Ever wanted to be able to see further? Hear better and smell more? Like a non-blind version of Daredevil? (The new series of which is absolutely amazing by the way…)
Well, as it happens… you can! Just as you can train your muscles in the gym, it’s equally possible to train your brain thanks to a process known as ‘brain plasticity’ and that extends to your senses.
In fact, the eyes (retina precisely) are often considered to be the only ‘external’ part of the brain and the nerves within are really just neurons. So can you grow more and strengthen those connections?
How Many Senses Do We Have?
The first thing to look at here is the number of senses we actually have. The surprise here is that we have more than five as is the prevailing belief…
• The sense of sight (ophthalmoception)
• The sense of hearing (audioception)
• Taste (gustaoception)
• Touch (tactioception)
• Smell (olfacoception)
• Kinesthetic awareness (proprioception – the knowledge of where your body/limbs are in space)
• Temperature (thermoception)
• Pain (nociception)
• Balance (equilibrioception)
• And many more – such as the ability to tell when we’re dehydrated or to sense the passage of time
SO in fact we have tons of senses and we use these in combination to paint a picture of the world and to navigate more effectively through it.
Believe it or not, increasing your sight is something you can do relatively easily. To do this, you need to first understand how the eye works.
Briefly then, the inside of your eye is covered in photoreceptors – nerve cells (neurons) that specifically react to light by firing. These are spread out over the eye and essentially represent pixels, when each individual one fires that is represented as a pixel in our eye.
So, if you could grow more photoreceptors/improve the function of existing ones you could theoretically improve the resolution of your eye. So… can you?
As it turns out you can and there are a few studies that show visual plasticity to be a thing (1). So how do you encourage it? Simply by using and challenging your eyesight more – if you try to focus on distant objects regularly for instance then you will gradually improve your resolution and your ability to spot things that are far away.
And in fact, it seems that playing computer games provides sufficient stimulation to achieve this. When you play action computer games such as shoot ’em ups, you will often be scouting the horizon and looking for enemies. As such, the brain adapts and visual acuity, spatial awareness and even contrast sensitivity all improve! (2)
Similarly, you can also improve your peripheral vision by training that. In one study it was found that if you stared at the center screen and try to identify dots that appear in the periphery, this is sufficient to improve your peripheral vision significantly.
Hearing is another skill that can be trained. Again, you can improve your sensitivity to sound simply through practice and at the same time you can also train your ability to ‘localize’. This means identifying the source of a sound so that you can identify where it’s coming from. In fact, some music degrees and sound engineering degrees actually require localization training.
As an experiment, try closing your eyes, listening to sounds and then trying to identify where they came from. This is one way in which those without sight can form a mental map of their environment.
The best example of brain plasticity giving a boost in the hearing department is seen in blind patients. The blind will often exhibit much larger brain areas responsible for sound as a result of their lost hearing and overcompensation. Effectively this means that the brain focusses on the hearing more and deems it more important, which leads to more development in that area while the occipital lobe in the brain atrophies.
This can lead to changes so profound that some blind people develop an actual sense of ‘echolocation’ – the ability to navigate by creating sounds a listening to the echoes. This in other words is sonar and it allows some blind people to even play football and ride bikes!
Another way to encourage the development of your hearing is to try and tell your brain it’s important – by paying more attention to what you’re hearing. We have a tendency to zone a lot of sounds out after a while, so try taking the time occasionally to listen for distant birds and traffic or the hum of the fridge in another room.
Improving Smell and Taste
Paying more attention to taste and smell similarly results in improvements in these areas and wine tasters and chefs actually have stronger senses in these departments. There is some belief as well that simply naming smells and flavors can help you to better identify them in future and to remember them.
Smell can also be improved through zinc supplementation (and actually, you can increase almost every sense through the right vitamins, minerals and other nutrients) while it also seems that sniffing your own sweat might actually increase the number of olfactory receptors in your nose… Improving blood flow also improves as getting more air into your nose and more blood vessels is effective in this regard – this is also why pregnant women can smell better.
Really though, the secret to having heightened senses is just to be more aware of them and more in the moment. The more you do this and actually pay attention to things in the distance, sounds you can only just make out and smells that are hanging in the air, the more you will develop the appropriate receptors and neurons and heighten your sensitivity.
At the same time, you should also focus on trying to combine all the senses in your mind. Try to stop thinking of each sense as being individual and instead think of them as individual parts of a larger jigsaw puzzle that work together. Where are sounds coming from in your visual field? Can you feel the wind on your skin that you can hear? Why are you leaning slightly in one direction?
Build this kind of cross-modality and you will gain a heightened ‘awareness’ that can serve you well in sports and which can help you to experience the world more vibrantly and richly.