I would've read this short-story either in 2019 or 2020, possibly in a sci-fi compilation.

The Gist of the Story goes as follows: The Protagonist, A Human (possibly a diplomat of some kind), arrives on a plant (potentially Mars) to meet with members of the resident civilisation (Martians). This Species, who I think were humanoid, share similar senses to Humans, all but for a smaller range of experience for either sight (colour-blindness) or smell.

However they also have a sense that Humans do not, which is the ability to "perceive sound/waves", and so have created instruments which produce "visual music" which they view. The Diplomat overhears of this experience, and presses the Alien Diplomat that he has been meeting with to witness the phenomenon. The Alien Diplomat warns him that, although humans can experience this phenomenon through (some means that I can't recall; possibly through injection of a drug), these means, in the process, degenerate the very part of the brain which allows Humans to experience it. They then go on to say that those Humans who had previously experienced the phenomenon, later took to drugs or committed suicide, as the disparity between this experience and their day-to-day experiences were too great.

The Protagonist aware of the potential consequences undergoes the procedure and experiences the phenomenon, after which, and in conclusion of the story, he notes his newfound state of depression.

  • It strangely reminds me of a question where someone remembered a story where an experience could be done only once. No idea if it was the same.
    – Clockwork
    Jun 8, 2021 at 9:39
  • 3
    Probably the same as this question but the latter doesn't have an accepted answer.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 8, 2021 at 14:55
  • I think that's a little bit of a stretch to call what I wrote a spoiler @Arthur :) but I'll delete and adjust accordingly :D
    – NKCampbell
    Jun 8, 2021 at 20:03
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    I immediately thought of the 'Foundation' series by Asimov, only to find a different Asimov story as an answer :)
    – NKCampbell
    Jun 8, 2021 at 20:04
  • 2
    Also this question: someone with close-as-duplicate powers could go back and close both of the linked questions as duplicates of this one now that this has an accepted answer ... ?
    – Ben Bolker
    Jun 9, 2021 at 0:24

1 Answer 1


This is The Secret Sense by Isaac Asimov. It's been printed in many anthologies - the one that I read it in was The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying Volume 1. One detail that I remember is that the name of the instrument was "portwem". Wikipedia has a plot summary:

Lincoln Fields, a rich Earthling from New York City living on Mars, is discussing the merits of the highly developed sense of sight and hearing that humans possess, which the Martians do not. Garth Jan, his Martian friend, counters with the merits of the senses that the Martians possess, and unintentionally lets slip that there is also one secret sense. Fields asks him to give it to him but Garth Jan refuses at that time. Six months later, using Martian social law in an unethical fashion, Fields forces him to let him feel this sense and Jan reluctantly agrees. Fields is injected by a Martian physician with a hormone extract that will activate the sense in him, but only for five minutes, after which it will be unusable ever again. Jan's music teacher commences playing a musical composition on a Martian instrument, the portwem. After a few minutes, Fields starts to experience the wonders of the portwem, first with colours and sounds and odours all directly affecting the senses, which transition into a new, indescribable sense. He is devastated, as Jan knew he would be, when his time is up and he loses the ability to experience the secret sense.

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