“Blessed be childhood, which brings down something of heaven into the midst of our rough earthliness” – Henri Frédéric Amiel
Children bring us the beautiful invitation to delve into the wonder of the senses – those especially which, for the most part, have become second-nature to us as adults.
The human brain and body are magnificently put together. Let us take a moment to first consider that the brain develops hierarchically: from bottom to top, inside to outside, and this is reflected in a child’s development.
Human babies’ are born with much of their brain development left to occur outside of the womb. Unlike other mammals, we do not learn to sit, stand or walk for quite some time. We rely instead on a relationship with a primary caregiver – one that we hope will attune to our needs, keep us safe, keep us warm, and keep us nourished. Our brains are wired for relationship. It is at the heart of our survival, and it is at the heart of our ability to thrive as a species.
When we observe the infant, we see the brainstem at work: reflexive movements and the stress response system working hard to figure out what is safe and what is threatening. As the baby grows, the ‘emotional brain’ (or limbic system) and ‘thinking brain’ (or cortex) begin to develop, respectively. We see the toddler’s waxing and waning through states of emotional equilibrium and disequilibrium as they learn about their emotions and all of the bodily sensations that come with them. We see the development of language begin, and the early stages of problem-solving, impulse control and organisation, all workings of the cortex being shaped atop the foundation of the limbic and brainstem structures that house the early memories and templates.
For the first 1000 days following conception the architecture of the child’s brain is being formed through the wondrous back and forth interactions with primary carers. And, supported within the reciprocity of relationship, the senses of touch, life, balance and movement continue to unfold over the first 7 years of a child’s life, providing the child with a sense of self.
The ‘inner’ senses: Touch, Life, Balance and Movement
It is really quite profound that Steiner understood these inner senses to be our foundational (or lower) senses that develop a physical sense of oneself, upon which our feeling and sense of the world, and finally our thinking and sense of others’ perspective, is sculpted.
Our sense of Touch is the first to develop, initially inside the soft edges of the womb, and is the most mature at birth. Many early reflexes we observe in the infant are elicited via the sense of touch, like the rooting or withdrawal reflex. We see the touch system is then at once a protective system, as much as it is, in time, one that allows us to discriminate our own boundary and form, and gradually the objects within our environments.
The infant learns in the repetitive patterns throughout day to day life – being nourished, fed, cleaned, warmed, soothed – that touch can be pleasurable and positive. It becomes the foundation for communication: as back and forth interactions build synchrony between the child and the carer. Herein our development of empathy also begins. Touch is as essential to survival as food; in fact, without touch, the release of the growth hormone would not be stimulated, and even the provision of food would not nourish us as it should!
Our sense of Life is most obvious to us when our basic rhythms are ‘out-of-sync’. Our breathing, heartrate, digestion and sleep-wake cycles, all rely on the steady rhythms of the body and the careful balance the nervous system is constantly working to achieve. When our wellness is affected, some of these rhythms may change. For example, eating foods that are hard to digest, or even getting over-hungry might disrupt our sense of life, and therefore our ability to function at our best. Sickness, like a cold, might disrupt our breathing and sleep patterns, and a fever can increase our heart-rate – all ways we might recognise that our Life sense is out of kilter.
Our sense of Life may also be affected by busyness and over-stimulation. Particularly for younger children, being overwhelmed by a constant on-the-go schedule or by floods of information can negatively impact the developing sense of Life; whereas a sense of rhythm, ‘down-time’ (even space for boredom), and plenty of time outdoors connecting to the rhythms of nature will nourish it.
Our sense of Movement includes our proprioceptive system – receptors in our muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments that provide feedback about every contraction, bend and stretch made by the body. This forms a kind of internal ‘map’ of the self, or as Oliver Sacks aptly summarised, the proprioceptive sense is like the “eye(s) of the body”. With time and repetition the child learns about how one body part relates to another, and where they are in relation to everything else in their environment.
Our sense of movement allows planning and co-ordination, and the refinement of movement sequences. It also allows the manipulation of toys and tools, co-ordinates how a spoon might get to the mouth, how hard or soft a ball should be thrown to make it land where desired, or even how much to squeeze when hugging.
Schooling the sense of Movement requires freedom to explore and plenty of practise opportunities, including all the attempts that are ‘imperfect’! Interestingly, even as adults, this system can work to invigorate us and to help us feel grounded (consider how you might feel after yoga or perhaps a brisk hill walk, which both offer strong input to the sense of movement). Our sense of movement works closely with other senses in order for us to move efficiently and often automatically (we don’t tend to think through walking one foot in front of the other once we’ve mastered it), it works especially closely with the Balance system.
Our sense of Balance has also begun its development long before birth. Located in the inner ear, the ‘vestibular system’ (a small but immensely complex system responsible for our balance) responds to any slight movement of the head, changes of direction and the pull of gravity. Even sitting still requires the balance sense to be hard at work – though of course this becomes an unconscious and automatic process as we grow.
We can observe the sense of Balance and the strong connection it holds with our muscle tone in the growing infant and child – at first gaining control of the neck and head against gravity, then the body from the middle outwards towards the limbs, and eventually the momentous human act of being upright – a constant resistance against the force of gravity.
A strong link between the eyes and balance system helps us to maintain a stable visual field as we move (so that our view of the horizon as we run does not bounce up and down!). As we process information from both the left and right sides of the body through the balance system, it is also important for developing skills that require the two sides of the body to work together – from the baby bringing its hands together to clap, right through to reading from the left side of a page to the right – these skills are all built on the foundation of a well-integrated sense of balance.
The Balance system is a great organiser within the nervous system, because of how low in the brain it is initially processed, and the connections to areas of the brain essential in our arousal (alertness) and filtering of sensory information. Consider how we often naturally use rocking to calm, or notice how spinning can stimulate – powerful sensations that can affect the whole body, our behaviour and state of mind! This reflects also the more poetic notion of what it is to be ‘balanced’. As the language has come to denote, ‘well balanced’ is a state where we are alert but not over-stimulated; manage moments of busyness and moments of quiet; where we are able to come back to being grounded and centred. These are the workings of the balance system, and relate to our sense of rhythm (as described within the Life sense).
I hope this summary of the four lower senses has been insightful for you. Let us watch in wonder; gently nurture form and rhythm within daily life and play; and take time to reflect and nourish our own inner senses which we may have forgotten to also revere the beautiful workings of.