there, tried to wing it.  I couldn't get any of the numbers and then they came back and said righto, you can be in the band, you can be a cook, you can, it was a double side A4 bit of paper of jobs that I could do and then it got reduced down to five, and I was just like oh no, that's not sort of what I wanted to join the army for. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay.  Just tell us how it works.  I mean you can't distinguish red and green so how does it work, give us an example? 

THOMAS HAWTHORNE:  It's sort of hard to explain because I've always had it but it works in the sense that if there was a green background with something red on it, or vice versa, I'd see the dominant colour. At football training if they say run to the cone and they've used the red cone, I'd just keep on running, Forrest Gump.

There's carpet at my work and one night they're like what colour are these dots on the carpet and I'm like oh, they're green dots. Like oh, no they're not, they're red and green dots so the dominant colour out of them two colours was green with that background. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Are there any benefits to being colour blind? 

THOMAS HAWTHORNE:  Every time a rainbow comes out it's like fifty shades of grey. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You've practiced that a lot. 

THOMAS HAWTHORNE:  It’s my go to.  I'm good at chess as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jason, you're a neuro scientist, what sort of things influence the way we experience colour? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY, UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND:  Well, these stories are great because they illustrate how personal perception is, the fact that you know, we can't tell between any two of us whether we're seeing the world in the same way.  In Tom's case, there's something different at the back of his eye, the retina, the light sensitive part of his eye is changed in a particular way.  One of the receptors there is either not present or it's not functioning properly. And in the case of the twins, they're getting these extra perceptions of colour and that's something that's happening in the brain. The world is being reconstructed in our brain and the way that they are reconstructing the world is very different to how most of the rest of do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And do you know how that reconstruction occurs?  I mean how common is Synaesthesia? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Synaesthesia, probably it is one person out of every few hundred.  It's definitely more common in women than in men and we often see it running in families so we think there may be a genetic component to it as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what about colour blindness, how common is that? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Colour blindness is quite common. About 10 percent of Caucasian males will have that particular condition, red green colour blindness. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So it's more common in men? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  More common in men this particular type, yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Does colour exist? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  That's a great kind of philosophical question. We don't know. I guess what we would say is colour probably doesn't exist in the world, so rather than physical colour being present on objects as we see them, it's actually something our brain puts together and gives us. Different animal species see colours in different ways so we one particular part of the visible spectrum but honey bees and birds see something very different. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So the rosellas here, sitting over here, the colours that we see that they're wearing are all in our head? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  That's pretty much right. That's what our brain is giving us. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So how do we ever know what any colour really is? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  That's a good question. I guess we come to agree on colours. So when we look at a common object, we've learned to attach particular labels, name labels to those things. So if there's a red cone in the middle of the room we can all agree, we can all point it to and say we see that as red, but I'll never know whether the red that you're seeing is the same. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   The same red that you're seeing?  I mean most people do think seeing is believing, to what extent is our vision a literal snapshot of the world around us? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Actually it's nothing like a snapshot.  So people think about their visual systems as being like taking a photograph that we have this rich detail everywhere and we're aware of what's going on at all times, but in fact we only pick up on a very, very small fraction of the information that's coming into the eyes at any given moment. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You're going to demonstrate this, do you want to hop up? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   And take everybody, take everybody through a test. 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Okay. So I think we have a video that we can show you and it's one in which you'll see six people, three, three of the individuals are wearing white tee-shirts and three of the individuals are wearing black tee-shirts, and each of the two teams of three have a basketball and they're going to be throwing the basketball between themselves. So we can run that video and see how many passes you count for the individuals who are wearing the white tee-shirts. 

So keep your attention on the screen and just focusing on the three girls who are wearing the white tee-shirts, counting the passes that they make between them. Try not to be distracted, throw, keep your eyes on the ball, the throws, the passes. Just about there now. Okay, so that's the end of that little test. How many passes do people think? 

AUDIENCE: Sixteen. 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Sixteen. You all get sixteen?  That's amazing. So how many people in the audience saw the gorilla walk halfway across and beat his chest? How many people did not see the gorilla? Okay, so about half of you, about half of you missed the gorilla. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   That was a gorilla there, there was, we'll show you in a minute. 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  There was a gorilla. So that's very common, this is phenomenon that we call inattention blindness. So your attention was devoted to the basketball players and because it was devoted to the basketball players you missed something that is actually very, very obvious and very, very salient, but you're not unusual. This, about 50 percent of all people who see this video for the first time miss the gorilla. 

For those of you who have seen the video before, how many of you noticed any other kind of change? A couple of you, okay. There were actually some other changes, just to fool the people who had seen the video before so maybe we can have a look at this again and see what the changes were. We'll rewind.  So here we go again, this is just the same video that you saw before but actually something else changed, the colour of the curtains in the background went from red to yellow. And how many people picked up the fact that one of the players wearing the black tee-shirt actually walked off? Just one or two. So this is a classic demonstration of how what you see, what you perceive consciously, is not necessarily what's out there in the world and just with little tricks, having you pay attention to one kind of thing means that you can miss other kinds of things as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So the moral of the story is your eyes can deceive you? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, thanks very much for that Jason. Round of applause for Jason.  Richard, you were a fighter pilot with the RAAF for 17 years, how much could you rely on your eyes? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM, FORMER FIGHTER PILOT:  I mean your eyes make up 80 percent of how you orientate yourself in regards what's up, what's down, and then the other 20 percent is made up with what's happening in the inner ear and just your pressure points on the body. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what happens when you hit a cloud? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  What you're supposed to do is start to rely or trust the instruments because your body, particularly the vestibular system will actually convince you that you're, where the up is actually changed or is different from where it really is. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you've got to actually tell, you've got to actually ignore your senses? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  Yeah, I had a situation once where I was flying back from Canberra to Newcastle.  I was actually in a formation so I was on the wing aircraft and we were in cloud the entire way and the entire flight I felt as though we were just going round and round and round, and every now and then I'd have to just look back inside and go yeah, no, we are straight and level we're going the right way but just that horrible feeling for that period of time was quite disconcerting, so not enjoyable. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   What about optical illusions when you're flying? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  In the lower level type of stuff there we're talking about helicopters, when you're hovering, especially in an area where there's not much reference so like over water, if you're winching someone up, because you're concentrating on something but just out of the corner of the eye the rotor wash will actually start pushing the water away and you get the sensation that you're going backwards and there's been numerous cases where people react to that and then push forward and crashed. But I guess through all of us the closest example would be when you get to the traffic lights and suddenly the car next to you moves slight, that's a classic case.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Tell us about "break off phenomena", what's that? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  I guess it's a feeling of disassociation, particularly associated with high altitude flight. The experience I had was during the initial Hornet training many years ago, it was just one aircraft. I was with the aircraft instructor, it was a very, very dark night so there were no stars and we were far enough off the coast that there was no cultural lighting so you can't see any townships.  So we were basically in this little kind of black little bubble. So I'm sitting in this air plane there and it's got all these green screens and all the stuff's going on and I reached a point where I actually felt I was out of the aircraft watching what was going on and then having to convince myself that no, I'm actually flying this aeroplane. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Where did you think you were? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  I just sitting outside, it was like I was elevated up and out of and just looking back in the aircraft. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So an out of plane experience? 

RICHARD BROUGHAM:  An out of plane experience, yeah.

JENNY BROCKIE:   David, you research multi-sensory perception. Is there anything that a pilot can absolutely rely on in these situations, physically? 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS, SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: Well they can rely on their training, because so much of our visual sense is vision that could be sound or any sensory modality. It's fundamentally ambiguous in lots of ways and you rely on context and other cues to help interpret it. And you can probably totally lose any reliable sense of …

JENNY BROCKIE:  What about weight, where your weight is, can you rely on that?

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: Well as he said, he mentioned pressure points on the body so I guess if you've lost your sense of what's up, am I vertical or not, one of the few things you can rely on is the sense of pressure through the seat of the aircraft and hence the saying "flying by the seat of your pants".  If you no longer trust your instruments, that one cue you've got is that sense of gravity that might tell you what's up and what's down. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So you rely on your bum?

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS:  Basically yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Basically.  Is vision our strongest sense? 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: It tends to be for most people. I mean we obviously have five senses, but if you look at the sort of the brain and how much real estate is devoted to vision, it's about 30 percent of the brain is involved in seeing.  So there's a lot of brain space dedicated just to seeing.  So for most of us it turns out to be our most dominant sense and the one that can override sometimes the others. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you train your vision to be better?

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS:  Probably less so vision because it's the one most of us rely on most of the time so it tends to be relatively well trained up, but the auditory modality you can train it up, there's a lot more headroom to improve there. People like musicians or sound engineers who rely on their ears have usually trained their hearing up quite markedly but for most people there'd be more scope to improve your sense of touch or sound. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And can it override the other senses? 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS:  It can, well there's the classic old stage illusion of the ventriloquist, you hear a sound, it's actually coming from the ventriloquist of course, but vision's telling you the speech signals are here and so you end up vision overrides your sense and you perceive the sound coming from there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, everyone, I want you have to have look at this and follow what David says to do when you watch it. 




WOMAN:  Ba, ba, ba, ba,ba, ba.

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: What can you hear?  You are probably hearing ba, with a B. Now, listen to this. 

WOMAN:  Ba, Ba. Ba. Ba.

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: The chances are you are hearing Va, with a V. Right? 


PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: Now, here is the tricky part. The audio hasn't changed. The only sound you are hearing is ba, with a B. 

WOMAN:  Ba. Ba, ba. 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS:  Look at the right side. Ba with a B. If you look to the left, you hear va with a V. 

WOMAN: Ba, ba. 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: Remember, the sound isn't changing.

WOMAN:  Ba. Ba. Ba, ba.



JENNY BROCKIE:   Did that work for everyone? Yeah, did you all here the two different sounds?

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS:  It just shows how automatically you're going to combine sight and sound for speech in particular which of course is very important for us for survival and it's probably why they're so automatically combined.

JENNY BROCKIE:   But we do think our senses are separate, a lot of the time, don't we? 

PROFESSOR DAVID ALAIS: We do and yet, they, the brain is really an integrator it's trying to take, and I mentioned just before that there's a lot of ambiguity in our sensory perception and the brain tries to fix that problem by combining as much information as it can together to try and disambiguate, so it will put sight and sound together and touch and all those senses to try and resolve that ambiguity. 

MALE: Was that a gorilla in that video? 





JULEE-ANNE BELL, THE FEED:  Oh, what is that? Let’s go check it out. Someplace new that I have never been therefore, which is always intriguing and a little bit scary, but not in a bad way - scary in a fun way.   Oh, wow! It's a boat. It has got to be a boat. That looks like the front of a boat. How cool! Something - let's go check it out. It is another boat! Oh. That is interesting, isn't it?



JENNY BROCKIE:   Julee-anne, we've just been looking at you identifying boats in a boat yard?  What were the sounds you were making while you were doing that? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:   Can I apologise for my over enthusiasm? I'm a school teacher. I was using a fairly simple and yet quite sophisticated form of echo location that we call flash sonar and it is quite literally creating a flash of sound and we do that with a tongue click, (click, click), and for those of you who are a little bit aurally and orally technical, I used a palatal click, some people prefer a dental click.  That sound allowed me to gain from its echo a sonic image of what I was pointing at, and in this case I knew we were near water but it was this tall thin, and I'd move my head and lose the signal and then I ascertained that it was a boat and that actually was quite fun to get it right because they didn't tell me.  SBS lovely people that they are, they didn't set it up in any way, shape or form.  They said well let's just see what happens.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, how long did it take you to learn this because you learnt out to do it just three years ago? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  That's right, yes, I took about, I had eight days of training but the last two were just really fun.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And how accurate is it? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  Well, I found the boat. I can pick, I can pick light poles and signposts, trees.  I can tell you a tree, I point out a fence, the difference between a fence, I can tell you the shape of a car, you know. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Depth, texture? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Can you pick those things? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  All of those things.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Now you were born congenitally blind with no light perception, so what was life like for you before you could do this? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  Well I've always been a fairly high achieving individual, I'm a mum, I'm an opera singer, I'm a singing teacher and I run a business and I've travelled and done various things, but my anxiety was just super high and nothing that anyone could do could lower that anxiety.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And four years ago you wouldn't leave the house alone? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  I would but there'd be a lot of throwing up beforehand.  It wasn't always fun to have to go someplace completely independently. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You've been a musician for most of your life, do you think that helped? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:  I think it certainly peaked my interest and it made me very willing to reach for the answers with my ears. I've met plenty of blind people who can do this who aren't musicians.  I've also met some blind people who are musicians who haven't kind of got there quite yet with the echo location. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jason, when someone is missing a sense, does the brain compensate, do other senses become stronger? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  They probably do.  I mean the brain is always going to try and use whatever the most reliable sense is and so in this case, if vision is missing, then the next best thing maybe is audition, on using the hearing sense, and with practice and focusing one's attention on the modality that's going to be the most reliable for orienting yourself in the environment, you can hone those skills. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Has it ever let you down Julee-Anne? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:   I don't think it's let me down, and I would just like to stress that we always advocate the use of this with a long cane or a guide dog.  We're not advocating that people would be not using those traditionally understood mobility aids because it cannot detect drop offs and it's very important that people are safe.  

JENNY BROCKIE:   Now you might be wondering what we're about to do with two of our Insight guests here, it's great fun coming on Insight. Giselle, Herman, thank you so much for joining us.  You'll find out what we're doing in just a moment. Before that though, James, you research smell and taste? 

DR JAMES ST JOHN, GRIFFITH UNIVERSITY:  Yes.  Well when we are eating we perceive the flavour and most of that is actually through the sense of smell. Taste is a small component, we can have salty and bitter and sour, but most of the sensation comes through the sense of smell. So we need to smell the food and the air circulates in our mouths and that's what we call flavour. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You're doing alright there you two?  Can our eyes influence taste? 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Oh definitely. When we - eating's essential to our existence, if we eat the wrong thing we can die so we need to make sure that…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Don't worry, don't worry, they'll be fine. 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  We need to make sure it's the right thing. So we'll have those cues of visual cues to say it's okay to eat and then we might smell it and then we might put it into our mouth. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Alright. So let's do a little bit of that.  Now Herman and Giselle here are going to tuck into something quite delicious, we might reveal to our audience what they're going to be eating. Yum. 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  It smells really good doesn't it Giselle? 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Smelling good? 

HERMAN:  I don't smell anything. 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Lean forward a little bit, can you smell? 

HERMAN:  Mmm. 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Smells good to me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah, I think it smells pretty good. Now I'm going to give you a hand here, why don't we give them a hand?  I'll just chop up a bit of this absolutely scrumptious looking…

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Okay, I've got some on the fork here. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Put some on a fork, and I will give…

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Don't poke yourself in the face.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay Giselle, here, I'll help you pop that into your mouth.  How does that taste? 

HERMAN:  It's good. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah, what do you think it is? 

GISELLE:  Chicken, it's a bit salty, a bit sort of slimy I guess, is this someone's cooking? 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Herman's having some fun here. 

HERMAN:  I think it's a meat but it could be like a lamb or something a bit more chewy. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, alright. Next, here we go. I'm just going to give you this, there you go. What do you think?  

GISELLE:  Mashed potato, these questions are suspicious. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Herman, what do you think it is?

HERMAN:  Absolutely mashed, potatoes, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Alright. We might take the blind folds off. 

GISELLE:  Oh, God. That's alright. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How do you feel about it eating it now though, now that you can see it? 

GISELLE:  Well the same I guess, it's fine, food colouring.

JENNY BROCKIE:  But if I'd put that plate down in front of you? 

HERMAN:  I wouldn't touch it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You wouldn't touch it? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Why wouldn't you touch it? 

HERMAN:  The colours and that, I don't associate the colours as being tasteful. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Alright, thank you very much for being our guinea pigs. Round of applause for Giselle and Herman. 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Thanks very much James and we might move on. Nicholas, you work with the sensory flavour and food group at the CSIRO.  Why do some people taste things more strongly than other people? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER, CSIRO: So the factors that comes into play are really the genetics and so our genes differ between people and that can be, that can cause differences in taste between people. Environment can also influence our taste so whether we smoke, what type of diet we have, if we're exercising, and also prior experience can influence how we taste.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Is there a special group when it comes to taste? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: Yes, there's been a lot of research around a bitter molecule called PROP and it's been regarded as a marker of taste sensitivity. So some people can detect the bitterness while other people can't detect the bitterness so we've got an experiment we've set up here. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So we're going to do now, a group of you have a little cup like this, I've got one too, so we're all going to sample what's in this little cup on the count of three.  Right? One, two, three.  Okay. Helen, horrible reaction, what does it taste like to you? 

HELEN CAMERON:  Like poison. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, grab some water if it tastes really horrible you've all got water. Who else had a really strong reaction? Hands up? 

MALE: Mine was very bitter. 


MALE: Very bitter. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Very bitter, okay. 

FEMALE:  Mine was bitter as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, anyone else? Mildly bidder?  Did anyone just not taste much at all?  Yeah, I'm in that category too.  I'm with you so what does this tell us about these people? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: So this is a great example of how taste varies between people and how our genetics, which is the major component or driver in the ability to perceive the bitterness in the solution. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So does that mean the people who, Helen's still in pain up there. You're obviously a very strong taster of things. Have you got a very strong, are you aware of having a strong sense of taste? 

FEMALE:  Does that have a colour? 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Yes, did it have a colour, good question? 

HELEN CAMERON:  It was like an inky dark grey colour, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Now there are people called super tasters? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: Yes, that's correct. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Is Helen potentially a super taster? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: Potentially she could be a super taster. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And tell her what that is? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: Yeah, so I suppose what we're seeing is we're seeing two groups, so tasters and non-tasters, but then within that taster group we see people who perceive the bitterness of being much more intense or much greater. So super tasters have been associated with a range of different dietary patterns; So the bitter molecule that we've got in the solution PROP, there are similar molecules in, similar shape molecules in things like brussel sprouts and broccoli and so that has been associated with super tasters actually not being as accepting of those green vegetables. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Do you like broccoli and brussel sprouts? 

HELEN CAMERON:  I love them because of their bitterness. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what does it mean for the rest of us who didn't taste anything like you and me, does that mean our taste buds are damaged?  Does it mean we're hopeless at tasting foods? 

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER:  No, no, so this is, I suppose, looking at one particular bitter receptor and we've got 25 different bitter receptors. So we're only looking specifically at one particular receptor. So it doesn't necessarily mean that we're deficient in taste. Another thing that super tasters are associated with is the amount of taste tissue that's present within on the tongue. So super tasters have a higher level of taste tissue and that potentially also could enhance their ability to perceive the bitterness. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Does that mean more taste buds?  

DR NICHOLAS ARCHER: Yes, so that means more taste buds. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Sebastian you tried it, didn't you? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   And you're a master sommelier? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, did you taste the bitterness? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Strongly? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Just as well. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Tell people what a sommelier is for those who might not know? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: So a sommelier essentially is someone who works within restaurants or for a restaurant group and I guess we look after the buying, serving and storage of wine.

JENNY BROCKIE:   There are two in Australia, is that right? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: There are two master sommeliers now in Australia, myself and another gentleman who is also in Sydney, so four exams essentially to become a master sommelier. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what do you have to do in those exams? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER:  The final examination component is a blind tasting exam and for the final exam that's six wines, so three whites and three reds, you have 25 minutes from the moment you touch the first glass to correctly talk about those wines from the visual, the nose, the palate and then give a conclusion on the wines. So stating exactly where you think the wine is from, the region, the vintage and the grape variety. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So it could be anywhere in the world? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: It could be anywhere in the world and, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So from taste and smell alone and sight, you have to work out? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   And how did you do in the exam? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  And do you rely on one particular sense more than others do you think to do this? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: I've yeah, it's a really hard one to answer. I think I rely on, if we're in a blind tasting situation and I'm trying to guess where a wine is from, probably on red wines I rely more on palate assessment. But potentially for whites maybe more on the aromatic profile.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Is it a skill you've always had? Could anyone train to do it do you think? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: Sure. I think probably the heights that you get to might be limited through genetics and kind of how everyone's built, acidity in wine you can learn how you perceive these things; tannin in wine.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jason, just reaction to all of that? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  It's amazing. For most of us who live in a visual world, we're quite happy that we can recognise lots of different kind of visual objects, chairs and tables and people's faces and so on.  But we don't really think about flavours and smells as objects per se. And I guess in cases like this people have learned to do that kind of complex object recognition but for flavours and for aromas. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Julee-anne, what your sense of taste like? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:   Well apparently really poor. I thought it was water, and I'm the person who sniffs around our house and goes there's something, there's something and it will like a milligram of fruit in my son's school bag and I'll find it. So generally…

JENNY BROCKIE:   Like a Beagle?  

JULEE-ANNE BELL:   Yeah, pretty much.  The children have worse names but I think that, I like this idea because, because my sense of smell at the moment is quite impaired because I'm unwell, my sense of taste seems to be impaired and I would imagine that there's a link. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Melinda, you lost your sense of smell nine years ago, what's that like? 

MELINDA MEYER:  I guess, I guess on a day-to-day basis life doesn't change, you can still do all of the things that you do. But you become, you become more aware of things in your house like a smoke detector that becomes incredibly important for your safety. Not being able to smell food when it's bad.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Do really bad, bad, bad smells ever register with you? 

MELINDA MEYER:  You know, I work in a school and I've helped kids who have been ill and you'll be helping them with a bag and you're having a little dry retch and it will be alright and trying to look away. But I can't smell it but I know what's happening. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How did you lose your sense of smell? 

MELINDA MEYER:  I have and still have allergic nasal polyps that grew and that grow in my sinus spaces and they've, they've damaged my sense of smell and I've had them surgically removed twice and the surgery that's performed to remove nasal polyps can also damage your sense of smell. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Will you get it back do you think? 

MELINDA MEYER:  My smell comes back with oral steroids.  But you obviously can't take those on a, they're a very, very short term thing to take because there are lots of other side effects. But what it does, what they do is really reduce down all of the inflammation and I get my sense of smell back for the short period of time and it's lovely. 

FEMALE: Can you taste? 

MELINDA MEYER:  I can but I think my taste is diminished and I'm one of the failures in that last test.  I had a little bit of bitterness at the back of my tongue. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Smells trigger memories? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you miss that? 

MELINDA MEYER:  Yes, I do, and I think the two significant ones for me, my dad's after shave.  It was an after shave that my mum bought him when they were courting and he wore it all his life and that's his smell and of course I'll, you know, I'll never smell that again.  And the other thing that I was very aware of missing out on was when my brother and his wife had their kids, so I've never, you know, my two nephews and my niece, I've never smelt that baby smell and so I was, you know, very conscious of missing out on that kind of thing.

JENNY BROCKIE:   James, not having a sense of smell is called anosmia.  How many people in Australia does it affect? 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  It's not certain, it's thought about 1 percent of people report they can't smell, but as you saw tonight, Herman was trying to smell a chicken and couldn't really smell the chicken so a lot of us have temporary loss of smell, but about 1 percent have a significant on-going loss of smell.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you get it back or once it's gone, is it gone? 

DR JAMES ST JOHN:  Well you can get it back, the nerve cells can regenerate and it's the only part of the nervous system that regenerates every single day of our lives in normal healthy people. And so I'm working on a therapy to cure spinal cord injury and spinal cord paralyses by using cells from the nose to transplant them in the spinal cord because it's the only part of the nervous system that regenerates, very special cells there that allow those nerve cells to make connections with the brain. Not perfect but still the first time they've got connections and so understanding how the brain can regenerate in one part can allow us to get therapies in other areas.  

JENNY BROCKIE:   Toby, you're an air traffic controller, tell us how many things do you have to do at once? 

TOBY GAUMANN, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: It can range from one thing to I suppose 100 things. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   At once? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Whether they're concurrently or within close succession I suppose would be a debate for the experts.  Probably the more simple situations not so many, you may be doing only two, thinking and talking or even three, you know, writing, thinking and talking and at the start of training that's something that sounds quite simple but it's quite difficult actually to think about speaking and writing. The more complex situations where you're solving a confliction between maybe five aircraft you're thinking about a plan for each one of those aircraft, you're administering the plan and providing instructions in the right order to make sure everything works and then you're constantly assessing what you're doing to make sure everything's coming off as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And doing calculations? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Absolutely.  Yeah, I mean particularly in the tower environment, we have air space out to about five nautical miles when you're talking about a normal jet aircraft landing it's doing two to three miles per minute.  We're talking about a minute from when they call us on frequency to when the situation is resolved.   So we have a lot of decisions to make in a very short space of time. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Which of your senses would you use the most? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  I think in a control tower probably visual and audio obviously because all our instructions are given verbally and we receive read backs verbally through the radio as well.  So we probably supplement our visual observation with what we're hearing and checking those match up. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How stressful is it? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Commonly asked question, would you believe? So in an air traffic control environment a situation may require you raise your work rate to suit the workload, it can become quite acutely stressful but once you've dealt with the problem the stress vanishes fairly quickly.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Well it's so intense, you're only allowed to do it for what, two hours at a time? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Before you have a break? 

TOBY GAUMANN: Yeah, we work for two hours before we have a break. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do you do to recharge? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  I'll just veg out on the couch and tune out from the outside world. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay. Could anyone do what Toby does? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Well I think with some training, maybe, I mean there may be certain predispositions that allow some people to do a better job of that than others. But there's really sort of hard limits to how much multi-tasking any of us can do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Can we test our ability to multi-task or to do this, prioritise? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  We can and there are all kinds of sophisticated scenarios.  You know, in a laboratory environment we could give people different sources of information to monitor and test their abilities and look at mistakes they make and so on. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You've got a test here? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  We have a test, yeah, and this is really, I guess it's really a test of attention in some ways but it does require you to look at a display and to track multiple objects and so here we go, you're going to track two squares, they're the two you need to keep track of and they'll start moving. Keep track of them. So it starts to get difficult as the squares start to intermingle with one another but hopefully you've still got two of those particular squares that you're attending to.  Which ones? Okay. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, who got it right? How many, hands up, up high. How many people got it right? Yeah, pretty good, pretty much everybody. 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Pretty much I'd say 90 percent of the people here were able to do that. But of course now we can actually make it more difficult, the second one that you'll see, now keep track of the all four of these. So that's the cue that you'll get, they're the ones. You need to try to keep track of all four of those squares now as they move around and again as they start to intermingle with one another it gets a little bit more difficult to keep track of them. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   How are you going everyone? Oh, I'm not supposed to interrupt your concentration. 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, hands up how many people got it? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  How many got all four? Okay, how many got just three, just two? One or zero? Okay, there's some honest people. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Alright. So can we train ourselves to get better at doing something like that? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Yeah, if you train on tasks like this you can actually get a little bit better. For most of us there is a really hard limit and it turns out to be about four items. If you really practice intensively perhaps you can get up to five or six but not much beyond that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Toby, do you have a hard limit with your job? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Yeah, you definitely do. I can probably identify more the sensation of approaching that hard limit than the actual number of things I'm processing concurrently but you're definitely trained, you know, to recognise when you're approaching that limit and to start implementing strategies to make sure you don't exceed it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Yeah, because again the stakes are high if you get something wrong? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Absolutely, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Do you multi-task in the rest of your life? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Very much so, yeah.  Oh, much to the dismay occasionally of  my partner we'll be out somewhere and I'm very good at listening to two or three things at once, so I can actually be having a conversation with someone and she'll start talking about me to a friend thinking I'm not listening and you can actually keep track of two conversations quite easily. 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  So I have a question, do you do that by rapidly switching from one to another, or do you literally process all three at the same time? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  It would be very difficult to say but I think you're probably right. You actually listen for key words in each conversation. The thing is an air traffic controller, you learn key words in each conversation which really are trigger words and your attention is then dedicated to that one which requires the priorities.  The work "take off" or "cleared to land", we only use in conjunction with a clearance to take off or to land. We would never say "expect to take off" because for those exact reasons, it can introduce expectation by a switch could be dangerous in the wrong circumstances. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Jason, why is understanding how attention works important? How can it help us in other ways? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  We rely on attention to filter information, to guide our safe behaviour and so, you know, if we're monitoring a normal world where we have audio information, visual information, touch information and so on, there's got to be some way of prioritising those things. So doing something like driving a car, you need in be able to pay attention to the right thing at the right moment in time to avoid accidents. So there are really pragmatic reasons for this. It's one of the reasons that it's illegal to drive and text or to drive and use a mobile phone because it doesn't just take your eyes off the road, it actually use us up some of your attention and if that part of your attention is used up, you have a less of that left over to help you drive a safely.

JENNY BROCKIE:   I'm interested in the applications of all this work that you're all doing as scientists around the senses and Anina, I know you study people with Synaesthesia, why? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR ANINA RICH, MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY:  I'm interested in the way that the brain puts the information together from all the senses and integrates it with what we already know. And Synaesthesia is a phenomena in which we have this unique window into that because it's an internally generated experience.  It's associated with, for example, a sound or seeing a letter or hearing a word that most of us don't have, but it might be the same sort of thing where there's a pre existing association, a long term knowledge about something, and it influences the way that you perceive that information coming in from the world.

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what do you understand about why Synaesthesia happens? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR ANINA RICH:  Why is always a tricky one. It's certainly, you know, the idea that there's a genetic component to it but we've also got lots of Synaesthetists  who don't have family members with Synaesthesia. So people who might hear programs like tonight and suddenly go wow, I do that and have never met anyone else who does it. There's some sense in which it might be helpful for creativity. So one of our studies we found that a much greater proportion of Synaesthetists are involved in creative occupations than the general population. But again, it's kind of hard to say the why.

JENNY BROCKIE: Jason, we hear a lot about brain plasticity now and I'm just wondering about the repair of certain senses though. I mean is there potential for the brain to actually act to repair damaged senses? 

PROFESSOR JASON MATTINGLEY:  Yeah there is.  So we know that after damage to the brain caused by stroke, for example, there can be a spontaneous repair. But also other sense modalities can start to take over some of those functions. So if one loses a sense of sight, then as we've heard tonight you can start to rely on other sense modalities to help you pick up cues in the environment and help guide you around. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Julee-anne, what have you learnt about the capacity of your senses? 

JULEE-ANNE BELL:   I think what's interesting is the main thing that's being trained when you're learning echo location isn't necessarily the sense of sound or the sense of hearing, it's the perceptual system. So what we're doing is we're turning on the perceptual system in your brain and we're allowing you to take the sound that you hear and create within your, within your mind an image of what it is that the sound is reflective of. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   That's fascinating. Toby, what have you learnt about your senses do you think in your job? 

TOBY GAUMANN:  Lots. I think very similar to flight crew you need to be very careful not to blindly trust only one input because there can be frequent occasions where things are actually at odds with one another. So a healthy mistrust is always beneficial. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Sebastian, what about you, what have you learned about your own sensory capacity? 

SEBASTIAN CROWTHER: I think I've learnt to trust them as much as anything and I think probably with wine tasting it's something that you, over time you just become more confident in your own senses and your own ability to taste and perceive things.

JENNY BROCKIE:   Okay, Catherine and Jennifer, what you have learnt? 

JENNIFER STRUTT: It's just another tool, I use it as another tool and can you turn one sense off, visual, for instance, playing music, if you can turn off the visual looking at music and rely on the Synaesthesia in your ear to play the music instead of visual.

JENNY BROCKIE:   So rely on the colours? 


JENNY BROCKIE:   Is that a rich life? 


CATHERINE STRUTT: Yeah, particularly because we kind of deal with colour and that kind of thing every day it just adds to it.  It's like a super colour. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Fantastic note to end on.  Thank you all so much, it's been really interesting talking to you all and that is all we have time for here but let's keep talking on Twitter and on Facebook. You can also go to our website by the way for more ways to test your own senses. Thanks everybody, it was great.