Expert Source: Rewilding instructor Kenton Whitman leads sensory retreats to help people get in touch with themselves and the world.
Years of biking have turned my ears into a second set of eyes. Whether I’m riding on a quiet woodland trail or a busy city street, my keener hearing helps me tune in to approaching vehicles, pedestrians, or fellow cyclists before I see them.
Our five senses — hearing, taste, smell, touch, and sight — help us experience the world around us in myriad ways. Yet we seldom notice the vital role our senses play until they begin to fail us, whether due to age, or our own neglect or harmful behavior. A diet heavy in processed foods and sugar can desensitize our taste buds, artificial fragrances can suppress our sense of smell, too much screen time can strain our eyes, and loud concerts can leave our ears ringing.
Less obvious habits can also render our senses less acute, says human rewilding instructor Kenton Whitman. “Excessive media consumption, multitasking, and out-of-control thoughts also affect them greatly,” he notes.
By diverting our attention, these habits limit our ability to enjoy all that our senses routinely deliver. “Our domesticated mindset has developed to only have awareness for certain things,” explains Whitman. “For example, we’re instantly primed to respond to our cell phone’s ringer.”
Whitman, cofounder of Rewild University, invited me into the woods near his western Wisconsin home and school to help me experience the benefits of enhanced sensory awareness. He taught me how to react to natural triggers, such as the subtle sound of rustling leaves as an alert to the presence of animals; how to tell the time by noticing the angle of the sun on my face; and how to use sound waves to navigate in the forest.
You don’t have to go into the wild, however, to sharpen your perceptive powers. These simple exercises — which you can practice in your backyard or even at your dinner table — will enliven your senses, deepen your awareness, and turn everyday situations into truly engaging experiences.
The Eyes Have It
People without visual impairments take in 80 to 85 percent of their sensory impressions through their eyes, according to some estimates. We tend to focus on what’s in our foveal vision field — our central sight line, where acuity is often sharpest. Peripheral vision makes up the largest portion of the visual field; it helps us see beyond what’s right in front of our noses.
Next time you’re walking in the woods or on a city sidewalk, try what Whitman calls “wild running.” Rather than looking down at the ground, look straight ahead while “softening” your gaze and becoming more aware of objects in your peripheral vision. Notice how you can take in the path beneath your feet, the treetops above you, and your surroundings from the left to right, all at once.
“At first, this will feel very uncomfortable, like you’re going to trip — which you may,” says Whitman. “But soon your vision naturally takes in the ground without looking.”
After you can comfortably practice this exercise while walking, try it also while jogging and eventually while running. This allows you to make better use of your visual field, helping you develop a greater sense of awareness.
If you don’t want to run wild, simply sit in your yard and use your peripheral vision to notice how objects and scenes look as the day progresses. Do trees, grass, and flowers change their appearance during morning, afternoon, and evening?
Our hearing alerts us to sounds both near and far. It’s also a vital communications tool, helping us form and sustain social bonds. More than 19 million Americans over age 45 suffer from hearing loss, making it one of the nation’s most prevalent chronic conditions. Studies have shown that hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression.
Now Hear This
You can explore your hearing range by listening with what Whitman describes as “deer ears.”
“Deer ears dramatically demonstrate how much auditory sensation is going on around us, unheard by our normal hearing,” he says. “They’re like a key to a treasure box, reminding us that the world we experience is only a small sliver of the whole reality around us.”
Don your deer ears by placing your slightly cupped hands behind your ears, fingers pointing up. Walk along while removing and replacing your deer ears. Are sounds amplified and more focused? Do you tune in more clearly to things farther away?
Or sit relaxed in your backyard, cover your eyes with a bandana, and listen. Can you hear better when you’re not able to see? Do you notice heightened awareness from any of your other senses?
The skin is the body’s largest organ and the primary sensory receptor for touch. One of the first languages we learn for engaging with others, touch plays a critical role in forming relationships. Touch therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment option for people suffering from emotional or physical trauma.
Feel Your Way
To explore the full range of touch, walk through your backyard or any natural setting and practice some hands-on activities.
Touch whatever is around you: tree bark, moss-covered logs, rocks, leaves, grass, and dirt. By feeling the ground with your hands, can you determine whether it’s rained lately? Use your face and your bare feet, as well as your hands, for this exercise. Does an object feel rougher or softer depending on which part of your body touches it?
“Touch is perhaps our most underused sense,” says Whitman. “We think of it as existing only on our fingertips, but when we begin to experience touch with our whole body, it can give every moment of life a sensuous vibrancy.”
Savor the Flavor
The average person has about 10,000 taste buds, which are replaced about every two weeks. As you age, your body replaces fewer of those flavor receptors, until about only half of them remain. This suppressed sense of taste can lead you to crave artificially flavored processed foods that further deaden your palate — and harm your overall health. Enhancing your sense of taste allows you to enjoy the subtle flavors of whole foods and encourages you to eat a more nutritious diet. (For more on taking back your taste, visit “Take Back Your Taste Buds“.)
An Acquired Taste
Strip a fingernail-size piece of bark from two species that you know are safe to eat, such as birch and white pine. Place each of them in your mouth separately and focus on their distinctive taste and texture. Does birch bark taste sweeter or more bitter than oak?
I found they had wildly different flavors and textures. The pine bark I sampled tasted a lot like how it smells — citrusy. Birch bark was as mild to taste as it was smooth to touch.
If chewing on bark is more than you can stomach, relax comfortably in a chair and focus your attention on the flavors in your mouth. Take a sip of tap water. Does it change your palate?
For a more decadent experience, place a small piece of dark chocolate in your mouth. Don’t bite it; let it dissolve. How does the chocolate taste? Once it’s gone, does the flavor linger? Is there a certain pleasure in sampling the nib this way?
A March 2014 study published in the journal Science found that humans can distinguish at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli, far more than previously thought. Our sense of smell has a profound impact on our mood, may play a role in our attraction to others, and is the sense most linked with memory. It is intimately connected to our sense of taste.
Try to be more scent conscious in your daily life. When you’re preparing to sip your morning coffee or a glass of wine at dinner, enhance your enjoyment by pausing a moment to take in the aroma.
At mealtime, focus on the smells rising from each forkful of food before placing it in your mouth. The flavors will become more noticeable — and you’ll find yourself eating more slowly and mindfully, which aids the digestive process.
When you’re outside, stop and smell various flowers, trees, and even the air. If you know which plants are safe to eat, you can try smelling, harvesting, and eating them. This is a great way to experience how your senses work together.
“Our senses are like a gateway into the world,” says Whitman. “And as we open that gateway through developing our sensory awareness, the world blossoms into a symphony of colors, scents, tastes, sounds, and touch.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 print edition with the title “Come to Your Senses.”
Guided Sensory Meditation
Kenton Whitman shares a guided mental exercise to strengthen and expand your senses while calming your mind.