Our sensory systems are made up of seven senses: Visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, vestibular, and proprioception. Sensory processing is the way our bodies use these senses to interpret and interact with the world around us. Our nervous systems receive information from our environments (e.g., a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch) and that information travels to our brains where we decide how to react to the information we just received.
This reaction can be quick, like a reflex, or slow and thoughtful. Throughout infancy and childhood, our sensory systems are working to develop adaptive ways to receive sensory information, interpret it, and generate a response that will allow us to participate in the activities we want and need to do every day.
The visual system includes visual acuity, or the sharpness of your vision, as well as visual perception, such as being able to distinguish similarities and differences between images and store and retrieve visual information for future use. Vision is also a critical aspect of social interactions and interpreting facial expressions and body language.
The auditory system is critical for identifying the quality and direction of sounds. This information is important for communicating with family and friends, following directions in the classroom, and interpreting if a sound is right behind us or on the other side of the room.
The tactile system allows us to distinguish where our bodies are being touched and whether that touch is safe or dangerous. The tactile system is embedded in special receptors in our skin and is capable of feeling touch, temperature, pressure, and pain. The combination of these four feelings allows us to distinguish different sensations, such as cold water or a bee sting.
The olfactory system allows us to distinguish different smells in our environment. This information can help us to identify safe or potentially hazardous situations. For example the smell of smoke or if something is safe to eat.
The gustatory system allows us to distinguish four different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Our sense of taste is closely connected to our sense of smell and similarly allows us to identify preferred foods that are enjoyable to eat, and those that may be potentially dangerous.
Vestibular (Movement & Balance)
The vestibular system is contained in the inner ear and a special portion of the brain called the cerebellum. There are particles in the inner ear that sense movement in different directions and send messages to the cerebellum to help us to maintain our balance when we’re moving or on a dynamic surface.
Proprioception (Body Awareness)
The proprioceptive system is primarily contained within our joints. Based on the pressure or stretch our joints feel moment by moment our brain is able to understand the location of all of our body parts in relation to the environment. Is your knee straight or flexed? If you reach your arm backward will you hit the wall? This information allows us to safely interact with the world around us without tripping or bumping into things.
All seven of these senses work together to give our bodies and our brains an understanding of the world we interact with every day.
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