‘Not the senses I have but what I do with them is my kingdom’ – Helen Keller
Although Aristotle, back in 350 BC, named the human senses as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and this is what most of us would immediately think of as the senses, neurologists would argue that there at least 9 and possibly as many as 53. Just in case you’re wondering, the additional 4 are: thermoception (the sense of heat), nociception (feeling pain), equilibrioception (sense of balance), and proprioception (body awareness). For this blog, we’re sticking with the main five!
We’re not all fortunate enough to have all five senses but, if we are, how often do we use them? Really use them I mean. Do you sometimes look without seeing? Hear without listening? Touch without feeling? Eat without tasting? Maybe even smell without noticing what it is you’ve just smelt.
Our senses send information to the brain to help us understand the world around us. But daily life consists of millions of messages coming at us from every direction. Particularly for those of us who live in cities, we are bombarded with noise, sights, and smells and our brains start to filter some of these messages to avoid total overload. Sometimes there is so much going on in our lives and our minds that we don’t even notice that we aren’t using our senses properly. For some people, particularly those with autism, sensory overload can be quite serious, causing them to feel stressed and anxious and it can also trigger other conditions. But for all of us, it can be overwhelming at times.
Young children use all their senses continuously but, as we get older, we tend to rely on one or two. For the majority of people, sight is the strongest sense and it’s where we gain approximately 80% of our information. But sometimes we can miss seeing things because we are so busy thinking about something else or there is simply too much going on to really focus. We can look without really seeing.
In terms of making memories, smell and touch are the senses which provide the most meaningful and long lasting experiences. The more sensory experiences we have, the more likely we will remember what we were doing. That beach holiday where you felt the sand between your toes and the sea as you paddled, where you savoured the cold ice cream and the salty chips, smelt the sea air and the candyfloss and felt the sun and wind on your face. We remember because our sensory connections were built up.
We even have a preferred learning style based on our senses. Some of us are visual learners who learn best by watching something, a YouTube video for example; others are auditory learners who prefer to listen, perhaps a lecture at university could be an example of this; finally there are kinaesthetic learners who prefer to learn by doing something, perhaps alongside someone else such as an apprentice learning on the job or a child learning to cook by helping their parent in the kitchen as they grow up.
The good news is that we can encourage our senses to work better by being mindful. Simply stopping what we are doing for a few minutes, closing our eyes and taking some deep breaths. We can consciously notice the sounds and smells around us and notice how our body feels. Then we can open our eyes and really notice what is around us.
As we do daily activities, it’s good to sometimes stop and think about what we are doing. Taking the time to focus on our food for example, rather than eating mindlessly in front of a screen. Try this next time you eat! Before your food goes in your mouth have a good look, notice the colour and shape, how it feels in your hands or how it fits on the fork or spoon, what it smells like, the texture in your mouth, followed by the taste as you chew and swallow. Not only will you enjoy it more, but you’ll stop eating when you are full because you are really focussing on what you are doing.
Leonardo da Vinci used his powers of observation in his art and we can all learn from his ‘senzacione’ concept. This could be simply spending time in silence, listening to the sounds around you rather than constantly playing music. Really tasting your food and then describing the taste. Closing your eyes and trying to identify something by touch alone. Imagining a scene with all the details in colour. You could even try to think about a problem as a drawing, a song, a colour, texture, taste or smell. Leonardo maintained his sense of childhood wonder throughout life and used this concept in his art to fully embrace what he saw and experienced.
So the tiny tweak is to be a bit more mindful and to try not to take our senses for granted. I’m going to try eating more mindfully and spend time sitting in the garden listening to the birds and the sound of the church bells. What could you do this week?
Until next time xx
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