There are five generally accepted senses that we become aware of at an early age: hearing, vision, touch, smell and taste – we’ll name these the five direct senses. The conscious part of the brain is very aware of these senses and continuously checks the information obtained by these senses in order to make sense of, interact with, and learn from the environment.
There are, however, other equally important sensory systems that are essential for normal bodily functioning. Most of the time these are not consciously perceived as the central nervous system will ensure that the information received from these senses keeps the body functioning without any further conscious involvement. We fortunately do not have to consciously control our heartbeat or our breathing, for instance, as that is taken care of by our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). There are, however, two systems that have a great influence on our effective functioning and learning, the Vestibular (the balance mechanism located in the inner ear) and the Proprioceptive (our ability to know where our body is in space) systems – we’ll name these the indirect senses.
All learning comes in through the senses
All learning starts with the information we receive through our senses. How well the senses can gather information from the outside world has a great influence on how we learn and how well we function. When sensations through one of our senses are experienced too intensely the sense is classified as being hyper or over-sensitive and when sensations are experienced less intensely, this is called hypo or under-sensitive. Over or under-sensitivity will vary over time. For instance, when we are stressed and under pressure, many of us will not be able to cope so well with too many sounds or too much visual information. On the other hand, when we are relaxed and it’s a warm sunny day, many of us can take on the whole world!
All the senses gather complex information. Our ears, for instance, will be able to pick up a wide range of different frequencies, from very low tones such as the sound of a double bass to very high pitched sounds like that of a piccolo. Our eyes are even more complex with ‘cone’ receptor-cells picking up different frequencies which we interpret as colours, and ‘rod’ receptor-cells taking care of black and white images.
Another feature of our senses is the huge sensitivity range they can deal with. Well- functioning ears can cope with a difference between the softest whisper and a sound 1,000,000,000,000 times (a million million) times as intense. In our eyes the rods are 10,000 times more sensitive to light than the cones.
As all our senses gather such a complexity of information, it is no wonder that even well functioning adults often have various imbalances in their sensory input. Adjusting how their senses function will make those people even more effective in life.
We have found that children and adults with learning or developmental difficulties often have senses that are unbalanced to such a degree that they directly interfere with their ability to function well on a daily basis. It is obvious that individuals with severe hearing loss, for instance, will have difficulties acquiring language and consequently will find it difficult to express themselves through speech. What is often less appreciated is that over-sensitive hearing can be very uncomfortable and can have an equally disruptive influence on speech and language.
Over-sensitive touch or tactility can lead to difficulties with wearing certain types of clothes or to not being able to have labels in the back of shirts. Over-sensitivity to certain smells can lead to distraction when the classroom is close to a kitchen where lunch is being prepared.
Considering the hearing, a distorted hearing profile is when the sensitivity to different frequencies varies widely or quite suddenly. This may have the effect that, for instance, some vowels are difficult to hear, while some consonants present little difficulty. This is because different sounds have different frequencies and a distorted hearing profile can thus cut out parts of words. This in turn can lead to a great deal of stress and tiredness when listening.
It is quite possible to be both over and under sensitive within one sense. We find this a common occurrence and this can lead to confusion and very stressed sensory systems.
Over-sensitive senses also can lead to too much information coming into the brain and it being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of impressions.
All the senses can be retrained
Many people believe that the senses work the way they work and that they cannot change without medical intervention. However, the hearing of professional musicians will be developed through exercise, and fine-art painters will learn to see things differently. From our own experience we know that we have learnt to like certain foods that we did not like to eat as a child. Every human being changes every day in some way and our senses are no exception to that. We can train our senses to perceive sensory input differently and through this change our ability and performance. The treatments that we have been offering since 1995 aim to do precisely that – change the way the person perceives their sensory input. From experience we know that this often leads to a fundamental shift towards regaining control over our lives.