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The Science Behind Sensory Processing

Everyone has neurochemicals in their brain. Neurochemicals are chemicals released between brain cells (i.e. neurons) that serve as messengers. Based on the input your body takes in from our environment (i.e. touch, sight, smell, hearing, etc.), these messengers are sent out to either excite (increase) or inhibit (decrease) a response.

For example: someone jumps out of nowhere and scares you, adrenaline is one of the neurochemicals that is released in your brain. Your body responds by increasing your heart rate, increasing your breathing, tensing your muscles, etc. Sound familiar? This is your fight or flight response.

These neurochemicals are critical in supporting your participation in everyday tasks. Specific neurochemicals are released based on the specific inputs your body takes in. There are 3 primary forms of input: vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile. Let us break each input down to better understand the effect it has on how we respond to our environment.

There are 3 primary forms of input which each releases a primary neurochemical to support your participation in daily tasks. These 3 inputs are: vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile input.

Vestibular input has to do with where your head is in space. For example: swinging, spinning in a circle, shaking your head no, doing forward rolls, i.e. any time your head is changing position. Vestibular input releases the neurochemical histamine. This is an excitatory response, meaning you will be more energized. Depending on the duration and intensity of the vestibular input, the effects can last from 2 to 6 hours. This is why we recommend this input be implemented not close to bed or nap time as it can make it difficult to fall asleep.

Proprioceptive input is about movement, your brain gets this information from your muscles and joints. For example: pushing, pulling, joint compression, hanging. Proprioceptive input releases the neurochemical serotonin. Serotonin is the feel good neurochemical which helps you to feel safe and in control. If the proprioceptive input is active (i.e. the child is doing the pushing and the pulling), the effects can last from 2 to 4 hours. If the input is passive (i.e. you are performing joint compressions on your child), the effects last for approximately 90 minutes.

Tactile input is related to touch which gives your brain information about type of touch, pain, temperature, and pressure. There are 3 ways for tactile input to occur: object-touch (i.e. the feeling of clothes on your skin), self-touch (i.e. rubbing your arms because your cold), and other-touch (i.e. receiving a hug from someone else). There 2 types of touch: light and deep. Light touch is interpreted as alerting and can lead to fight or flight responses, examples include includes tickling, feeling a hair or a bug on your arm, etc. Deep touch is the most beneficial as it gives a sense of security. Dopamine is released through deep touch which helps counteract neurochemicals released in stressful situations (i.e. adrenaline and cortisol). The effects of deep touch input can last from 90 minutes to 2 hours.

All of this to say, you need a combination of all neurochemicals in your brain to help you function throughout the day. As the demands of your environment change (i.e. coming back into class after recess), the amount of each neurochemical adjusts. For some, this adjustment happens naturally. While for some people, they need more of one sensory input or another to support this change.

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