Do you find it easier to focus when you’re chewing on a pencil? Do you find it hard to focus under fluorescent lights?
These things might sound batshit crazy to you, or they might sound incredibly familiar. We all have varying degrees of sensitivity to different environmental stimuli. Our senses can overwhelm us, sometimes without us even aware of what’s creating the feeling – we might feel overstimulated, anxious, unfocused, tired, overwhelmed or grouchy.
A friend of mine, who scores very low on the batshit crazy index, confessed to me that she focuses better at work with large headphones on – not because they block out the noise. The pressure on her ears helps her focus.
Sensory Integration is an emerging field, and a tool used by Occupational Therapists. Before you write it off as earthy-crunchy, there is a lot of scientific research being done in the field. SI involves easy exercises, like pushing or pulling or putting pressure in certain areas, to restore balance to the nervous system.
Perhaps we didn’t need Sensory Integration back in the good ole’ days because our daily lives organically created opportunities to calm our nervous systems. Just being outside is good for your brain: the sound of birds chirping or a babbling brook provide neurological feedback about where your body is in space. This helps you feel more grounded. No wonder people have always felt more centered after venturing into nature.
Hard work is also calming to the senses. Pushing, dragging, pulling and lifting send calming feedback to the brain.
Nowadays we sit under unnatural lights, inside, not using our muscles and staring at the same place on our computer. Our nervous systems are not getting the stimulation or “exercise” they need. Maybe we’ll evolve out of needing these stimuli. But until then, we can use neurological hacks.
A swaddle is a classic example of a neurological hack. The pressure on the baby’s nerves send a signal of calm to its brain. It’s an extra set of arms for tired parents. It tricks the baby’s nervous system into thinking it’s being held.
We can trick ourselves, too. I was first introduced to the concept of sensory integration when my toddler was diagnosed with sensory issues. At age three, she was unable to climb playground equipment (or anything) and would exhibit “ground-seeking” behavior: she wouldn’t go down stairs, and would cling to the floor when she was feeling overwhelmed. As you can imagine, I was worried. After just a few months of occupational therapy – basically swinging and jumping and playing in a gym, she is totally cured; and in fact, she took another fearful schoolmate under her wing, and challenges her to climb to the top of the slide and not be afraid. I’m a total believer now.
Recently we’ve found out that open plan offices are not conducive to increased collaboration, and in fact hinder productivity. Perhaps sensory overload is just one reason open plan office don’t work (besides the allure of that hilarious YouTube video your office mate is currently watching).
I could see sensory consultants becoming a thing in Silicon Valley. I think I could do a pretty good job of it myself, after a lifetime of being overstimulated. I was once told by a neurologist that I had a very strange and interesting brain. Or perhaps, sensory consultants might be Occupation Therapists who can identify problem elements: lighting, white noise (or grey noise or pink noise), ergonomics. And they’ll offer sensory integrative solutions to increase creativity and productivity, like environmental tweaks and specific exercises for the office to do. Maybe they’ll play this music in the background. Honestly, I play all sorts of random “music for focus” YouTube music for my children all the time, even therapeutic music for Autism/ADD. I swear, things are more peaceful when the music is on. Or maybe it’s just working on me. Try it!
Image by Matheus Ferrero