Beyond the Five Senses – Part 3 Sensory Engagement

We continue our topic of human senses with a look at the importance of sensory engagement in a person’s well-being. We will focus on:

  1. why senses matter to well-being
  2. the challenges of sensory engagement in the urban environment
  3. the role of sensory experience in the development of children.

1. Why do the senses matter to well-being?

As humans we are multi-modal when it comes to our senses – we put together information from multiple senses to detect the information we need about the world around us. So does it really matter if we use our senses, or at least some of them, less nowadays?

In an increasingly digital world we use our bodies less and less. We are becoming aware of how bad this is for our physical health. Hence the trend for standing desks and walking meetings to combat our sedentary work day.

Similarly we are now seeing adverse mental health outcomes associated with modern life. Our lives are shifting and consequently our senses are being used differently.  We rely heavily on our sight in the modern world, along with our hearing. We use sight and sound to navigate daily life with a less abundant use of the other senses. This is still being studied, but with the increasing amount of personal interaction which happens over digital media, we are missing the sensory engagement of being “in person”. Meeting on line, texting or emailing simply does not provide the same sensory inputs such as touch or smell. A hand on the shoulder or the smell of grandma’s freshly baked biscuits all add to the experience of interacting with familiar people in person. They evoke empathy and positive childhood memories – an  undercurrent of belonging in the daily interaction. These sensory experiences make us feel connected in a way we don’t realise but we sub-consciously notice this sensory richness is absent. Smell (and the significant part of taste which is actually sensed by our olfactory sensors i.e. our nose) is very primitive and influences our minds in ways we are only just discovering. Smell seems to have a direct line of influence to our emotions, our memory, our sense of time and even our productivity. These drive your daily actions from your emotional outlook to your ability to get through the daily routine of life.

The fact that tech companies continue to pursue creating more multi-sensory devices is also a testament to the importance of senses.

Tech companies are looking at how they can involve more senses than just sight and hearing in device use. Touch has grown with the touch screen technology, but this still feels like a 2D screen interface. Tech developers are looking to take touch interfaces even further incorporating more aspects of natural touch such as a 3D feel and pressure feedback.

The Digital Olfaction Society (yes a real organisation) is on a mission to get smells, flavours and fragrances into the digital sphere. Taste and smell are really the most difficult to make digital. There are some light-hearted projects in development, through to more serious healthcare applications such as using odour detection to diagnose cancer or diabetes.

Whether you believe this changing pattern of our sensory inputs is part of our evolution as a species or something to be mourned, we are all in this state of transition. We are in the midst of an evolutionary process. For us as individual beings however, our minds were programmed in childhood to use our senses in a certain way, and it was expected this set us up for our future life. As our modern life demands different patterns from our minds and bodies, we need to be more mindful that this change has an impact on us.


2. Challenges of Sensory Engagement in an Urban Environment

Modern life in big cities can be damaging to our sensory richness. On the one hand we are inundated with sensory information particularly sights and sounds of the city life around us.

Our other senses can suffer, with smell, taste and touch less used. Mass produced food and standardised fare can all taste similar. We find little reason to touch urban spaces as we pass through them.

So we sometimes lose the feeling of connection to the world around us. We experience the earth through footwear rather than getting the grass between our toes. We use or bodies in more uniform ways in environments which are carefully designed to be easy to use and navigate. Our footpaths and roads are built to uniform standards and we never have the variety of more natural pathways such as stepping across the stones of a stream or navigate a narrow track on a hillside.

Whether these changes are good or bad depends on your personal beliefs, but it is clear that the way we perceive and interact with our daily environments is changing.

Promoting Sensory Engagement

There are organisations promoting use of all of our senses, such as the 7 Senses Foundation in Australia. It promotes the importance of sensory engagement in daily life. It also advocates for built environment design which includes designing for all 7 senses.  They include the following seven senses: touch, movement, smell, taste, sight, hearing and balance.

Many of us will have seen the gardens created for the visually impaired, providing a garden which is rich in scent and able to be touched. There are many examples of these sensory garden spaces designed to appeal to those who have some form of sensory disability.

However, as we all experience a less diverse sensory life, it is useful for us all to explore these accessible gardens, and other forms of sensory-rich place, to keep our sensory systems stimulated.

This also brings us to sensory design, which seeks to provide more sensory enrichment in the objects around us. Sensory design elements include colours, sounds, texture, smells, lighting. Natural light and views to outside are seen as important in work place design.

3. The role of sensory experience in the development of children

Children develop their abilities through responding to the challenges of daily life. Each experience adds to the child’s physical and mental development. A child needs to use the senses in as wide a way as possible in order to maintain the neural pathways in the brain to continue to collect and process that sort of information.

Children are born with 300 bones and end up with 206 in adulthood. The number of bones and the extent of cartilage in a child’s body allows it the maximum range of motion it will have in its life. It is important to use this period to explore the limits of the body – in the movement and use of body parts but also in the neural connections to perform these movements. If children don’t use these opportunities in childhood, they will lose them. As the growing child’s body fuses bone and cartilage into the adult skeleton, and as the brain prunes and re-organises the neural network in the brain, all sorts of sensory-fuelled cognition and physical ability can be lost.

Children growing up today face less diversity in daily sensory experiences, more urban living and more time on digital devices. This triplicity of issues creates a very different set of conditions for these children than in earlier generations. The impact of these issues is still being studied but in the meantime, we should be mindful of the importance of “exercising” the senses in children.

Next Time

Next time we will look at the final post in the series – the importance of the senses in dealing with your life in the modern, technology prevalent, world.

The full set of posts for this topic are:

  • Understand what a sense is and why senses are important, including to a person’s mental and physical well-being (click here)
  • Look at what we now know about the five main senses and what other senses there are and why they might matter (click here)
  • The importance of sensory engagement for people in the urban environment, particularly for children and their development (today’s post)
  • How understanding your senses can help you deal with technology in a digital world


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