Human beings experience the world through their senses, which are the gateways that allow us to receive information and makes sense of our environments. In order for the brain to organize the input it gathers from our body and our surroundings, and interpret it appropriately, it must pass through one of these sensorial doors. This innate neurobiological process is known as sensory integration.
In addition to the 5 senses in which we are most familiar–sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch–there are 3 additional senses that affect our ability to fully participate in our everyday lives. Occupational therapist and psychologist, Anna Jean Ayres, pioneered research in the field of sensory processing nearly 50 years ago and introduced the terms proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. She posited that, while these senses are designed to support us, dysregulation of our entire system can occur if one or more of these sensory systems has an overactive or underactive response to stimulus. With her research, she developed sensory integrity therapy which included special exercises that had the potential to strengthen the patient’s sense of balance (vestibular), sense of touch (tactile), and sense of how the body relates to space (proprioceptive).
According to Ayres, the building blocks of our sensory system are vestibular, proprioception (and the closely related sense of touch), and interoception; each providing unique and specific information to the brain where it is integrated and organized:
The vestibular system supports our capacity to maintain body posture, spatial orientation, and balance. The word “vestibule” means entrance hall or antechamber. It is the antechamber to our brain and is located in our ears. It begins development in the womb and it is the only one of our senses that fully functions at birth. It is vital for survival because it detects motion, initiates movements to maintain balance, and enables us to adapt to our surroundings. The vestibular system is fed through different means such as jumping, spinning, and swinging.
Proprioception is the sense that relates to a connection between our brain and our muscles, skeleton, and connective tissue. It regulates self-movement and body position, allowing one to move freely and efficiently without consciously thinking about it. Activities that require some form of resistance, like pulling, pushing or applying pressure generally involve this sense. Much like our vestibular system, our proprioception needs to be fed in various ways. Everything from our ability to go down stairs without looking or cracking an egg with just enough force involves proprioception.
The sense of touch is closely related to proprioception. We are tactile beings and the way we interact with the world around us is through touching. This act involves applying pressure or force as required. The areas of the body most sensitive to touch are our hands, feet, tongue and lips. Everything is more intense when we feel them with these parts of our bodies.
Finally, interoception refers to our connection to the internal physiological condition of our bodies–what we feel inside. Examples of these receptors are the bowels, bladder, reproductive organs and kidneys. It relates to our experiences such as hunger, thirst, the need to urinate, libido, being out of breath, itching, body temperature, happiness, sadness. We are able to achieve an inner balance through interoception.
While the work of Ayres focused on understanding these additional senses through the lens of child development, sensory integrity dysfunction can occur throughout our adult lives. When there is a problem with our interoception, vestibular system, proprioception or sense of touch, we can often feel it’s effects rippling through our lives. For instance, what we call “clumsiness” is really an imbalance in our sensory system. An imbalance in our bowels will often diminish our inner balance. Activities such as washing the dishes, walking, and dressing all require us to use both sides of the body and depend on our proprioception, vestibular system, sense of touch, sight and hearing.
How can we regulate our senses?
The types of stimuli our brains receive are crucial to the health of our senses. Just as there is a difference between simply eating pasta every day and consuming a varied diet consisting of protein, grains and vegetables, our senses also need different sources of stimulation for optimal health. Tending to the needs of our sensory systems enables our nervous system to function optimally.
A healthy way to feed the vestibular system, is to imagine types of movement that feel nourishing for your body and practice them when you need a boost of energy of moral. If you enjoy spinning, spin around several times on your office chair. Allow that feeling to regulate your senses. It’s also important to avoid movements that you don’t enjoy. For instance, if you don’t like jumping, then avoid allowing someone to grab you by the hand and force you to jump. This could potentially harm your vestibular system, instead of helping it.
Proprioception benefits from listening to signals from the way the body wants to move. If you enjoy belly dancing, allow yourself to explore it. It could be your body’s kinesthetic needs alerting you. Over time, these needs will change. If you pay attention, you may find yourself playing table tennis regularly rather than dancing 5 years from now.
As varied as our sensory needs are, we do share some common ground with the rest of humanity. When our nervous system is stressed, for instance, certain senses will relax us: a deep sense of pleasure, proprioception, vibrations and horizontal vestibular movements. These four things can help restore a sense of ease and relaxation. Imagine moving your hand quickly and automatically when a dog attempts to bite you. Running away at that moment is proprioception. Trembling in the aftermath, when you’re out of immediate danger is the body’s attempt to sooth with vibrations. Holding the area where the teeth grazed your hand and compressing your wound is pressure. Swaying back and forth in that moment is an example of horizontal vestibular movement. None of these things are conscious movements, but are all related to our senses and work together to provide calm.
Our sensory system is our guide through life. It gives provides cues to alert us to what we need most. Therefore, paying attention to these signals is a key to maintaining our health. What kind of movement feels good to you? Observe and choose wisely. In time, you’ll notice that life becomes exponentially more enjoyable.