“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” Hippocrates
It is clear that without sensory literacy, we will continue to inadvertently disadvantage and hurt some of our most sensitive children. As we discussed in chapter 4, we tend to be unaware of the prevalent sensory toxicity in our western world, while other cultures have integrated the senses in their belief systems for millennia. Dealing with the invisible nature of the senses makes re-learning sensory wisdom difficult.
As a parent who did not find answers or solutions within the traditional medical system, I began to look for answers in other traditions. It became evident that there is a sensory culture distributed among many traditions that can help us create a bridge between our societal accepted notions of health and sensorial well being. Could synthesizing ancient Asian, aboriginal health traditions as well as holistic health offer solutions that address the complexity of sensory health? Could emerging neuroscience knowledge help explain what ancient cultures have known for millennia? Is it possible to re-discover spatial embodied knowledge and begin to build the sensory literacy necessary to decolonize our senses?
While I am not an expert in these traditions, witnessing the richness of cultures that related to the senses made me want to incorporate some of these wisdoms in our lives. These alternate ideas made it possible for me to address an array of hidden health determinants that could be balanced in my children and myself. Be reminded that I am not a medical doctor. In order to help my children, I have done a lot of research but also consult and rely on a team of health practitioners. Generating in the process a sensory health “library” to consider sensory well being.
Observing my children’s reaction to the world, I began to become aware of the importance of sensory health to their well being. Through time this led me to formulate a personal sensory health framework and, in the process, develop a deeper understanding of “out of sync” sensorial behaviors. When I began this quest, I was interested in finding a health framework that not only favor the centrality of the senses to health but also acknowledge the role of technology in defining space as well as altering the nature of it’s communication signals. So far, I have not found one.
My role as a parent is to understand my children well enough to be able to collaborate with health professionals when needed. This is where a health framework has become useful to us. By understanding which aspects of health is out of balance within my children, I can then research and develop strategies with the help of a health practitioner, a naturopath, occupational therapist, psychologists, social worker, teacher, etc.
In this chapter, I will retrace my intellectual journey into understanding the senses as a health variant. As an academic trained in fundamental research methodologies, I cannot help to approach a question from an intellectual lens. Feel free to skip this chapter if theory is not an interest of yours. While intellectually, the issues that are interrelated in thinking about sensory health seem complex, the solutions to sensory imbalances are actually quite simple, as we will see in the next few chapters.
The complexity that I mention exists for a few reasons. First, defining health itself is challenging. As we will explore, each individual has unique health issues which means that we need to find a pluralistic approach to incorporate individual health needs. Second, understanding what is causing a sensory issue requires considering the environment within which we exist; we are often unaware of this environment as being a complex system of invisible communication signals that affect us physically. This can make identifying sensory triggers difficult. Third, how we define the senses influences our ability to understand sensory processing issues as being real. Finally, there is no hierarchy in what affects sensory health, imbalances can come from sensory inputs, the senses themselves, imbalances in the body, the environment including its social, cultural and physical dimensions.
Given these potential difficulties, developing framework that helps a parent or a child to begin the process of becoming aware of what his/her particularities are and to develop a vocabulary to discuss sensory difficulties is essential and simplifies the process of moving towards sensorial well being. A personal health framework does not mean raking into account all aspects that can affect the senses, but to focus on the specificity of each situation. The first question this chapter explore relates to the potentiality of creating a pluralistic health model.
A Pluralistic Health Model?
Health is a difficult concept to define. According to health coach Chris Kresser, there’s no such thing as perfect health. But we can take steps toward a better health. Among those steps, none is more important than the next and the focal point will vary from person to person:
“Most of us want black and white answers to questions like this, because they provide the illusion of safety and certainty. We want the answer to be the same for everyone, because it’s easier to follow a system or a prescription than it is to find our own way. And as tribal animals, we humans like to be part of a group.”(Kresser, 2013)[i]
Kresser noticed that each of us has a significant blind spot or area in our lives where we lack awareness and insight. Most of us invest the majority of our time and energy strengthening the parts of our life that are already strong:
“These stronger links are where we feel comfortable and confident, where we can operate safely within the bounds of who we think we are. And this is where the problem lies. No matter how much we strengthen the links in our chain that are already strong, if there’s still a weak link the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. It can break just as easily.
A better approach, of course, would be to focus our efforts on the strengthening the weak link. But that is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires us to step out of our concept of self and challenge our very identity. It asks us to grow and evolve and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of our psyche. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as popping a pill or eliminating nightshades from our diet. It’s a life’s work.”(Kresser, 2013)
As Kresser points out, there isn’t an easy, quick solution to health. And in the end, No one can tell you what is going to work for your family, as the issues are inter-related and specific to each family. Similarly, there is not one way of approaching this issue, thus the importance of informing ourselves and become sensory detectives and create sensory life diets appropriate to our families’ unique needs.
Therefore, a sensory health framework must be pluralistic, taking into consideration the uniqueness of a child’s experiences (sensory and otherwise) and a family’s context. As someone trained in fundamental research methodologies, I could not stay away from theories related to how we understand and perceive a complex world. The complexity involved in sensory well being made me turn to the Integrative theory, which can provide a framework to approach the hidden nature of sensory life in a systematic yet flexible way. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, co-director of the Integral ecology centre, presents a useful summary of the theory[ii].
Integrative Theory: A Plurality of Perspective
American philosopher Ken Wilber developed the integrated theory framework to understand the complex experiences an individual encounters when perceiving reality:
Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.”[iii]
According to this approach, everything can be understood from two fundamental distinctions: 1) an inside and an outside perspective and 2) from a singular and plural perspective. These primary perspectives represent aspects of the world that are always present in each moment. For example, all individuals have personal sensory experiences that affect their internal processes (interior perspective); that generate various observable behaviours (exterior perspective); that are felt by the individual (singular perspective) and observed by the social group (plural perspective).
Interestingly, this approach is similarly to aboriginal health belief systems, individuals are never considered alone but as members of groups or collectives, which establish social and cultural components that a person usually integrates. This makes understanding why a person behaves a certain way more complex than it may seem. As Sean Esbjörn-Hargens explains: “For example, what’s more important in human behaviour? The psychology of the mind (upper left), or the cultural conditioning of the individual (lower left)? Integral Theory answers, again: BOTH. What is more critical in social development? The habits, customs, and norms of a culture (lower left), or the products it produces (like gun and steel – lower right). Integral Theory answers: BOTH. The more we can consciously include the 4 quadrants in our perspective, the more whole, balanced, healthy, comprehensive, and effective our actions will be.”[iv]
These dimensions of reality are represented in a quadrant matrix that is often referred to as the AQAL model. This model embraces the complexity of reality by considering each quadrant as simultaneously arising and equality important.
Figure 1 The Integral (AQAL) Model
A specific analytical tool from this theory, the quadrivia approach, can be used to understand sensory experiences from a plurality of perspectives. The term “quadrivia” refers to four ways of seeing (quadrivium is singular) comes into play in a sensory experience.
Figure 2 Quadrivia Model
With this approach, sensory experiences can be discerned in a more nuanced way by encompassing a broad array of sensory health aspects. These include exploring the emotions, self-identities, and beliefs of the individual, the family and the community through psychological and experiential inquiry; exploring the empirical, chemical, and biological factors contributing to the sensory overload through behavioural and physiological analysis; exploring the philosophical, ethical, and religious viewpoints of the community around the child through cultural and worldview investigations; and exploring the environmental, political, educational, legal, and economic factors of the situation through ecological and social assessments. It becomes possible to distinguish between subjective and “objectives” sensorial experiences and to potentially comprehend at which point in the sensorial experience a child’s subjective experience trumps the objective rules of his/her culture and social groups.
Through out this chapter, the AQAL model will be used to examine these questions. First, let’s articulate what a sensory health framework should aim to accomplish for a highly sensitive child.
Highly Sensitive Children’s Sensory Health Framework
The subsequent framework is based on the following hypotheses:
1) Highly sensitive children uniquely combine heightened sensory intelligence to other forms of intelligence, which impart them with a different identity formation.
2) The characteristics of modern space influence highly sensitive children’s sensory experiences and, as a result, their well being.
3) Highly sensitive children’s well being is dependant on their ability to balance responsiveness to stimuli; hence a highly sensitive child needs to develop awareness, self-realization and self-determination of his/her heightened sensory intelligence.
A HSC health framework should provide the tools for a child and his/her family to develop the literacy necessary to move through different levels of personal development unique to heightened senses. Consequently, it should facilitate the development of an individualized health system calibrated to the specific temperament and personality of a child as well as his/her specific types of heightened intelligence (sensorial, social, emotional, empathic, etc) and the unique characteristic of his or her environment. Given the wisdom of our ancestors towards these issues, a HSC health model should combine ancestral and modern knowledge, in order to learn how to consciously use the senses and develop the life strategies necessary to achieve a state of well being.
Space is the medium of sensory communication. As a medium, space is an intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to a person. Sensory inputs include fundamental yet invisible spatial influences, those of energy and the environment (both social, physical, biological, etc) messages. These messages penetrate the sensory boundaries of an individual and are delivered to the senses that process the input messages and translate them into information that an individual can use. The body and brain process these signals and sensory outputs are produced. Our brain modulates these inputs and, depending on our cultural learning, these sensory messages can be interpreted as elements of a sensory language or confuse us when our culture lacks comprehension of sensory communication. Our body then reacts to sensory stimuli via more or less appropriate behaviours (physiological, energy, as well as cognitive and emotional). These outputs are then transmitted back into space where they interact with the environment and can be interpreted by individuals who then provide us with social feedback. Thus, space is both the means of transmitting and receiving of sensory information. As such, it is the foundation of the model but also a recipient of sensory output. Thus, space will exist as multiple planes within the model since we exist in a sensory feedback system, where sensory information comes from space and our sensory reactions affect the quality of space.
Spatial sensory communication is not necessarily easy to decipher. Yet, it is central to the health of a highly sensitive child. Since a highly sensitive child is greatly influenced by sensory communication processes, the quality of space affects how the child understands reality and defines his/her identity. Using the quadrivia approach, it becomes possible to create a map of sensory life that can guide explorations in solving sensory imbalances. Multiple dimensions exist at the intersection of our spatial environment and social life experiences, which continuously influence each other and all together form a system of sensory communication. Each of these planes represents a field of existence with its own sensory data that simultaneously influence our responsiveness while also being influenced by our behaviours and influencing each other. When a child’s health is balanced, all the health quadrants improve in a cascading unison and visa versa, when a child becomes stressed and/or distressed, all the quadrants are affected. Each quadrant can be the source of distress that will begin a process of destabilization.
Figure 3: Adaptation of The Quadrivia Approach to Sensory Life
Sensory experiences can be understood within an integral quadrant model. The responsiveness to stimuli represents the experiential dimension (internal/individual quadrant); while the reaction to stimuli defines the behavioural dimension (Individual/external) of sensory life; our understanding of the child’s experience relates to the cultural dimension (Collective interior), and how we feel and react to a child’s sensory issue relates to the social/systemic dimension of the issue.
The goal of the following HSC Sensory Health Framework is to bring to consciousness these unconscious sensory processes in order to develop personal sensory insights. Sensory insight is a type of understanding that emerges from learning how to observe internal and external sensory influences. As we saw in chapter 3, by developing mind sight, it is possible to retrain the brain to switch negative perception of experiences into positive ones. With sensory awareness, it also becomes possible to develop sensory sight, as another aspect of mind sight. Sensory sight can be developed by becoming attuned to sensory messages and by learning to decipher them. As our awareness grows, our sensory knowledge increases, and what were once unconscious experiences can become understood (literacy); a sensory vocabulary can be developed from the analysis of these sensory input and become the basis of a personal sensory language; by developing this conscious sensory awareness we can learn to interpret the communication signals of the internal and external dimensions of our being, and to understand how the specific nature of how sensory stimuli influences our sensory processing and modulation, pathway to recalibrating our senses and ways of life and participating consciously in any given sensory situation (sensory insight). Sensory insight is the result of sensory self-awareness and Self Realization.
This chapter explores the diverse dimensions of sensory life in detail, in order to bring to light the complexity of a highly sensitive child’s sensory life and help highly sensitive children slowly develop sensory sight and insights. The framework defined below is not exhaustive, but provides many potential starting points to explore sensory life. It offers a variety of perspectives that a parent can decide to examine.
The model incorporates layers of dynamics at plan within a sensory experience. To beginning with, we will explore the interior dimension of sensory perception.
Previous: Chapter 5: Conclusion
[ii] Esbjorn-Hargens, Sean (2009). “An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century. An Overview of Integral Theory”. Integral Post. Integral life. March 12th, 2009. https://www.integrallife.com/integral-post/overview-integral-theory
[iv] Esbjorn-Hargens, Sean (2009). “An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century. An Overview of Integral Theory”. Integral Post. Integral life. March 12th, 2009. https://www.integrallife.com/integral-post/overview-integral-theory