Sight, hearing, smell, sense and taste. We take this five-fold sensory model for granted. Meanwhile, it helps us perceive the world around us and was first described by Aristotle. As a result, we vastly underestimate the full scope of human perception.
Even before today’s age of digitisation, sight prevailed as a sensory organ, taking over an estimated 60% to 80% of all incoming information. Another 10% of it falls under hearing, with the rest spread between sense, taste and smell. And yet, it is the information that cannot be grasped visually, audibly or tangibly that can be the most nourishing food for thought. Our goal is to feed our brain and body with a diverse “diet” of incoming senses in a timely manner.
Being so accustomed to relying on our sight (especially today, when most of our life takes place online), we tend to follow a rather ascetic sensory menu. But all is not lost if we just consciously shift our focus to some of the alternative senses that usually get cast aside.
Here is a little exercise. Continue reading this sentence while lifting your left hand and touching the tip of your nose with your index finger. Too easy? Try the same movement with your eyes shut. You will likely have had to concentrate more and move slower. In the absence of visual cues, all you had to rely on is your proprioception.
The ability to perceive the location of our body parts in space is innate. It works on autopilot and requires almost no effort from our brain, except for those times when you choose to pay attention to them (like you just did earlier). Without this useful function simply taking a walk would be too exhausting, not to mention such more complicated tasks as playing the piano.
Needless to say, a sedentary lifestyle, where all the body coordination you do revolves around moving your fingers on a keyboard, does nothing to develop this sense. If anything, it leads to an increased risk of injuries and an overall dyssynchronisation in our body. And there is more to it than stretching before a workout.
Make sure that your regular exercise includes proprioception engaging activities (trampoline, climbing, body barre, surfing, cycling or yoga). According to scientific studies by The University of North Florida, such exercises not only improve coordination but also have the added bonus of increasing your memory capacity.
2/ Temperature perception
This is another background function of our bodies that is worthy of our attention. And even more so for our mental health than for our physical wellbeing. Our skin’s receptors, which are responsible for perceiving the temperature of the outside world, also have an influence on our emotional state.
The relationship between our physical sensation of warmth and our corresponding internal state is not as simple as taking a hot bath to cure loneliness. Having said that, millions of women can vouch for the power of bath related rituals to fix the most disastrous day.
Meanwhile, the impact of cold temperature has been proven to promote socialising and increase a desire to pursue human interaction. Feel free to experiment with temperature to trick your mood in your own time. A warm bath with some salt and essential oils might be a good option to calm and relax, while a contrast shower might be more suitable before a night out.
3/ Vestibular system
This is a system all vertebrate creatures share, including humans. It is responsible for the way we perceive the three-dimensional direction of movement. It is thanks to this system that you can tell your left from your right or whether a car is going forwards or backwards and whether a lift is going up or down. Given that its ultimate role is to act as our inner compass, people with a poorly developed vestibular system are more likely to get lost in an unfamiliar setting.
Studies show that a well-developed sense of direction is not only useful for driving but also for finding your way in the maze of a new city’s streets and to prevent sea sickness. It is also important for feeling grounded and connected with your own body. Unfortunately, with age our vestibular reactions become less sharp.
Try implementing more balancing exercises into your routine. Alternatively, you can try performing your everyday movements with your eyes shut (be it walking back and forth or doing sit ups). Just make sure you are doing so safely! Your brain neurons will thank you too. Simple warm-up exercises will do. Head rolls, side bends and torso twists are not just good to get your body going but also for activating your vestibular system.
4/ Perception of light
Our eyes are not just for seeing in the conventional sense. Even with our eyes shut, the photoreceptors in our retina continue to perceive incoming information about lighting levels from the outside world. It seems like a trifle, but it is this ability that regulates our sleep/wake cycle, the complex daily fluctuations of hormones and even the expression of our genes.
The latest research suggests that photoreceptors control a variety of autonomic functions, including blood pressure and heart rate. Bright lights in the evening disrupt circadian rhythms, resulting in poor sleep quality, impaired mental health and even cognitive disfunction.
The good news is that nature already has our circadian rhythms taken care of. The only thing left for us to do is to not get in its way. Multiple scientific studies confirm that by limiting exposure to light in the evening we can rapidly improve cognitive functioning, improve our mood and sleep better. Our bodies are very complex systems indeed and everything is interrelated.
The best way to illustrate our previous point is to look at interoception, the impact of our body’s internal signals on our emotional state. It sounds complicated but the chances are you have come across this physical side of feelings face to face. A hunched over posture can be a physical manifestation of low self-esteem. Bruxism (teeth-grinding) is often a result of unprocessed psychological burdens. Not to mention the long list of ailments that can be a result of daily stress.
Studies show that those who can identify their body’s signals are also more in touch with their nuanced emotions and have a more developed emotional intelligence. On the contrary, people suffering with alexithymia (an inability to distinguish emotions) tend to also experience problems interpreting their body’s physical signals.
So, how can we benefit from interception exercises? According to researchers in Tokyo, a conscious approach to perceiving our body’s signals can positively impact our mental health. Try this simple exercise, which will take you no more than a couple of minutes.
Sit down in a quiet place, set a timer for 1 minute and start counting your heart beats until it goes off. Then feel your pulse to get a more precise measurement and repeat the exercise. Combined with daily meditation this check-in can be the missing piece in getting your body more aligned with your mind.