Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sensory Enrichment and Health

By Benjamin Skipper

Recently I've conducted a health experiment with sensory enrichment to see how it would improve my well-being, and to my surprise it has enhanced my emotional health considerably and has even given me unexpected benefits, both physical and emotional. From now on I intend to incorporate this methodology into my life permanently. I even feel a considerable craving to keep searching for new experiences to stimulate my senses.

I was prompted to conduct this experiment after noticing how discontent and fidgety I was getting trying to read in my room all the time. Improving my mind is a primary value in my life, which leads to constant reading, studying, and thinking, but the reading part was keeping me in my room all the time. Eventually my fidgety-ness got so bad I simply couldn't concentrate or obtain any positive benefit from my reading. A particularly noteworthy symptom is that I was glancing out my window all the time longing to be outside in the sun and surrounded by nature. I then remembered an article on Mark's Daily Apple about the benefits of studying in different environments, which I cannot find and link to unfortunately, and was given an idea for an experiment by an article written on enriched environments. I figured I was going stir crazy and becoming bored with routines that were keeping me in the same environments all the time, so I set out to see if adding more variety would improve things.

The experiment was simple. For my reading, I would insert myself into a new environment -- like the backyard, park, or local bookstore -- and see how well I fared given I never read there, and in my walking I would construct new routes for traveling to the one park I visit regularly to see if it improved my experience. After a week I had eliminated my discontent with any environmental setting, could concentrate and read better, get more intensely involved in a book, felt more refreshed and satisfied by my walks, decreased any annoying urge to "get out of the house," and just felt better generally. Additionally, my brain felt more stimulated, challenged, and alert, and at nighttime I felt more mentally taxed, got to sleep more easily, and woke up feeling completely rested. It seems that indeed keeping oneself constantly exposed to new sensations is beneficial to health to an appreciable degree. Why is this?

My hypothesis is that it's more of a refreshing and challenging experience for the brain to process information that's new to it (e.g. new locations) or hasn't experienced in a while (e.g. a favorite meal long absent), and that stimulation in effect leads to more contentment and better mental processing through increased brain activity and improves sleep through the increased energy demand. Have you ever noticed how routine environments, like cubicles, have seemingly no special details or nuances if you see them everyday, and that in traveling to new places you suddenly feel alert and interested in everything around you? Or how about aromas, where a foreign smell like cinnamon will seem powerful and soothing in a mall whereas an aromatherapy candle becomes undetectable after an hour of burning? The brain is so familiar with routine sensations that it's hardly a challenge to process it and thus dulls one's alertness, where new things place demands on one's capacities that heightens attention and overall mental activity.

From an evolutionary perspective, I can see how man has possibly evolved to need these kind of stimulants. It must've been quite some time before man developed to the point that he could build a shelter and reside in it for months, years, or even an entire lifetime; man probably had to keep wandering around in order to follow the food, and in doing that he developed so that regularly processing new sensory data became a desirable, maybe even necessary attribute for full brain health. I know that my well-being has increased to a considerable degree in every realm, from my intelligence to sleeping habits, since incorporating more sensory variety. And it's such an easy lifestyle change to make as well! All you have to do is keep exposing yourself to new sensations, even as minor as switching up routes to the lunchroom at work.

I never expected sensory improvement to be this beneficial to my being, but for now on I resolve to keep adding new variations to my routine.

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