Our Sensory Connection to Compassion & Understanding

I like sleeping with a heavy blanket; it’s just easier to drift off to sleep when I feel its weight. I can never read while I’m in a moving car or else I’ll start to feel nauseous. I can watch TV while knitting and keep track of both my knitting and what’s on the screen. I can’t work while music is playing in the background or I won’t be able to concentrate and I can’t stand the smell of petrol.

These little details that I’ve presented about myself may appear to be random. But they are, in fact, connected to each other in the context of the sensory makeup of my body. All the things I’ve listed are related to my sensory system in one way or another and all of these senses then shape my preferences. 

Our senses shape our lives

In school, most of us learned that we had 5 senses, but science tells us otherwise. Sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste are of course among our primary senses. But other senses can be added to the list including: the vestibular system, proprioception, and interoception. 

The vestibular system makes up our sense of balance and spatial perception. For instance, this sense makes us capable of being able to feel and understand that we’re riding in an elevator even when our eyes are closed. Proprioception is being able to tell where we feel something in or on our bodies without having to look at it. For example, the aches and pains we feel in our bodies after a heavy workout is an example of proprioception.

Interoception, on the other hand, relates to our bowels. This includes our bowel movements, feeling of happiness, allergic reactions, and even times when we’re feeling that intuitive hunch about something.

So how can being aware of our eight senses be beneficial to us? Well, as we start to better understand that our individual senses determine our preferences, we will also begin to realize that we don’t have all that much control over our senses. This acknowledgement can help us be more compassionate and understanding not only of ourselves but others. That means that perhaps when others act on or express preferences contrary to our own, rather than taking it personally, we can simply understand that their senses are different from our own.

Of course, we can’t weigh all of our actions and in a mechanical and logical manner. But being able to see the reasons behind various actions, even if only partially, will help us calm ourselves when we need to. 

Pay attention to your senses

Being able to see the needs of our senses allows us to live a more comfortable life. Our senses don’t simply come out and say “I’m your proprioception and right now I need stimulation” or “I’m your vestibular system and I need to be fed”. Instead, they encourage us to play tennis or jump into a children’s ball pit. The temptations and desire we feel to partake in such activities are clear marks of our proprioception and vestibular system.

We’ve said that proprioception accounts for how we sense our bodies, and our muscles and bones are included in this system. Consider body builders for a moment. The reason they feel such a rush of endorphins and invigoration is because their proprioception craves these intense workouts. Even those grueling and exhausting workouts can feel so satisfying and energizing for these individuals. So, if there’s anyone around you that you think spends too much time in the gym, consider the situation from this angle.

Now let’s go back to our vestibular system. Certain kinds of movements regulate this system such as jumping, spinning, or swaying from side to side… Personally, I can’t even picture myself spinning around and around. The image itself is enough to make me feel nauseous. Jumping up and down or swinging on a swing, however, are very enjoyable and calming for me.

What about with you? What kinds of movements and actions feel good to you? You may enjoy roller coasters, for example, but your friend may find this to be very unpleasant. Why? Because their vestibular system does not enjoy this sensation.

It may take practice to view the senses from this perspective. We’ve been acquainted with our five senses since we were kids, learning how to rely on our hearing, smell, sight, and the like. But going beyond these five senses can change our outlook on life.

How? Let’s say you prepared a great breakfast for you and your friends. You really put in a lot of effort and even got all of those fancy cheeses and fruits to include in the spread. And yet, one of your guests hardly touches any of the fruits and cheeses, and you feel a bit annoyed by this.
Yet think of a food you don’t like; something that really doesn’t get along with your taste buds. In a moment like this, can you consider that your guests’ senses simply did not find the food appealing and that it has nothing to do with you, your hospitality, or your ability to cook? Think of all of the situations similar to this, big and small, that we allow to offend and upset us. Most of the time it’s not because of any personal grievance or issue someone else has with you, but rather a reflection of their own senses and preferences.

How would you like to respond to situations like this in the future?

Our senses bring us closer to understanding and compassion

Because our sensory needs shape our preferences, something that’s very normal for us may seem abnormal to someone else. The opposite may happen as well, leading us to believe that the person before us doesn’t take us into account when making certain choices.

But if we embrace compassion, we can stop ourselves from turning our personal perceptions into our automatic behaviors. Everyone’s senses operate at a different level, meaning that everyone’s needs are different. While this may sound pretty obvious, think of your day to day life and how often you find yourself feeling flustered or annoyed by someone else’s lifestyle or preferences? It’s a burden we place on ourselves to take such preferences as personal attacks on our own way of living. 

Take a look at the world around you, including yourself. But this time, try to do it from this new perspective. Do you think you can approach the people around you with more understanding and compassion as you rediscover yourself?

Burcu Durmuşoğlu

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