Columbia University in the City of New York


The Senses

Neurons that project to the ventral tegmental area (in blue) - a brain region associated with pleasure and reward - receive, in turn, projections from neurons in the spinal cord (in red) that themselves receive touch input, revealing a direct skin-to-brain circuit for pleasurable touch in mice. (Credit: Abdus-Saboor Lab/Zuckerman Institute​​​​​​​).

Your brain lives in solitary confinement: shut up inside your skull, disconnected from the outside world. Your senses open the windows, letting the outside world stream in.

Only when your brain pieces together everything you see, hear, touch, taste and smell, can you understand and experience the world around you.

At Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute we ask: How does the brain see color, shape and motion, and put all this information together, when a painter looks over her canvas or an athlete tries to catch a ball? Why does one molecule taste salty when it sticks to your tongue, but another taste sweet? How do our brains interpret the soundwaves entering our ears as words, or as music?

To investigate questions like these, our researchers study everything from the molecular sensors built into our eyes and noses to the pathways that sensory information takes on its way through the nervous system. From chefs to cellists, we all delight in the use of our senses. Our work will reveal not only how sensory perception occurs, but what happens when it goes awry, as in children with autism who have trouble recognizing faces, for instance, or people with tinnitus annoyed by a constant ringing in their ears.

Explore the Senses

The Senses In the News

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Videos Featuring the Senses

Thanksgiving: The Brain Science of Taste

How the Tongue Keeps Its Tastes Straight

Study Advances New Theory of How the Brain Is Wired

Scents and Sensibility: Representations of the Olfactory World in the Brain