Sensory Nutrition Can Educate Your Health

How you can use your senses to make the most out of your day.

| March/April 2002

Close your eyes for a moment and remember a place where you have felt truly alive and at peace. If you’re like most people, you’re recalling a place outdoors—wilderness or a lush garden. Why don’t we feel this good indoors or in cities? Too often, there is a gap between what feels wonderful and how we live, but this gap can be a fulcrum for change. No matter where you are, you can improve the sensory richness of your environment—and improve planetary health at the same time.

I’ve come to believe that the most effective way of understanding our oneness with the biosphere is by nourishing our own bodies. In my studies of human ecology, one theme keeps appearing: For us to function optimally, we need rich textures of meaningful, gently varying stimuli. For each of our senses, the optimal stimuli are those found in the living environment: sunshine, fresh air, moving water, and abundant plants and animals.

Our senses, our world

Our senses are the link between us and everything else. While our minds may grasp the concept that we are intricately connected with the rest of the world, it’s only through our bodies that we can really know that connection. Unfortunately, most of our senses have been overstimulated and undernourished for so long that we have no idea what we’re missing.

Physiologically, we are much like our Paleolithic ancestors. Our senses evolved to recognize every change around us as meaningful to our survival, nourishment, and pleasure. Every smell, snapping twig, shifting breeze, or change in color was significant to hunter-gatherers. Monotony dulls our senses, which need the exercise of responding to changing conditions in order to stay fit.

Our eyes need variety in light intensity, color, and direction—what sunlight provides—and we need the opportunity to shift our focus from near tasks to long vistas. Under constant bright lighting, our visual acuity drops off and the fatigue of monotony sets in.

Our hearing evolved in a relatively quiet setting where detecting subtle sounds was important and responding quickly to sudden loud noises was crucial. Many of us now live with a weird combination of steady background sounds that we tune out and loud noises that exhaust our adrenal glands—all without providing meaningful input.

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