Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Sensory Enrichment Experiment

I've noted that last week I performed a sensory enrichment experiment to see what kind of impact it would have on my mind and well-being. Up until now I've only briefly commented on it, so I'd like to elaborate more on what I did and why.
In Vitro, 2010 + text
The thing that sparked my interest in performing such an experiment is noticing how difficult it was getting to be trying to read in my room all the time. I haven't restarted my formal self-education yet, but I am feeding my mind with reading, frequently visiting my library and all. At the beginning I tried reading by laying on my floor, sitting on the edge of the bed, and so forth, but eventually I got so fidgety that my mental processes were really being interfered with. A discontent with my environment was growing; I kept looking out the window with the sense that I should be out there for some reason. In a way I guess you could say I was going stir crazy: All this reading was often keeping me in one place for a longer time than preferred. I read an article on Mark's Daily Apple on how enriching one's environment can improve health and then remembered an older piece he wrote about studying in different environments to enhance learning (which I can't find), so I thought to experiment with doing my reading in different locations to see if they would eliminate my fidgety-ness and overall discontent with my environment.

It's a simple experiment. Just take a book or some books to a location I haven't read in before and do some reading, like on the front porch, in the park, or at the bookstore. It's all just a matter of going to different locations. To my surprise, it not only eliminated that fidgety-ness, it also enhanced my concentration on my reading and helped me more easily keep my mind on matters. I did find myself frequently interrupting my reading to look around at my surroundings and people, but these distractions weren't enough to actually break my concentration, so getting right back to it was very smooth, as if I never broke my train of thought. Most significantly and unexpectedly, it enhanced my well-being and simply made me feel better and more content.

Colorful Crazy Daisies (1)Given the surprise contentment that came along with the results, I thought I'd vary my experiment a little bit by applying it to my walks by taking different routes to this one park I visit often. The different routes may have changed the length of my walks considerably, but the point was to expose myself to new stimuli, not test the efficiency of routes. To my pleasure that also enhanced my well-being and contentment, relaxing me more, and has made me a better navigator. The success of both these experiments will make me adopt them as long-term practices. I haven't been discontent with my environment since using this methodology, and still have quite a ways to go in applying it given the different locations and routes I have yet to try out.

I wish I would have thought of this experiment sooner, as fidgeting was a huge problem when I was living in Michigan. I studied incredibly often then, but only in about three different fixed areas, mainly two. I knew my efforts were important, but towards the window I kept glancing with a longing for new stimuli, something different environmentally. I probably struggled a lot more than was necessary because of that.

It's hard to say why this works, but from a biological perspective I think it just have to do with how our brains respond to sensory stimulation. Humans, being conceptual beings, cannot enjoy the process of shutting off their mind entirely; unless resting from previous exertion, to do so is depressing. Even people who don't value their mind and actively choose not to think still strive to mentally distract themselves with something, no matter how petty. Following this line, it must be exciting to the sensory apparatuses to take in and process new bits of information, such as unfamiliar smells and new sights. The new data, being new of course, hasn't been exposed to you before, so your brain has to process it in a different, more stimulating way than it does familiar stuff. Old data, such as routine spots visited and things seen, have already been exposed to and found their place in your brain, so while your apparatuses still process it, it doesn't process it in as stimulating a fashion given its familiarity and secured spot in your memory. Have you ever smelled a delicious aroma and noticed how it wanes off? It may have little to do with whether the scent is actually dissipating: Your brain has just processed it to the point that you can literally no longer smell it, even if it's still there. Same thing with routine sights: You become less and less interested in their details as they become more and more familiar, such as the cubicle you might work in everyday.

I think I feel better because I actively sought out new sensory data that was more stimulating to process, and in that processing I became more content, relaxed, focused, and so on. Previously my walks were virtually mindless -- I could have done them with my eyes closed -- but now I'm more alert since I'm constantly switching things up: Going to the park one way and coming home another. This may also be helping to correct my sleep troubles as well, since I've noticed I've been getting mentally tired more often, relaxing more deeply in bed, and waking up feeling legitimately rested. This is going without those orange safety glasses (to filter out serotonin-producing blue light) and regular bedtimes as well. If you're having sleep difficulties, you might want to consider a similar experiment.

So to finish: This sensory enrichment experiment has bestowed benefits that really surprised me in their ability to enhance my well-being. I'll definitely be working to establish this as a permanent life-long habit.

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