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Sensory Perception is the Basis of All the Arts.

Imagine music without the sounds of the instruments or the pitch of the voices.

Imagine drama without voices of the actors or the expressions on their faces.

Imagine dancing without the touch of you feet on the floor or without hearing the rhythm of the music.

Imagining painting without the smell of the paint, the pressure of the brush on the canvas, or the splash of color on the canvas.

What is sensory perception?

Sensation is the absorption of information from a stimulus through our sense organs and the delivery of that information to our brain.

Perception is the processing of that information by our brain which attempts to organize it and give it meaning so that action can be taken.

We are born to be sensory creatures. Newborns come into the world already smelling, tasting, touching, hearing and seeing. The unborn child can smell and taste amniotic fluid in the womb. It can feel the warmth and movement of its mother. At 24 weeks the fetus can hear and at 33 weeks it can  detect light.

But the world to the newborn is a swirling multi-colored mosaic of sensations – noises, lights, textures, tastes, and smells. They need to learn to control and make meaning of these sensations. They have to learn selective attention.

The process of selective attention involves the following steps.

  • A stimulus is noticed
  • Distractions are filtered out
  • A choice is made to focus on that stimulus
  • Focus is maintained over time
  • Meaning or emotion is given to the stimulus
  • A plan of action is made
  • The action is taken
  • The stimulus and its meaning is added to memory

For example, you see a glowing light. You stop and look at it. You ignore the sound of your feet on the gravel, the rub of your clothes against your body, the smell of your sneakers, and the taste of the gum in your mouth. You study it for several flameminutes and notice it flickers, changing colors from red to orange to yellow. It moves slightly in a draft of air. You can feel it giving off heat. You can smell something charred and notice a bitter taste on your lips.  It reminds you of a flame you once touched that burned you. It is coming from a stick. You decide to move away and not touch it. You will remember that sticks can burn.

If we cannot sustain attention, if we are always distracted and losing focus, our senses overwhelm us and we feel stress and anxiety. A recent Nation article “In the Tank” by Neima Jahromi describes a new fad – sensory deprivation tanks. People who go in these tanks say they are escaping the bombardment of their senses by modern digital life and find the tanks calming. However, research by Mason & Brady 2009 has found that as little as 15 minutes of total sensory deprivation can lead to loss of reality and hallucinations and longer times can lead to coma. In addition, after being in a sensory deprivation tank, people report that their senses are heightened which would seem to be the opposite of calming the senses.

Therefore, developing sustained attention seems to be a better choice for dealing with overwhelming sensory input. Teaching children to focus is a wonderful and essential gift we can give our children and the arts provide a perfect forum for doing so.

Research has shown that children who can focus for sustained periods have better behavior control, fewer learning difficulties, higher academic performance, and understand that other people think differently from them. (Chasiotis, A., Kiessling, F., Winter, V., & Haber, J. 2006).  Instead of superficial memories, deep meaning and understand develops through intense focus. Children identified as gifted are often characterized by the ability to sustain attention on some activity for long periods of time. (Caine, R. N. & Caine, G. 1998).

  1. Sustained attention can be taught through intentional teaching starting in infancy and extending through adulthood.
  2. Carefully select a sensory experience to focus on – A WOW! See here for guidelines in selecting this experience.
  3.  Draw attention by pointing to the object. From birth infants are drawn to follow a pointing hand.
  4. Invite active participation with the experience using the senses. Active handling of objects correlates with increased verb use and recognition of objects (James, K. I. & Swain, S. N. 2011).
  5. Imitate their positive actions.
  6. Give enthusiastic non-verbal and verbal feedback using rich descriptive language and open-ended questions.
  7. Add deep meaning by extending the experience and revisiting it over time.

In this blog I will be looking at ways to use the arts to develop sustained attention in children of all ages and sharing activities I have done with children over 45 years of teaching. Please follow me to learn more. Comments and sharing of your ideas is welcome.

Do you feel sensory overload?

Have you ever considered trying a sensory deprivation tank?

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