Understanding the Sensory Types
Techla Wood explains how understanding the distinct sensory types can help us to have more empathy and compassion for ourselves and others
by Techla Wood
What if everything you thought you knew about the senses wasn’t the whole story? What if you could develop a greater sense of compassion and empathy for yourself, and others, by discovering the role our sensory types play in creating our experiences of the world around us?
In this article I’m going to take you on a whistle stop tour of your eight senses. Yes, that’s right – eight. It isn’t a typo. You actually have almost double the amount of senses you may have once thought.
The Organs of Knowledge
The senses have been known in the past as ‘the organs of knowledge’ – which, if you think about it, is exactly what they are. They’re how we receive all of our information about our environment, and they’re how we process that information too. The sensory receptors in our brain are how we make sense of our world, and what’s incredible and brilliant (and perhaps also a little confusing, at times) is that our unique sensory wiring can give us all very different perceptions of the same experience.
The Eight Senses
Believe it or not, there are scientists who now believe that we have in excess of 20 different senses, but generally speaking it’s accepted that we have at least eight, not the traditional five we’re typically taught at school.
Of course, we have the senses we all know: smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), touch (tactition), sight (vision) and sound (audition). These are our exteroceptive senses – the ones that bring us information from outside of ourselves, from our external environment. But what’s going on outside of us isn’t all there is to know. We need to know what’s going on within our bodies too. For this we have our three interoceptive senses. These are the vestibular system, proprioception and interoception.
The vestibular system is the sense that keeps us balanced and upright. If you suffer from motion sickness, dislike roller coasters, lifts and escalators, this is largely due to the preferences of your vestibular system.
Proprioception tells us where our body is in relation to our surroundings. It uses information from our muscles, joints and skin to help us navigate our world. Wildly popular in recent years, weighted blankets calm our nervous system so well because our sense of proprioception is telling our brain that our body is safe, and can therefore stand down and relax.
Interoception is the sense that keeps us informed about our physiology. If we’re hot, cold, hungry, thirsty or need the toilet, our sense of interoception is what’s making us aware of all that. Of all the senses this one can be the most troublesome, especially for those who’ve suffered trauma.
This system of senses gets all the more interesting when we add the distinct sensory types to the mix.
Understanding your sensory type and broadening your comfort zone
In all, there are four sensory types. They are the Avoider, the Bystander, the Seeker and the Sensor. We tend to have a main type that influences the way we experience sensory stimuli, however, it’s quite possible for individual senses to function with a different typing. This creates a wide range of possible ways that we can experience events differently to others; it might appear from the outside that we are having the same experience, but depending on our sensory filters, we can actually experience very different versions of the same event.
Once you begin to get a grip on your sensory wiring, you can open up a whole new world of choices for yourself. You can decide to stay within the confines of your sensory preferences, creating your daily life on your terms. This can make your life more pleasurable and manageable. You might choose to stretch your limits in the name of research. How we react to sensory stimuli alters from day to day, season to season, year to year. Just because something is difficult for you now, doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow or next year.
Tracking your responses can give you the information you need to create a truly personalised life. For instance, if you know that on day 21 of your personal cycle your hearing becomes hypersensitive, you can make adjustments that mitigate that. You could use noise-reducing headphones, staying away from noisy environments and wearing shoes with soft soles. The opportunities to create work-arounds grow more and more with your self-understanding.
Understanding your sensory typing is a gift. How you choose to use it is up to you. If you need to be gentle with yourself, and feel that living within your own set of sensory boundaries is what you need at this time, then that’s brilliant! Be empowered by this new knowledge.
If you feel constrained by your typing, no one says you have to remain there. Push your edges. See where there’s even a little wiggle room to expand. Now that you know why certain things are more difficult for you, you may well find they become less so. Does that sound counterintuitive? Here’s how I think of it:
If you don’t know why certain situations cause you to react in ways that you don’t enjoy, you’ll avoid them. That’s a perfectly natural form of self protection. When you understand why those reactions come up, you have information that can help you make a more informed choice.
For instance, if noisy environments have always made you uncomfortable, but you’ve long felt a pang of regret that you haven’t experienced a live gig, now you know why that is, you can stretch your sensory comfort zone. Perhaps that looks like wearing earplugs to reduce the sound to a bearable level for you. Perhaps it looks like testing to see if there’s a certain length of time you can cope with the noise before overwhelm kicks in. Once you have more detailed information, you can make choices that work for you. If you know you can enjoy live music for half an hour, you could decide to arrive at a concert 15 minutes after the headlining act goes on stage. If your sensory wiring makes movement and touch difficult for you, and as a result you struggle with the push and shove of crowds, you can choose to leave early before the mad exit rush starts.
You can create the conditions that make an experience enjoyable for you, without feeling ‘weird’, ‘stupid’, or whatever other critical adjectives you may have used to describe yourself previously.
We all have reactions and experiences that are painful, unpleasant, uncomfortable or disturbing in some way. When we don’t know ourselves fully, we can end up limiting our lives by making choices from a place of fear. When we understand more of the reasons behind our reactions, we can make choices from a different place. We can make informed decisions that leave us feeling empowered. That change in mindset is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.
On the flip side, if we know that something is absolutely not for us, we now have the knowledge to stand firm in our decision without feeling that we‘re being killjoys, wusses or whatever words others might use to try to bully us into doing something we know, on a visceral level, we really don‘t want to do.
For instance, knowing that your vestibular system is very sensitive gives you the insight that your experience of a rollercoaster is very different to that of your seeker friend, so declining their invite to jump on the latest gravity defying ride is a choice made from a place of deep self-understanding, not of fear or weakness. The difference this simple shift can make to your self-esteem should not be underestimated.
You can use this information to create ease and more fulfilling experiences for others too. If you’re a massage therapist who wants to expand your client base, you might choose to create a range of treatments that appeal to different sensory needs, rather than having a one size fits all approach. The possibilities for improving the lives of ourselves and others really open up once we embrace the knowledge that sensory typing gives us.