Twelve Senses and Sensory Integration

These ideas are derived from concepts of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy.

Be easy as you step into the world of twelve senses. Understanding each of these senses will bring you closer to knowing yourself, knowing your children better and understanding the way individuals and the collective interact with one another. The interplay of these senses can be mystic and fascinating to say the least. If you get overwhelmed then stop and rewind a bit to where you last understood the ideas. Begin again after a good night’s sleep, or a stretch of meditation or a dose of nature.

In this narrative we have combined the knowledge shared by Steiner and applied it to the current manifestation of Autism. We have used the terms hyper (excessive) and hypo (minimal) to describe these sensory experiences.

According to Steiner human beings actually have twelve senses. Everything we have in us, even everything we experience in our soul, is related to the outer world through our twelve senses. These are the senses of touch, life, movement, balance, smell, taste, sight, warmth, hearing, speech, thinking, and the sense of the I. The twelve senses are what unite the inner and outer world of the individual and what allows us healthy interaction with other people at the highest developed levels.

The twelve senses can be broadly classified in two categories namely unconscious (sleeping) processes and conscious (waking) processes for the purpose of schooling ourselves about them.

  1. Sense of Touch

With the sense of touch we bump into the world around us through the organ of the skin.  This includes what is inside of me and what is outside of me. The sense of touch is barely connected with the conscious life of our soul. You can see for yourself that this is true when you consider how easily we can store the impressions of our other senses in our memory and how difficult it is to remember the impressions of the sense of touch. Just try it and you’ll see how difficult it is to remember, for example, the feel of a piece of fabric you touched a few years ago. Indeed you’ll find you have little need or desire to remember it. The impression sinks down in the same way as the light fades into twilight when the sun descends into the night.

Your tactile sense delineates your body. It indicates where you end and something else begins. Without the sense of touch you would not feel this boundary, and you would not know where you stop being. You would literally be boundless and flow into the other. Without a sense of touch, you would have no physical self-awareness. This is the reason many of our children bump into others and things or do not know boundaries of personal space.

Our children may have a heightened or diminished sense of touch. This imbalance can cause them not to properly incarnate into their bodies which in turn can cause them to have a diminished quality of life. You can help improve this by various desensitizing therapies such as massages, baths, rubs and hugs. Cloths made of synthetic fibre can cause static electricity which can be torturous for children who are hyper in this sense. Ill fitting cloths, clothing tags even starched cloths can cause deep discomfort that comes in the way of effective day to day functioning.

  1. Sense of Life

The sense of life enables us to feel our life in us, but only when that life has been disturbed, when it is sick, when something causes us pain or hurts us. Then the sense of life tells us we are hurting here or there. When we are healthy, we are not aware of the life in us but can sense a general well being and vitality within us.

The sense of life is the internal sense of our organs and internal life processes. Our life sense tells us that we are full, that we have indigestion, or that we have to go to the toilet. We do not sense anything as long as our life processes are all following their normal, harmonious course. We do not register the life sense until one of the life processes is disturbed, or when we are ill. Other examples of observations made by our life sense are stomach-ache, congested nose or sinusitis. We do not perceive our organs or life sense unless something is wrong.

Another type of observation that the life sense can make is the perception of our body as having substance. Our life sense makes us perceive ourselves as a physical, material body. If we only had a sense of touch, we would only be able to feel our body’s boundary, so that our body would feel like an empty shell.

Yoga to feel the breathing in and out of air is a good way to start experiencing this sense of life force. Our children have challenges feeling hunger, thirst or fatigue. They sometimes do not even recognize that they need sleep. Bringing in healthy life rhythms and cycles will help tremendously to the ease of their lives.

  1. Sense of Movement

The sense of movement allows us to perceive what is happening in us when we have set some part of our body in motion. The way joints impact on one another for example when we bend our finger, this joint impacts on that one — tells us about the movements our body is carrying out.

The previous two senses observed the body’s boundaries, the body’s internal state and the space it takes up. The sense of movement, or of muscles, enables us to perceive our body’s movements and posture. Our body – limbs, eyes, mouth, tongue, forehead, chest – is never still. All these movements are perceived, and very accurately, too.

Not only do we perceive our movements, we are also aware of the exact position of our limbs and all the other moving parts of our body. At any given moment, we know exactly where our arms and feet are. This is essential information; if we are going to execute a new movement, we have to know where the movement is to begin. We don’t even have to think about this, the sense of movement is always present.

However our children have a hyper or hypo presence associated with this sense of movement. Combine this with other senses which may or may not be imbalanced we have a situation where the children perceive themselves much differently in the world than what you and I do.

Yoga is a wonderful way to integrate this sense with the body, mind and soul. Brain Gym exercises may help and so will occupational therapy and sensory integration   therapy. Nature walk, sea baths, working with pebbles in water, dancing to music and many more activities can de-sensitize and soothe the children in their day to day lives.

  1. Sense of Balance

We acquire this sense of balance only gradually in life; we just don’t think about it because it also remains in the unconsciousness. Infants have not yet acquired this sense, and therefore they can only crawl. The organs for perceiving the sense of balance are the three canals in our ears; they are shaped like semicircles and are vertical to each other in the three dimensions of space. If these canals are damaged, we get dizzy; we lose our balance. We have the outer ears for our sense of hearing, the eyes for the sense of sight, and for the sense of balance we have these three semicircular canals.

We use our sense of balance to orient ourselves in the world. Observations made with this sense let us know what is up and down, left and right, in front and behind, above and below. The sense of balance perceives the smallest changes in our vertical position. Our body has a dynamic equilibrium. We maintain our balance by making very small adjustments in muscle tension in muscles all over our body. Every time we stand up we have to rediscover our balance, by using this sense. This sense also refers to the balance of life and being able to be centered, which again goes back to rhythm and the idea of in-breath and out-breath.

Children with a hyper or heightened sense of balance tend to toe walk, run, spin around, hang upside down, climb to heights even within their home such as window, table etc., in effect they are keenly aware of their confidence in using their body in space and are very secure of the law of gravity. Children with a diminished or hypo sense of balance tend to fear heights, movement, stairs, swings and walk slowly than others among other challenges. Gentle de-sensitizing is called for if at all.

  1. Sense of Smell

With this sense of smell we move gradually from the unconscious into the consciousness. You can still make the same experiment mentioned before concerning the sense of touch, and you will find it very difficult to remember the perceptions of the senses of smell. Only when we enter more deeply into our unconscious with our soul do the latter consciously perceive the sense of smell. It is not the fragrance that rises up out of memory, but the soul processes connected with the sense of smell emerge into consciousness.

A sense without boundaries, the life sense can be overwhelmed, permeated by an odour. Our ability to make moral judgments is due to this sense, which automatically determines things to be either “good” or “bad”.

We cannot block out scents without holding our breath, which we can never do for long. When we have been exposed to a scent for a while, we stop noticing it, nor will we notice a gradual strengthening of the scent. We only notice it if we go away from it for a while and then come back to it. In that case, we will probably be amazed that we did not notice it before.

Our sense of smell is quite primitive compared to that of animals. A dog’s sense of smell is a million times more sensitive than ours. A dog has no trouble smelling the fear of a passer-by and responds directly. Because of the short reaction time, instinct is closely connected to the sense of smell. An animal’s behaviour is thus determined to a large degree by what it smells. If our sense of smell was as good as an animal’s, we would constantly be making strong judgments and be incapable of more objective observation. Our sensitivity to scents would leave no scope for a personal response, and our thoughts would be more instinctive. As a result, we would be at the mercy of what our sense of smell told us. This may be the reason many of our children who are hyper sensitive to the sense of smell act instinctively and apparently without reason. We can even say that they can smell our current emotional and vibrational state.

  1. Sense of Taste

The sense of taste, however, is for most people almost in the light of consciousness, though not quite; it is still partly in the unconsciousness for most of us. After all, very few people will be satisfied with the soul impression of taste alone. Otherwise we should be just as pleased with remembering something that tasted good as we are when we eat it again. As you know, this is not the case. People want to eat again what tasted good to them and are not satisfied with just remembering it.

Taste is intimate because it takes place inside. It has a lasting effect because what are taken in become us. The judgment of the common-sense-soul seeks two criteria, whether something tastes wholesome or unwholesome.

The observation of taste is made up of two components, the actual taste of something and its smell. When something is in your mouth, its smell enters your nose. When you put something in your mouth, its smell can change as new scent particles are released. Actual taste is limited to four possibilities: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. If you hold your nose and put something in your mouth, you will only be able to distinguish these four tastes.

Our judgment of food, and whether or not it is healthy, is determined in part by taste. Children are very clear about what to eat and what to avoid maybe in part by the strong association with smell. When our children look at the food presented to them they seem to be able to clearly distinguish when the food is fresh, cooked with love and whether it will according to their taste.

Our children use the combined sense of smell and taste to soothe their lives. The senses of smell and taste are the doorways of the waking consciousness, the earthly life. They may sometimes heighten or diminish these senses to soothe themselves in their physicality. Ultimately the children want to have a comfortable and easy life. They do not wish to struggle and iterate the perception of these senses to manage their life in this Autistic body.

The children also use the composite of these senses along with other senses to reflect back to us our own energetic vibrational countenance. This is so that we may learn and move to a better place so that we can all live a good life.

  1. Sense of Sight

The sense of sight, on the other hand, is the sense where the sun of consciousness rises, and we reach full waking consciousness.

Where the eye finds light, colour arises, created out of the interaction between light and darkness. We meet through the eye, the mirror and direct representation of the human soul. It is the sense that encompasses all other sense abilities.

We can see shapes, motion and proportions because our eyes move and work together with the senses of movement and balance. It is easier to block visual stimuli than smells or tastes. There is a distance between us and what we see and thus we observe more consciously. Of all our senses, sight contributes most to our awareness. We are an organism with conscious thought, which is intricately involved with the act of seeing. This also means that it is easier to be mistaken about what we see than what we smell, for example. Sometimes, our thoughts determine what we see.

Goethe discovered that colours are a result of the play between light and dark. You see red, orange and yellow when you look out of the dark at something light, the sunset for instance. Blue and violet predominate when you look from the light at something dark. That is why the sky is blue: it is light here on earth, but black in space. Hence colours can affect your mood depending on whether you are moving towards light of darkness at the emotional-soul level. Try this for yourself. Goethe put it this way: light’s victory over darkness results in active colours (red, orange and yellow), while the victory of darkness over light brings out passive colours (blue, indigo and violet). You can verify this by looking at a rainbow. The sky is always darker at the top of the rainbow than at the bottom, and the red is always on top where it is darker, and the violet on the bottom, where it is lighter. You can find evidence for this rule in brown eyes, where the iris is red nearest the pupil, and green or bluish nearest the white of the eye.

Most people can see about 150 colours, though some can see more. Our children can probably perceive many many more colours and hues than we can imagine. This gives them an advantage over us that their inner world is so much more richer and gorgeous than us. Just knowing this can release you from the bondage of attempting to remedy what is naturally the children’s way of seeing things which is different from ours.

  1. Sense of Warmth

The sun rises higher and higher. It rises to the sense of warmth (pouring out into the world with one’s interest, non-materially). This can only be experienced when there is flow; something must happen between us and the outer world in order to sense temperature. When our soul opens and we want to meet the world, one of two things happens. We get nothing back, and experience cold, or our interest is met and we experience warmth.

We use our sense of temperature to observe how hot or cold objects or our surroundings are. The sense of temperature is made up of distinct sensory receptors for hot and cold located all over the skin. There are more receptors for cold than for hot. As with the sense of touch, every part of our skin senses temperature. There is a difference, however. When something touches us, we feel which part of our body is touched. Our sense of temperature is closely connected to our own temperature. In other words, we do not measure absolute temperatures, but temperatures relative to our own.

The ability to feel through the sense of warmth or temperature is closely related to the ability to feel and give love. The challenges faced by our children in this ability to perceive the sense of warmth has to do with their ability to perceive the energy of other person or of an environment. Since our children respond to authenticity in others when the vibration is of mixed nature, they do not respond. And the most important thing is they don’t care what you think of them. Your opinion of them is irrelevant to their well being. Something to learn from our children right?

  1. Sense of Hearing

Hearing penetrates more deeply into reality than sight. Sound comes from the external and then is made internal. Our ears are positioned at the side of our head. Our ears are open to sounds from our entire surroundings; it is not necessary to position the ears directly in front of a sound. We cannot close our ears, so that we are connected with the world of sound during all our waking hours.

Listening – conscious hearing – requires us to be quiet. We must keep still yourself and take a back seat, as it were. Listening is a social activity focused on others, but it is also an internal activity. Looking at an object gives us an idea of its exterior. Listening to an object gives us an idea of what is within. Listening to people can also reveal information about their inner lives. People might look smart, but if they feel bad inside it is immediately apparent in their voice. Someone’s intonation betrays whether they are sad, happy or excited.

In order to resonate, objects must be solid and free-standing. A free-standing copper bell rings, but a bell standing on the ground is like a soft chunk of clay: it makes no or muffled sound. Sound is considered an unearthly non-physical phenomenon. The spiritual implication of this is that to perceive the world a human being need to resonate in a free standing manner. If we feel imprisoned or bound by life’s circumstances then we cannot perceive the world in a balanced way.

  1. Sense of Speech

We could never understand the higher meaning of spoken words with the sense of hearing alone. The ability to hear language seems simple, but there is a deep secret behind languages. The kind words spoken to us have a direct effect on us, just as colour affects our eyes directly. The love living in the other’s soul is borne into your soul on the wings of the words.

There is a difference between the perception of sound and music, and the perception of speech. When listening to human speech, you perceive the vowels and consonants which make up all words. Your ears perceive both the acoustic and the musical aspects of language, but not the essence, or meaning of speech. The actual words are perceived by another sense that we refer to as the sense of speech. When you meet someone, their posture and facial expression, the look in their eyes, the gestures of their hands and body, and the sound of their voice all reveal information about their inner state and character. By listening to the words people say, you can observe their thoughts, opinions, judgments, experiences and personality.

When listening to someone speak, the first thing you perceive is not what is being said, but the rhythm and intonation. Rhythm and intonation – reveal agreement or rejection, scorn or admiration, good or bad intentions, and so on. You hear more than just the meaning of the words. Brief reactions can be interpreted quite accurately on the basis of context and – nuances of tone alone. You can perceive how the speaker intended to convey the message, and in doing so you have observed something about the speaker’s inner being.

Letters, words and stories have a different quality to tones and melodies. Words harbour connotations, or gestures, that can be perceived. Quick has a different gesture to fast, sluggish is not the same as slow. The basic meaning might be the same, but the letters that make up the word make a different gesture. A word is in effect a phonemic image of a series of letters. Observation of the phonemic image is not the same as hearing.

Rudolf Steiner pointed out that our understanding of language is made possible by the fact that we have a musculoskeletal system. Our flesh-and-bones body is the sensory organ for words. Speech sounds are perceived with the ears. Nerves travel from the organ of speech down the spinal cord and branch out to all the muscles in the body. This is why you make unconscious micro-movements in response to speech sounds, and why you physically experience the gestures of sounds. In other words, language is not heard just by your ear, it is heard by your whole muscular system. Together, these form the sense of speech. The sense of speech can interpret more than just the spoken word. You also observe visible gestures, such as hand signals and body language. The sense of speech observes both words and gestures.

Speech is perceived and used at a subtler realm than other senses. Our children are present in this realm within themselves and also in engagement with the world. Being sensitive to the non-physical energy and vibrations in others and in the environment, our children tend to use the gestural part of speech rather than language for communication. That is why many choose to remain silent and choose to communicate telepathically the image of the gestures to others rather than speak overtly. We can live a better quality of life with our children if we could understand this aspect of their life choices and to school our self to lovingly co-exist with them. The zenith of our inner life lies between the senses of hearing and speech.

  1. Sense of Thinking

Then we have the sense of thinking. This is the ability to understand, comprehend, to picture what is said. While words indicate that there are such things as concepts, you can never really totally express them with words. They exist on a higher plane. When speech and language is erased, you enter the realm of pure concept.

Our sense of thought observes the thoughts of others. Specifically, we observe the views, considerations and questions that others have, and thus get an idea of what they are thinking. When we focus on someone’s way of speaking, which is on the phonemic image, the substance of what they are saying will pass us by. But when we concentrate on the substance, we do not hear the way in which the message is conveyed. This is most apparent when we hear a language being spoken that we do not understand. We can pick up certain tones, but we do not have the faintest idea what is being said. Clearly, our sense of speech and sense of thought perceive different complementary aspects of human communication.

Our children use imagery predominantly to make sense of the world. Therefore they have difficulty shifting focus from the phonemic image of intonation and rhythm of speech to the substance of what is being said. Therefore they tend to think differently from us. They appear to be dreamy and lost in their individual thoughts while in actuality they are quite happy processing it their way. Learning to look at substance of what is being said is cumbersome and sometimes it is tiresome for them to receive someone who is projecting themselves not so authentically through their speech.

  1. Sense of I

The I sense or the sense of the ego is not the sense for perceiving our own I but that of others. After all, it is an organ of perception, a sense. What is important here is not so much knowing about our own I, but meeting other people who reveal their I to us. We live with the souls of others just as we live with colours and sounds. Anyone who does not realize this knows absolutely nothing of our inner life.

This is the sense through which we can become aware that another person is an individual. We not only hear language, or grasp concepts, but become aware that there is a he or a she who means something by what is said. This sense develops only when we are able to break through a wall, then withdraw and allow others to find their place within us.

This sense needs to be activated, because in practice – with people tending to be distracted by their own and others’ habits and emotions – the sense of ego is barely used. In other words this sense is activated when we are aligned with our soul and can see through our soul’s view at another person. If we want to get to know someone’s personality, we must allow him into our inner being. But we can only tolerate this intrusion for a little while. Before long we need to have our inner being to our self again, and so we throw the other out.

You can observe someone’s individuality most directly in their eyes. The eyes give you an unfettered view of the other’s ego. Unless you are in love with that person, you can only do this for a short while before you start feeling uncomfortable. When we look into someone’s eyes and encounter them, something gets sent back to us. There is resistance as us have entered the other’s private space. We will probably experience little trouble in looking children in the eyes for a longer period of time, as their return gaze is a soft one. The same applies to the return gaze of animals. The difference between humans and animals can also be experienced in this way. The ego sense functions similarly to the sense of touch: we touch the other and let the other touch us, we absorb the other. That is why we feel uneasy when eye contact lasts too long.

Many children have difficulty having eye contact for this reason. On no account should we force the children to have direct eye contact as this corrupts their whole being with the others and the world. Let the children gaze wherever they wish, however they wish, for however long they wish. Do not impose yourself into their space without their permission.

Coherence of the Senses

Each sense makes a different observation. But the observations and the senses which make them are complementary, so that together they form a coherent whole.

It is important to remember that you cannot use your senses well unless you train them well. Practice makes perfect!

Adults can train their senses consciously, but young children cannot. It would be wrong to give young children exercises directed at developing their senses and their observational capacities. They develop their senses in the way that comes most naturally to them, by doing. A child develops its sense of balance by climbing trees, its sense of hearing by listening to music, its sense of speech by listening to stories being read out loud, and its senses of thought and ego by developing real, substantial relationships.

Summarising the need to understand the reason why Steiner classified human senses into twelve, we need to gradually deepen our understanding of the mysteries of human evolution and to realize that what will someday become reality in various stages has been expressed symbolically or otherwise in human wisdom throughout millennia. Today we are only at the stage of mere groping toward this reality.