Do you think you feel everything that touches you all day? Of course you feel your pencil in your hand, the warm water of a shower, a high-five with a friend. But what about your clothes—do you feel them on your body? You probably donow because I mentioned it. Most of the day, though, we don’t even think about the sensation of our clothes, even though they’re touching a great deal of our skin. The reason for this issensory gating, your brain’s ability to ignore irrelevant signals.
In Adventure 1we explored the five senses and learned how we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel through touch. Sensory gating is important because it keeps us from being overwhelmed by feeling, seeing, or hearingeverything, all the time...and all at once. It’s a feature that allows us to go about our day without being distracted by the clothes on our back, and to focus on someone speaking to us without them getting drowned out by the wind blowing through the leaves outside.
Sensory gating works by prioritizing signals you get from your body—it lets the important information in through the gate and closes it to other messages trying to get through. For instance, if you get two auditory signals at the same time, it swings the gate shut on the background noise and lets in the voice that’s speaking to you (so don’t try to tell your mom you couldn’t hear her talking to you!).
*For more examples of this, read about the Cocktail Party Effect here!
For some people, though, these gates don’t work as well, and too much sensory information gets through. This is called sensory sensitivityand can make lights too bright, sounds too loud, and food textures too repulsive to swallow. Where most people’s brains are able to manage getting a number of signals from your skin, eyes, or ears at once by using gating, those with sensory sensitivity aren’t able to filter all these messages down to a manageable level. This can be confusing if you don’t understand what’s going on, because someone with sensory sensitivity might get extremely distressed by something that doesn’t bother you or me.
For instance, a tag in a shirt that would be a small annoyance to you would be so irritating to them that they couldn’t stand to wear it. They might avoid situations where light or sound are too overwhelming, or have extreme reactions like covering their ears and wincing. What might seem like a simple touch or hug to you could be extremely uncomfortable for them. All of these things can make social situations very difficult for someone with sensory sensitivity. It’s important to remember that these reactions aren’t about being dramatic—the person is just experiencing sensations in a different way, which can be very overwhelming. Kids with sensory sensitivity often display extreme preferences related to sensory experiences - for example, eating only a few different types of foods, only wearing clothes made from a certain fabric, preferring solo or small-group activities, and more,. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by too many things going on at once, imagine feeling like that all the time!
Being aware of sensory differences helps us remember to be kind to someone who might not see, hear, or feel things the same way you do. Understanding that beautiful music to one person might be just noise to another can help us find a harmonious balance for everyone.