Updated: Mar 31
Our senses can help us slow down important moments, both in our writing and in our lives.
As I step outside into spring, the crisp, fresh air fills my lungs. In the North, spring graces us with a certain distinctive smell, one of new life, fresh with possibilities. Frozen soil awakens, softening now, nourished by the aftermath of a season of icy cold stillness. The senses liven.Trying to take everything in, the seasonal shift to spring reminds me of the magic of the senses, simple and beautiful.
Sensory Details Give Power to Story
In my public speaking class that I teach, we have been studying the power of story in our speeches. The book Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo highlighted examples of speeches where stories became the primary delivery method of information. However, for a leader who perhaps is not a professional speech writer, how can we craft meaningful and impactful stories?
“Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure." Dejan Stojanovica
We can use sensory language, otherwise known as imagery, in our speaking or writing to both help the reader visualize the experience we are trying to recreate, while also slowing down the rush of moments. So often when beginning storytellers start to use story in their work, they focus on the basic action and events. While action serves as a key part of the story, this is not actually where the power and emotional color lies. The action by itself usually does not effectively pull the audience in. Instead, it is the sensory details well-placed around key moments that captivates and energizes the audience's imagination and heart.
For example, the timing of imagery in a speech anecdote or in a story often comes right before a realization or epiphany. While this can just be a technique to the craft of writing, how often does this actually function as the order in our own lives too?
Poet Dejan Stojanovic writes that “Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure." How many of us have felt a clearer, calmer mind as soon as we stopped our action and instead took a deep breath and connected with our senses? Whether this be the warmth of the spring sun or a crisp breath of cool air, the effects brings us back to something that is at once both transcendent and also more human.
Sensory Details Enhance Living
For many years in my English classroom, we studied the play Our Town. As the central character Emily leaves earth after revisiting her twelfth birthday in her afterlife, she tearfully cries her goodbye to all sensory experiences, simple and beautiful, she took for granted while living: "clocks ticking and mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up." There, playwright Thornton Wilder writes Emily's lament, "Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you." We too as mere humans can recognize this contradiction inherent in our human sensory experience. For really that is the plight of living, isn't it? Occupational Therapist and researcher Winnie Dunn explains that "The experience of being human is embedded in the sensory events of every day lives." Ironically, we understand both the importance and the limitations of these important sensory details.
What might happen if we stop in a moment and take in with our senses what we are hearing, really listen, while seeing and observing the colors and shapes rather than just reducing it with a judgmental label. This act helps us make the most of the moment and process our lives at a higher level, the level of magic and wonder.
"The experience of being human is embedded in the sensory events of every day lives." Winnie Dunn
Sensory Details Build Empathy
In theatre, likewise, to imagine and recreate sensory experiences helps us put our own experiences into that of the character. We are then better able to relate to the life of another, more fully shift our perspective, building empathy in the process.
In this case, the goal of sensory language is not for us to better imagine how something looked or felt physically, but to allow the listener or reader to experience it emotionally. This pathos or emotional appeal connects the speaker and listener, unifying them in shared experience. In fact, brain science indicates that the same regions of the brain light up when reading sensory language as when actually experiencing events.
The goal of sensory language though is not for us to better imagine how something looked or felt physically, but to allow the listener or reader to experience it emotionally.
The term"consciousness" is literally defined as sensory awareness of one's surroundings: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. If we would sharpen our senses, attune more deeply to them, could we also tap more deeply into sensing the needs of those around us? Wouldn't it be worth a try?
In fact, Dr. Daniel Goldman's first pillar of the Emotional Intelligence Framework is self-awareness. Dr. Goldman states "Mindfulness practice, or meditation generally, are essentially practices of self-awareness. That's the first part of emotional intelligence." So then awareness of our sensory experiences is foundational to greater emotional intelligence.
We must fight then all the ways that we try to detach from the senses we feel. The distractions and numbing pulls us out of our own experience of life. When I focus on the smell of the crisp fresh air or the morning song of the newly returning birds, I am pulled out of my head and into the world. Without sensory connection, we actually disconnect from each other.
Philosopher and writer Eckhart Tolle warns "it is when we are trapped in incessant streams of compulsive thinking that the universe really disintegrates for us, and we lose the ability to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists." Thornton Wilder would seem to agree. In Our Town, upon death Emily reflects with new eyes: "Live people don't understand, do they? They're sort of shut up in little boxes,
May we use the power of the senses to break free of the boxes of protection we create for ourselves. May we surround the moments of action in our own lives with the sensory details needed to both connect and transcend our own humanness.
Resources: Sensory Detail Planning Chart, Sensory Word List, Sensory Detail Meditation track