Hacking the senses will redefine self-care

type - big idea
Big Idea
sector - health & wellness
Charles Spence, a world expert in multi-sensory perception, highlights how knowledge of our senses can have a profound effect on health and wellbeing

What is the premise of your new book, Sensehacking?

The book is about how to capitalise on the power of the senses in everyday life to enhance social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing. It's really taken from the perspective of the average person. There are chapters on sense-hacking the home, the office, the gym, dating and so on.

Very often, we're not really aware of our sensory environments, but even when we're not aware of sensory cues, they are nevertheless still being processed by our brain. This can make us stressed or perhaps contribute to our inability to sleep. All of our senses have a role here – what we see, but also what we hear, smell, touch and taste. The senses combined have a bigger impact on us than they might do individually.

Is it your view that we’ve become too disconnected from our senses?

I frame things in terms of a sensory imbalance. People often talk about too much information, too many notifications, too much audio and visual stimulation. These are the higher, rational senses that are easy to stimulate by technology. People talk about sensory overload, but it's actually a sensory imbalance. It's the rational senses that are being over-stimulated and we're ignoring the more emotional senses of smell, touch and taste.

Interestingly, those emotional senses seem to be the ones most affected by the pandemic. What are some of the ways Covid-19 is contributing to sensory imbalance?

Many of the stresses that were growing pre-Covid and leading to an impoverishment of health and wellbeing – such as widespread problems with lack of sleep – have been made worse. People are talking about ‘touch hunger’ – a wonderful term from Tiffany Field in the US, who has been working on this for decades. The skin is our biggest sense organ, making up 16% of body mass. That sense needs to be stimulated. Given my previous research on gastrophysics, I have also been very interested in the loss of smell and taste in a growing number of Covid patients, both short-term and longer-term.


Published by:

26 April 2021

Author: Alex Hawkins

Image: Planetarium by Iván Navarro


Left: Virtual Sky by Hee Joon Kwak is an acoustic alternative to augmented reality. Right: Imaginary Flower Therapy by Angeline Behr

How can short- or long-term loss of smell and taste affect our wellbeing?

When you ask people which sense they would least like to lose, nobody says they would worry about losing their sense of smell. But when you lose smell, you lose your emotional contact with the world. I’ve read some accounts of those who have lost their sense of smell saying it feels like living in a movie somehow – there’s something missing, there's a lack of emotional engagement. Even those of us who don't have Covid are still losing some of our olfactory channel of communication. Given that it's such an emotional sense, that can have profound consequences.

As everyone is spending more time at home than ever before, how can we ‘sense-hack’ our living spaces?

Bringing nature into the home is one way to hack our senses, through scents, but also through plants, nature soundscapes and even the idea of digital nature. In the home, smells that we might not notice are there in the background and they might be stopping us from breaking out or transitioning between the different roles that are all now taking place in the same space. Something as simple as just changing the fragrance is a really effective sense-hack to reset your mental capacities. And then there are also the colour scheme, lighting levels and music choice.

Pre-pandemic, there was a growing trend for quite extreme practices like sensory deprivation and dopamine fasting. What do you think will come next?

Dopamine fasting burst into the headlines in 2019. It's really more stimulation fasting. The idea is that after a period of withdrawal from sensations maybe you can appreciate them more when they’re brought back. So I think that hints at the problem of sensory overload and the need to withdraw. Although, ironically, sensory deprivation can also be a form of torture. Fundamentally, we are drawn towards sensation. I wonder whether what will happen is perhaps a shift away from sensory deprivation, and towards the right kind of stimulation.

‘What will happen is a shift away from sensory deprivation, and towards the right kind of stimulation’
Charles Spence, world expert in multi-sensory perception

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