Each of our senses—touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing—have unique connections to our memories and our mental health. The more senses engaged in learning, the more likely we are to remember. This explains why we might have physical “memory” reactions to certain tastes or smells. If you walked in on your parents fighting when you were little, right before dinner was ready, smelling or tasting the food that was served that evening might bring up strong, negative emotions. If you had a great day at an amusement park before your first kiss with a childhood sweetheart, the sounds of a carnival and the smell of funnel cakes and cotton candy might make you smile and make your heart skip a beat.
In recreational therapy and the holistic creative arts, participants are often working to rewire the brain and make new memories and emotional connections. Again, engaging as many senses as possible becomes integral to the process.
Engaging the Sense of Touch
In traditional recreational therapy, the sense of touch and kinetics play a primary role. Healing dance encourages participants to pay attention to bodily sensations—the vibration of the drums, the feel of the floor against your feet, the sensation of stretching and moving in time with the music. I often refer to painting with watercolors as “dancing on paper.” In this case, the sense of touch is engaged as I feel the brush between my fingers and as I hold the paper block in my hand. I feel the resistance of the water as I wet the brush and the friction of the paper as I lay down the pigment.
Engaging the Sense of Taste
Taste can be the most difficult sense to bring into a learning or therapeutic setting. However, simple things like the taste of water during or after a dance class can engage this sense. When painting for my personal enjoyment, I like to enjoy a cup of hot tea or add a lime wedge to my drinking water. This way, the enjoyable, soothing tastes combine with other things I sense to create a more holistic creative experience.
Engaging the Sense of Sight
For those of us blessed with the gift of sight, this sense is easy to overlook. We are bombarded with images constantly, but we don’t always pay attention. When engaging in the healing arts and recreational therapy, we need to be mindful of what we see. Dancing in a group requires careful attention to what we see so that we can avoid crashing into others. Of course, painting engages the sense of sight as we work to translate a picture we have seen or the picture in our mind’s eye into a fresh visual representation. When we write, sometimes it may be tempting to ignore the visual details of our compositions, but careful attention to layout, paragraph breaks and spelling helps us to remain visually engaged.
Engaging the Sense of Smell
The sense of smell has the strongest impact on memory. Because the olfactory nerves enter the brain near the place where memories are stored, smells alone can bring back vivid memories from yesterday or yesteryear. This makes it important to pay attention to the way your creative space smells. The place where you dance might smell of sweat and warm bodies, but it would be a good idea to use essential oils or other, non-toxic fragrances to deodorize the space. Many people have positive memories and associations with the smells of paper, books, and printer ink. These smells might bring back thoughts of favorite stories or good news delivered in a letter. We can build on these happy memories while creating new ones at an old writing desk or while painting on the patio.
Engaging the Sense of Hearing
Hearing and dance are naturally linked. While hearing-impaired individuals may need to rely on their sense of touch to feel vibrations, most individuals dance in response to the sounds we hear. Sounds should always be a part of the creative writing process—whether or not you read your work aloud. The way the words sound when pronounced might echo in your mind, or you might instead notice the click-clack of the keyboard as you type or the light scratching of pen on paper, depending on your writing process. I like to make sound a part of my painting process by listening to audio books or a favorite music album while painting.
Holistic art and creativity can take on many forms. Regardless of what form your creativity takes, do your best to engage most if not all of your senses. By activating more parts of your brain, you will be better able to program, reprogram and heal your brain.