Make Sense of Your Brain

engAGE Your Brain
By LeAnne Stuver, M.Ed., BSN and Dr. Krystal Culler, DBH, M.A.

Have you ever wondered how your brain makes sense of the world? Our traditional senses connect us to our world and help us interpret our immediate environment. Collectively, our senses work together rather than separate from one another. (We likely do not notice until something impacts or goes wrong with one of our senses.) 

Humans have questioned the relationship of the body and brain for centuries. There have been many scientific and philosophical debates but advances in neuroscience have shown that the brain drives all the body’s actions. Nowhere is this more evident than examining how our senses work.

Our Senses
To survive in this world, we must be able to interpret and interact with a barrage of stimuli from our environment. These stimuli can be physical, chemical, or biological. Our senses are designed to detect these stimuli and send messages to the brain for interpretation. Each of our senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and proprioception) has its own set of receptors. Sensory information is constantly being sent to the brain. Sometimes we are aware of this information, and sometimes it is beneath our consciousness (especially related to proprioception, or where our body is in relation to the world around us).

Let’s start by examining our vision. Our eyes focus light reflected off objects in our environment on the back of the eye (retina) and turn the information into electrical signals that are sent to the back of our brain (occipital lobe) along our optic nerve. This is a very rapid process, taking as little as a half a second to perceive a visual object. We can perceive colors, shapes, fine details and motion.

Our environment is full of noise (sound waves). For us to hear, sound waves are gathered in our outer ear, transmitted through our middle ear by vibrations, and turned into electrical signals by the inner ear so that they can be sent to the brain by our cochlear nerve. The temporal lobes on both sides of our brain work together to identify sound, perceive its qualities (volume, pitch, tone), and give it meaning (interpreting language, processing music). Our hearing is our most developed sense at birth.

Our sense of taste begins in our mouth. The thousands of taste buds on our tongues are responsible for detecting harmful foods or substances, and alert us when we need hydration. Flavors are differentiated by chemical compounds (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory). Information from the taste buds travels along the cranial nerves to the brain. Our senses of smell and taste are combined by the brain to give us a full appreciation of the flavors of food.

Skin is our largest organ and our largest sensory system. There are approximately 20 types of skin sensors that respond to different levels of stimuli (light touch, pressure, vibration, temperature, pain, and stress on our joints). The receptors in our skin register the mechanical, thermal and chemical stimuli then convert them to electrical signals that travel through the peripheral nerves to the spinal column and then to the brain.  

Proprioception is our last major sensory system. It is responsible for sensing our position, location, orientation and movement of our muscles and joints. Our brain combines this information with the information from our visual system (how we see our position) and our vestibular system in our inner ear (which controls our sense of balance). This provides us with an unconscious awareness of where we are in relation to other people and objects.

The communication between our sensory systems and our brain is rapid and complex. To preserve our precious senses, we should protect our sensory organs throughout our lives. Some simple steps we can take are to reduce or minimize our exposure to loud noises, ensure good dental hygiene, and use sunscreen all year long. It is important to take immediate action with a healthcare provider if we notice any sudden or marked changes in our senses. Now that we are halfway through the year, it is a great time to schedule any remaining health appointments (eye exam), screenings (hearing), or check-ups (dental cleaning).

Engage the Senses
Utilize your senses to challenge the brain. 

  • Try a meditation that intentionally explores your senses. Here is a free guided meditation (10 minutes) and script. 
  • Engage in a mindful eating exercise.
  • Try this guided imagery example and engage your mind’s eye or read this script.
  • Gather everyday objects from around your home and start creating live sounds like a special effects studio. (Hint: The kitchen might be a great place to start!) Play name that sound and create some noise.
  • Get out in nature. Take time to notice what you see, feel, taste, touch and smell.
  • Try a meditation that intentionally explores your senses. Here is a free guided meditation (10 minutes) and script that you can follow. 

There are many ways that we can utilize our various senses to keep our brain healthy. Remember to try something new and have fun! We hope this is a useful way to make sense of your brain.

In brain health & wellness,
LeAnne & Krystal

P.S.- If you have other suggestions to engage your senses, let us know in the comments. We value learning from one another.

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