Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sensory Integration...Wha?

Maven Darcy BurkeToday I’m getting personal. This week’s theme sort of screams for it, actually. My six-year old daughter has sensory integration dysfunction. Some of you are nodding your head because you’ve heard of this, while others are going, “what on earth is that?” I’m going to borrow a definition for sensory integration from Carol Stock Kranowitz’s fabulous book, The Out of Sync Child Has Fun*:

Sensory integration is the normal neurological process of organizing sensations for our use in everyday life.

Clear as mud, right? I’ll give you an exercise to illustrate how this works. Stand up and look at an object at eye level – a picture on the wall is easiest. Focus on that picture and then lift one leg so that you are standing on one foot (bend your leg at the knee and stick your foot behind you). It’s fine to put your arms out to balance. Still focused on that picture? Now close your eyes. How much harder did your balancing act just get?

Our bodies are constantly processing sensory information. In the exercise you (hopefully!) just did you can see (har har) how your sight impacted your other six sensory systems. Other six sensory systems you ask? You can surely name five senses, but did you know there are two more? Beyond touch (tactile), sight (visual), hearing (auditory), taste (gustatory), and smell (olfactory), there are vestibular (balance and movement) and proprioceptive (body position).

I have an overactive vestibular system (Mr. Burke has just reminded me that I can watch a roller coaster and feel ill), myself. I tend to get carsick rather easily and fast roller coasters are not for me. It’s not because of a weak stomach, it’s because of my inner ear and how I process that kind of movement. Think of it as not having 20/20 vision or not smelling certain things as strongly as others. I have a somewhat needy proprioceptive system in that I like to hug my family. (Note: I do not hug strangers, nor do I excessively touch or hug anyone outside my immediate family – but that’s a social thing, right? Right.) Now, my daughter loves to hug and touch and since she’s just 6, she’s still learning the social rights and wrongs. If she’s craving some “prop,” she might use her feet to “tickle” someone or head-butt an adult in the legs. More commonly, she’ll “hug” herself in that she squeezes her arms and legs together so hard that she may turn red in the face. All of this input feeds her muscles and her neurological system, helping her better process her other senses (in her case, she needs an auditory boost – her visual sense is quite good).

So what in tarnation does this have to do with romance writing? Well, maybe not too much, but I do believe you can use all sorts of sensory information in your stories and characterization. I’m sure you know someone (or maybe you ARE someone) who taps their foot or rocks on their feet as they stand. Or, someone who bites their nails or wraps their fingers in their hair. All of these activities provide sensory input and I believe we do these things all day long without conscious thought as a way to process the world around us. Without our senses (including the two I’ve maybe introduced you to today), how do we know the sky is blue, the chair is as tall as it is, the shoe fits, how far we are standing from the smelly guy on the subway?

Your sensory systems impact the following skills (again, I’m borrowing from Kranowitz’s book):

-Motor planning
-Gross and fine motor
-Bilateral coordination

So you can see how our senses and how we process information affect our everyday life. Whether or not you decide to use this information to enhance your characters, it's good information to have as a human being navigating a very tricky (er, tricksy if you’re Maven Erica) world, it’s good to know we all have quirks – and there’s a reason for them! I’ll stop now because I could really go on about this topic forever.

What’s your “best” sense? Do you have any sensory quirks? Is there a way this information helps you at all with writing characters? Oh, and ask any questions you want!

*Kranowitz, Carol Scott, The Out of Sync Child Has Fun, Berkley, 2003.


Anonymous said...

Or, someone who bites their nails or wraps their fingers in their hair.

Never knew my horrible habit of picking at my nails or the absent twirling of my hair was anything other than boredom or strange habits passed from my maternal grandfather.

Sensory perception, huh? I'll have to pay attention to that more. Plus it sounds better than horrible habits.

Bill Clark said...

vestibular (balance and movement) and proprioceptive (body position)

OMG! Who knew?!

So I guess our "sixth sense" now becomes our "eighth sense"? ;-)

lacey kaye said...

I'm going to pay attention to my quirks today and see if I can find something like twirling hair or tapping my foot. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any.

Interesting that something like biting your lip really can help you think better! Thanks for sharing this. I wouldn't have known about it otherwise.

Celeste said...

So many people don't know about this! I've worked with kids who have sensory integration dysfunction, and it's amazing to me how these kids can get lumped in with just being stubborn or particular or fussy. Good for you (and everyone reading) for posting about it :)

Darcy Burke said...

Christine, it is better than a nasty habit, isn't it?

Thanks Celeste! And thanks for recognizing the difference. There are soooooo many kids out there mis"labeled" as ADD and other that are really just struggling with sensory issues. At least that's my humble opinion. :-)

Jackie Barbosa said...

I remember hearing about proprioception years ago in a radio broadcast and thinking it was such an interesting sense. We're almost unaware of having it, yet it's absolutely essential to everything we do.

Great post, Darc!

Erica Ridley said...

What’s your “best” sense? Do you have any sensory quirks?

Hmmm. Even though my right ear is less perceptive than my left (which gives me all sorts of spacial snafus) I'd maybe have to say hearing. Because when I can hear, I differentiate really well. When learning a new language, I can parrot back a new word or phrase with the exact inflection of the native speaker. (I may forget it later, but right then I sound good. *g) And when it comes to music, I can differentiate minute differences in pitch/rhythm.

My crappy observation skillz coupled with my legally-blind eyeballs mean my vision is laughable at best. I think my sense of taste is pretty ordinary, although part of that is probably practice. (Like if I worked at becoming a wine/cookie/fondue connoisseur.) My sense of touch is ordinary, too, I think, although my spacial skills are pretty good. (I can position my fingers exactly an octave apart, even though I haven't played a piano in years, etc.) My smellability pretty much sucks, thanks to year-round allergy action. My first MS had a 2ndary char with seasonal allergies. It really does change what you can perceive.

Great post, Darc! Lots of food for thought!

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