Most people are taught that there are 5 senses: touch, taste, smell, vision, and sound. We learn about these in school, we can easily identify them, and they generally make sense. While these senses are the most talked about, they are not the only ones that exist. We really have 8 different senses that give us important information about the world we live in. Our sensory systems directly impact how we see the world, how we interact with the world and others, and how we regulate our emotions.
Sounds like a lot, right? And it is! Our sensory systems are incredible and complex, making them difficult to understand at times. My goal is to demystify these sensory systems and give you a better understanding of what they are and how they impact us every day.
Earlier I mentioned that we have more than 5 sensory systems that we are taught in school. The additional three are called proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. While these sensory systems may be new to you, they are some of the most important systems for our brains. These three senses have a wide-reaching impact on all of the other sensory systems. So, let’s break these down!
Proprioception is the sense of our muscles moving. Just like we have taste buds in our mouths for sensing taste, we have nerves in our muscles and joints that send signals to our brain when our muscles are moving. The more pressure or force our muscles use, the stronger the signal sent to our brain. Proprioception lets our brains know that we are moving and plan future movements.
The vestibular sense is the sense of our head moving in space. We have nerves in our ears that send signals to our brain whenever our head moves. The faster our head moves or if we quickly change directions; the more signals are sent to the brain. Think of when you are walking, your head is moving forward in the same direction at a pretty slow speed. You do this often, so your brain is really good at sorting this information and you don’t notice anything unusual. Now think of being on a rollercoaster, a much different experience, right? Your head is constantly moving at a fast speed and rapidly changing directions, sending way more information to your brain. For some people, this is exciting and fun. For others, it is too much sensory information at once and is an unpleasant experience.
Finally, interoception is the sense of things happening in your body. In other words, when you have to go to the bathroom, feel hungry/thirsty, or feel cold, your interoception sensory system is alerting your brain so that you can address the issue.
These three sensory systems allow us to move in space, understand where we are in the environment, and what is happening inside of our bodies that may be affecting us. When these systems are not working the way they should be, difficulties can arise in many different ways. If our proprioceptive system is not working smoothly we may have trouble navigating spaces without bumping into objects, trouble planning out movements, and trouble with difficult and/or fine motor movements. If our vestibular system is not working right, we may have a hard time climbing or walking on uneven surfaces, become easily carsick, or want to spin a lot. When our interoception system is not working correctly, we might have a hard time knowing we need to use the bathroom, knowing if we are hungry or thirsty, or knowing how the temperature is affecting us.
When the sensory systems are not working correctly, our body knows that we need something, but it has a hard time understanding and communicating that need. This can lead to frustration, outbursts, and a hard time understanding emotions. Occupational therapists can help sensory processing needs by providing individualized treatments that address the specific needs of the person. Each person is different and so is their sensory system!