What’s your favorite sense? That is a question I often ask workshop participants. All of the work I teach is grounded in sensory awareness and what better place to start than taking stock of sensory preferences in the room. I don’t expect you to limit it to the five you learned in grade school. Many years ago I read that up to 32 senses had been documented. And since Diane Ackerman didn’t list them in A Natural History of the Senses; I’ve had to puzzle on what they could possibly be. So I ask people about their sensing of the world and I try to notice different ways I get information. My active imagination is a great place to start; and this will be messy if you believe in nothing without scientific documentation.
Most of us learned the five senses, sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste; and that was enough; well not enough to really tell about our experiences. Maybe you have gone on to learn about the vestibular sense, the one that keeps us balanced, by letting us know where we are going in relation to gravity. This vestibular sense, which is controlled by the first cranial nerve to myelinate in utero, is a kind of great grandmother to all the other senses. Then there is my favorite, proprioception, the ability to know where we are in space and where our bodies’ parts are. It not that we have forgotten where we put them last; we are forgetting that we have parts when we ignore our sensory messages because of tension, dissociation or injury. And so we experience a kind of self forgetting, living only in thought. Proprioceptive information travels to the lower brain to combine with input from the vestibular and tactile senses. These three are foundational and so named “the tripod of the nervous system” by Stephen Cool. I think I might call them the sacred trinity of being.
Why do I love proprioception so much? For starters proprioceptors get stimulated when you get a good hug and squeeze. They are the nerve receptors that gather information about muscle stretch, tendon pull, joint compression and where our heads are in relation to gravity. Their name means “self-receivers”, I like that. I like more than the name; I like the nervous systems response to firm even pressure to my joints, which is to let out a deep sigh, settle and calm. It is organizing for a discombobulated nervous system. We get proprioceptive input from a good hug, piles of heavy blankets, tight stretchy clothing, pushing heavy objects, working out, or jumping on a trampoline.
We all have different needs for different amounts of proprioceptive input. Everybody needs some and you can’t go wrong with firm pressure especially if you’re in control of how much, some of us crave more. If you have read anything about Temple Grandin she built herself a squeeze machine for this very need. Some children with sensory integration disorder wear tight lycra body suits, it help keep them calm and organized. I like to lie beneath heavy blankets. I have some sand stuffed lycra lizards in my studio to drape across your shoulders or lap and weighted balls, nice to roll in your hands or against your legs when sitting and talking. I invite people to notice if that weight makes them feel more settled.
What about the other senses? If you think about all the subtle changes you notice, all the information you have about your environment that doesn’t quite fit into the basic five (or seven), you know we’re missing some data on sensing . Have you noticed how some people always know what direction is north while others have no clue? We are sensitive to electromagnetic fields and the poles do have a magnetic pull. And the changes in barometric pressure, most of us have some sense of weather change, maybe you feel moisture changes in the air. It seems there is a density as it increases and some times a heavy cloud cover feels oppressive. We also feel changes in the moods of others, is it pheromones changes we smell? Or electromagnetic field shifts? Our hearts and brains do put out electromagnetic energy and the heart actually puts out the most. Hearing is not just sound but vibration and some sounds we feel more than we hear. Have you heard of synesthesia? The crossing or combining of senses, that some say is rare and other say it’s more common that you would think. People with synesthesia might see color when they are hearing sound or perceive forms for tastes or other combinations of sensation to perception.When I’m driving I’m intrigued that I can pick up the intent of another driver to change lanes before they indicate in any visible way. There must be someway this information in conveyed and some way my amazing body interprets it. What senses do you experience or imagine?
Right now, without moving, notice how you are sitting (or standing). Can you know what your body shape looks like? Where are your limbs placed in relation to each other? And when you move them can you feel where they are going? Try it with your eyes closed, shutting off that very dominant sense and listening more closely to the proprioceptors. This kind of exploration is a work out for your cerebellum, where you plan and anticipate movement. I bet you have experienced the times your cerebellum is anticipating another step down and when it’s not there you have a strange jarring surprise. Your thinking was busy somewhere and your cerebellum was planning how to adjust to the next step anticipating different information than it received from your proprioceptors. I invite you to play with your “self-receivers” and notice how much you can know yourself and where you are.