When you lose touch with inner stillness you lose touch with yourself, when you lose touch with yourself you lose yourself in the world – Eckhart Tolle
Heightened sensory abilities create fundamental, yet invisible, distinctions in how a highly sensitive child perceives the world. Highly sensitive children begin to define and understand themselves and their environment through decoding space. This spatial communication is heightened in these children, a particularity that contravenes our traditional notion of “being” as they have different identity boundaries. They exist intertwined with their environment, not within the boundaries of their bodies. Their identity is defined by what is around them as much as what is within them.
The invisible nature of how space and its elements (such as smell, chemical signatures, heat, noise, etc) affect these children, makes it very difficult to understand the nature of their sensory experiences and to decipher why they are often in crisis. For example, in our urban world, where space has been saturated with men made signals, these children have a hard time grounding their “being” and as a consequence they seem to be acting “out of control” when constantly stressed by subtle signals embedded in the space they inhabit.
Dealing with stressors in highly sensitive children is an urgent issue as, when not acknowledge or understood, the invisible and often subtle forces that affect these children can have dire consequences on their health. Scientists are beginning to demonstrate that activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain, as we will explore in more depth in chapter 6, that may result in mental disorders (Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum, 2014). Could this explain the rise of mental “disorders” in our contemporary society? High levels of hidden stress in children leading to a rewiring of the brain that disable them in the long term?
How we, as parents and educators, understand heightened sensory sensitivity greatly affects our ability to help highly sensitive children. Most of us assume that our role is to help our children be moulded to the cultural and social norms of our communities. This belief is reinforced by our western scientific perspective which presumes the senses and our use of the body to be regulated by the rules of our dominant culture (Walskul and Vanninni, 2012). As a result, we try to teach them to value specific approaches to sensory life that are highly regimented by our cultural rules. Indeed, psychologists have established that we have specific social norms and languages related to our use of time, space, touch, gesture, postures, faces, paralanguage and fashion (Nowicki and Duke, 1992). It is culturally accepted that the body, self and social interactions are intimately interrelated and constantly reconfigured, thus our role as parents is to help our children adapt their body and self to our regulated social interactions.
We often become frustrated when children’s behaviours do not correspond to our cultural and social norms . Here lays an important difficulty for highly sensitive children since it has been demonstrated that their sensory life defies the general culture (Aron et al, 2010). Perhaps this is the case because highly sensitive children’s sense of being is deeply interconnected and intertwined with space and these sensory abilities are an integral part of their identity. This is not something they can change, it is central to their ways of perceiving the world and themselves. They sense and sensorially exist through space. More often than not, this puts highly sensitive children at a tremendous disadvantage in a world that has transformed the nature of space, often polluting it, with no insight into its impact on our being. As a result, our environments are often invisibly toxic to these children, a problem we will explore in depth in chapter 4. Toxic at an environmental level, and perhaps more alarmingly, toxic to their identity formation.
If this is indeed the case, a highly sensitive child needs a conscious and healthy relationship to space and his or her heightened senses to achieve well being. While our culture has evolved to discount many of our senses, our bodies still operate according to sensory processes that feed our “instincts” and provide the perceptions necessary to survive and adapt to the natural world. Highly sensitive children have heightened versions of these skills. When unaware of these capacities they can not distinguish between themselves and their environment, they can not recognize what is “them”. The emotional chaos such a predicament creates must hinder their ability to be culturally appropriate in social interactions. Because our dominant culture does not recognize this connection to space as a variable in identity formation, these children do not possess the awareness, language and knowledge necessary to use this relationship as the communication tool it is. Without the ability to understand and self-regulate what they sense, highly sensitive children are confused as to what they are experiencing and as a result are operating “blind”, stuck experiencing a sensory language they do not understand nor know how to respond to. Unconsciously tuning into a stress filled space, their sensing system fills them with pain and echoes the toxins of the environment into their nervous system. Just as a flower wilts when a strong heat source affects it, their identity is shrivelled by the pressure of these toxins. Never understanding what is happening and as a consequence unable to self-regulate their reactions, the body takes over and behaves out of control.
Unless we retrain ourselves to consider space as a powerful dimension of perception, we tend to confuse children’s “out of control” behaviours caused by sensory distress as defiance and aberrations to be eliminated from their behaviours. Instead of seeing these behaviours as symptoms and reactions to overwhelming subtle sensorial stimuli that need to be reduced, we assume that those who can not conform to the behavioural norms and standards of our dominant culture are deviant and/or ill. All too often, a common story of disability and madness is associated with behaviours related to sensitive senses. Frequently, this can lead to HSC experiencing deep forms of self-loathing, self-doubt and in some cases, trauma in places like home, schools or hospitals where a disembodied intellect is expected and where, in order to cope with a sensitive body, children have to learn to suppress their senses.
The more we refuse to look at the sensorial nature of these reactions, choosing medication and other forms of therapy that assume these children behaviours need to be eliminate without looking at the underlying cause or that try to teach them skills that are irrelevant to their way of being, the more we deny them the tools they need to grow into their authentic selves. Feeling and sensing the world are essential components of how they communicate, when denied, the further away we are from finding solutions that address the roots of the challenges they are facing.
It is easy to understand why this suppression is often desired as it creates an immediate change in their behaviours that allows them to abide to the surface veneer of cultural and social norms and seemingly integrate into our social setting. For busy parents, this is essential to reducing their own daily stress, it is also the way we have learned to conform to our western culture’s social conventions.
But from a sensory perspective, this suppression means that we are hindering these children’s abilities to develop healthy ways to cope. Without these, we may be turning some of our most talented people into adults who have no means to adjust or learn how to use the power of their heightened senses without being overwhelmed or feeling inadequate. In the process, we may be condemning them to an adulthood of extreme behaviours such as suicide, addictions, and other harmful ways of dealing with what they have been taught to consider as inadequacies. And reinforcing a type of systemic discrimination that has led to what I am beginning to understand as a form of sensorial genocide.
If our understanding of sensory life is deeply rooted in our cultural customs, social norms and belief systems, it is arbitrary and can be altered. We forget that Culture is not “real”, it is a form of learned tacit language that carries the specific values and beliefs of a social group via its narratives. Culture participates in defining a landscape of behaviours and thinking as “normal”. This definition of “normal” is then mistaken for the world itself (Shepard, 2010, p.2). Given that its rules become embedded into our sensory, oral and other forms of languages, it passes off as an absolute reality.
We must remind ourselves that our current disembodied cultural norms are fabricated and this alienation of the senses in Western Culture is a recent phenomenon. Through different time periods and cultures the senses have been understood differently (Howes, 2006). Many cultures prior to ours were built on the existence of a close connection between psychological states, our sensory experiences and space. It is therefore possible to alter this sense of reality and develop a different approach to the senses that can help us insure our children’s senses are included in how they approach life. This can help us create a framework for them to learn to “be” without suppressing what they need to feel and sense.
Slowly a sensory history is emerging. Since the 1990s, historians have began to retrace the role of senses in our history. As historian Mark Smith writes:
“Building on early and sometimes tentative insights by a handful of French historians in particular, historians of all persuasions and periods have started to write some remarkable work on the senses. We now have, for example, histories of smell in classical antiquity (Harvey, 2006) and modern France (Corbin,1986), of touch in early modern Europe (Gowing, 2003) and 18th-century America (Smith, 2008), of sound in 20th-century Britain (Picker, 1999/2000) and colonial Australia (Carter, 1992: see p.862), of taste in medieval England (Woolgar, 2007) and the 18th-century transatlantic world (Gabbacia, 2005); and, of course, there are lots of histories of seeing, visuality, and sight for many regions and time periods (e.g. Howes, 2003). Most recently, historians have begun to tackle the history of intersensoriality – how the senses worked together and in concert, not in isolation. (Smith, 2007, and see ‘Colonising sounds’, p.862).”
But there lays another difficulty, the way we understand the senses is often limited to 5 senses, a notion we will explore further in chapter 6, and does not include space as an element to be considered. Building a different understanding of the senses is not impossibl. By looking at our ancient history, we can regain some understanding of how space has been understood as part of a broad communication system. To do so, let’s turn to some of our first cultural traditions.
Subject of my next post.
Work cited: (in order of citation)
Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum. “Mental disorders due to permanent stress?.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141121082907.htm (accessed November 24, 2014).
Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip (2012). “The body and symbolic interaction” In (ed Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip 2012.) Body/Embodiment, Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Ashgate.
Nowicki, S. & Duke, M. (1992). Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.
Aron, Arthur , Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Elaine N. Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D. E. Gabrieli (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 219–226. Published online 2010 April 13.
Shepard, Philip (2010). New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century. North Atlantic Books.
Howes, David (2006). “Charting the Sensorial Revolution” in Senses and Society, Volume 1 Issue 1, pp113-128.
Harvey, S.A. (2006). Scenting salvation: Ancient christianity and the olfactory imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Corbin, A. (1986). The foul and the fragrant: Odor and the French social imagination (Trans. M. Kochan, R. Porter & C. Prendergast). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gowing, L. (2003). Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Smith, M.M. (2008). Getting in touch with slavery and freedom. Journal of American History, 95, 381–391.
Picker, J.M. (1999/2000). The soundproof study: Victorian professionals, work space, and urban noise. Victorian Studies, 42, 427–453.
Woolgar, C.M. (2007). The senses in late medieval England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Gabbacia, D.R. (2005). Colonial Creoles: The formation of tastes in early America. In C. Korsmeyer (Ed.) The taste culture reader: Experiencing food and drink (pp.79–85). New York: Berg.
Smith, M.M. (2007). Sensory history. Oxford:?Berg.
Smith, Mark M. (n.d.). “Looking back: The explosion of Sensory History”. excerpt from Sensory Histiory, Berg Publishers. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-23/edition-10/looking-back-explosion-sensory-history