By Emma Young
We all know the expression “healthy body, healthy mind”. However, this doesn’t just refer to physical fitness and muscle strength: for a healthy mind, we also need healthy senses. Fortunately, there is now abundant evidence that we can exercise our many senses to improve not only how we use our bodies, but also how we think and behave and how we feel. Trapped as we are in our own “bubbles of perception”, it can be difficult not only to understand that other people perceive things differently – but also if we try just a little.
But if we are to make the most of using and enhancing our senses to improve our wellbeing, we need to consider more than just seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Aristotle’s desperately outdated five-senses model may still be popular, but it greatly underestimates our extraordinary human ability to perceive.
Proprioception – the detection of the position of our body parts in space – has been relatively ignored, but it is critical to having confidence in our body’s use. Now, when you close your eyes and straighten one leg, you will know exactly where your leg is thanks to this feeling. So in order to go for a run or exercise in the gym and not fall or injure yourself, you need a good sense of proprioception. Our sedentary lifestyles are a threat to that sense (and the Covid-19 bans certainly didn’t help). Climbing trees, walking along balance beams, navigating obstacles, and crossing stepping stones (which you can simulate at home by placing small mats on the floor) are all proprioceptively challenging. Train that sense. According to a study by a team at the University of North Florida, these exercises not only improve physical coordination, but also work memory.
Yoko Ichino, the ballet master at Northern Ballet in Leeds, regularly teaches proprioception classes that require students to practice complex movements with their eyes closed. “We use our eyes too often,” says Ichino. “We have to use all the other senses as well, but because our eyes are constantly open, we never develop them. So I put that into my own training. “She recommends (when it is safe) to move around your house with your eyes closed. This will not only train proprioception, but also a different set of senses:
Our vestibular system allows us to sense the direction of gravity (and thus the way up) as well as horizontal and vertical movement (like in a car or an elevator) and in three dimensions (like a roller coaster). Research shows that a healthy vestibular system is important not only for balance, but also for our feeling of being grounded in a physical body. In fact, people with vestibular problems are more likely to report out-of-body experiences. They are also more likely to be lost, as a healthy vestibular system is important for a good sense of direction.
For all of us, however, the older we get, the more boring our vestibular reactions are. (This is noticeable at the population level from the not very old age of 40). Specific vestibular rehab exercises have been developed for people diagnosed with certain vestibular problems. But the rest of us will benefit from dynamic movements that involve moving the head, e.g. B. climbing a tree or practicing tai chi, as well as anything that questions our balance.
We know our eyes aren’t just for seeing. When melanopsin-expressing cells in the retina are exposed to light, they send signals to the main body clock in the brain’s hypothalamus (without us seeing anything). Certain variations in the gene for this protein have been linked to an increased risk of seasonal affective disorders, and stimulating these receptors with appropriate light levels in the morning helps ward off bad moods. To improve mental wellbeing, you don’t have to train these receptors to work better, but you do need to help them work for you by going outdoors in the morning and avoiding bright lights in the evening.
Smell is not very much appreciated or developed by many people in Western cultures. However, research with hunter-gatherer groups like the Jahai, who live in the tropical rainforest in Malaysia, shows that we have the biological ability to smell extremely good. For example, Asifa Majid, now at the University of York, and colleagues found that the Jahai took an average of just two seconds to accurately describe a smell, while Dutch speakers took an average of 13 seconds to get a much worse description (the scent describe a lemon as “lemony” instead of using more abstract descriptions).
To develop your sense of smell, Majid and others advocate smelling different things often consciously. Professional perfumer Nadjib Achaibou, who lives in London, tells me that his sensitive nose is absolutely trained and not born. The best way to improve your sense of smell is to to use and explores it, he argues, “You could say, ‘Oh, I like pepper. ‘ Why? Why i like it What does it add to your dish? This is the first step in improving your sense of smell. If you see a rose, stop and smell it. If you have a friend who wears perfume, smell the perfume and describe it. When buying a shower gel, toilet product, or perfume, ask questions. Read the marketing materials, but trust yourself. You might think, yes, they say there is rose in it, but what I can smell is lemon. But what kind of lemon? “
Make an effort to improve your sense of smell and enjoy all sorts of other benefits. Research shows that having a fishy smell, for example, improves our critical thinking, while a 2018 study in Germany found that people who are more sensitive to smells enjoyed sex more, and women with better olfactory senses reported more orgasms. “The perception of body odors such as vaginal fluids, semen and sweat appears to enrich the sexual experience,” they wrote, by increasing sexual arousal.
We have receptors in our skin that register temperatures in certain areas. In particular, the stimulation of our “heat sensors” was associated with the fact that we felt less lonely and “warmer” towards other people. Some of the best-known findings in this area could not be replicated, leading critics to question them. A 2019 study in Social psychology suggested that the results may have been mixed because the researchers did not take into account the ambient temperature outside or inside the laboratory. When they did this in their research – which involved strapping participants off heated setbacks and asking them about their social plans – the team found support for the idea that physical feeling of cold is associated with social “colder” and the desire for more contact with them arouses other people. This effect can be eliminated by providing heat (in this case via the rear packaging).
Inner perception (interception)
About 10% of us are really good at feeling our own heartbeat without feeling a pulse, 5-10% of us are terrible at it, and the rest fall in between. Research shows that people who are better at what is known as “heart monitoring” experience emotions more intensely, enjoy more nuanced emotions, and better recognize other people’s emotions, which is a critical first step in terms of empathy. In contrast, people who do not experience emotions in a typical way (a condition called “alexithymia” which is believed to affect up to 10% of people to some extent) suffer from impaired internal perception. So could inner awareness training help improve our emotional wellbeing? It’s early days for this research, but the work of Sarah Garfinkel, now at University College London, suggests that it is possible. This is a training technique that you can try at home:
- Sit in a quiet place and set a timer (maybe on your phone or your home digital assistant) for a minute, but don’t start it yet.
- Now start the timer and try to count your heartbeats.
- Repeat, but this time feel for your pulse for an accurate measurement (this is feedback meant to help your interoceptive awareness improve).
- Repeat all the steps.
If you can’t feel your heart beating, try exercising first as it will make your job easier.
Emma Young, (@EmmaELYoung), a contributor to BPS Biomedarticles, is the author of “Super Senses: The Science of Your 32 Senses and How to Use Them” (John Murray, 2021).