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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

Sensory Awareness and Brain Science- Feeling Alright

In order to become an occupational therapist you need to take anatomy and physiology as well as neurology. These classes can be really tough because the body and brain are so complex and I remember being overwhelmed with all that I needed to memorize. I slogged through anatomy and physiology without understanding much until I got to actually experience anatomy. At NYU we dissected cadavers as part of an advanced anatomy course. I know the idea of this scares many people but I found it fascinating. No longer was muscle knowledge something I memorized for a test but I got to actually see how contracting a muscle moved the body part. It made it all make so much more sense. I was not so lucky when it came to neurology.

For the first ten years of my work I tried to understand neurology. Sensory integration is a theory that is very influential in pediatric occupational therapy and a basic understanding of neurology is paramount in sensory integration. I understood the outward expression of sensory processing but what was actually happening in the brain was still confusing to me until I took the time to actually feel it, yes feel it.

We understand the brain as different systems and as distinct parts. Systems interacts with each other and the way that they are described can be the actual physical place in the brain or the way that different parts of the brain connect with each other to demonstrate an outward behavior. When I started to take the time to consciously connect to my body and my mind I started to grasp how these parts of the brain worked together. I set out then to experience sensory processing for myself instead of just thinking about it for children. With my new embodied understanding I again did a deep dive and studied the brain. It all began to make so much more sense from these felt experiences.

Two parts of the brain that have been on my mind lately are the default mode network and the insula. The default mode network (DFM) is several brain structures that connect the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex and to the hippocampus. When working properly the DMN helps an individual remember something that happened and learn from it but when it is overactive it causes us to ruminate over distressing thoughts. Our default is towards negative thinking because it protects us. Advertisers and media companies know all about this tendency so that is why we are constantly fed frightening information. An overactive DFM is implicated in virtually all mental health disorders and there has been much new research on the implications of a dysregulated default mode network in autism, ADHD and Alzheimer's.

The insula is the part of the brain that takes in sensory information and creates a subjective experience around it. It is largely responsible for the interoceptive sense. When we activate the insula, we quiet an overactive default mode network. The simple act of consciously attending to sensation helps to quiet the parts of our brain that ruminate over anxious thoughts. Activating the insula can be as simple as listening to the birds in the morning or taking time to smell your morning coffee before gulping it down. As Dr. Rick Hanson (2023) puts it, tuning into sensation “snaps us out of taking life so personally, pulls us into the present… and also stabilizes the sense of basic all-rightness.” When I started to take time to consciously notice sensation I found this basic “all-rightness” for myself. I could quiet the negative spiral of thoughts in my mind and feel into experience. From this place I knew I needed to create my course the Mindful Sensations Therapeutic Approach. Myself and many other practitioners are doing sensory based work already. So many of our clients have co-occurring anxiety along with their primary diagnosis of ADHD, learning disabilities and autism. Simply adding moments of present moment awareness to our sensory based work has the power to curb anxiety for ourselves and our clients. Couldn’t we all use tools to feel alright now?

If you want a time limited code for $50 off the AOTA approved course, the Mindful Sensations Therapeutic Approach, just email me here.

Hanson, R (2023, May 22) Self-Help Fads and Finding What Really Works (No 259) [Audio podcast episode]. In Being Well with Forrest Hanson and Dr. Rick Hanson

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