Have you ever imagined taking a university course that teaches you how to taste colors or smell words? Well, that is precisely what the “Sharpening Your Senses” course offered by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UM is all about! Led by Emilie Sitzia, this interdisciplinary and innovative learning activity aims to unlock the full potential of students’ senses by exploring the socio-historical context of sensory skills and practicing them through guided fieldwork exercises.
The course commenced on February 14th, 2023, and lasted for ten weeks, during which my peers and I addressed different sensory modalities. We explored various observation practices, workshops, and fieldworks in art institutions, alternating between tutor-guided and self-directed work each week. At the end of each activity, we engaged in self-reflection exercises, which allowed us to develop a critical understanding of our sensory experiences and communication skills. Throughout the course, we learned how to train our senses and communicate our sensory experiences by using techniques such as observations, taking fieldnotes, and using our body as a measuring instrument. The course’s pedagogical methodology draws on the literature on sensory experiences in learning and provides a unique approach to education. It encourages individuals to hone their abilities to observe, analyze, and interpret sensory data, thus enhancing their critical thinking skills.
In this blog post, I will provide a critical reflection of my experience of training my senses in the “Sharpening Your Senses” course. First, I will explore the pedagogical methodology of senses-based learning, drawing on relevant literature and introducing the manifesto developed by the senses-based project. Second, I will provide a comparative analysis of two fieldwork experiences, namely the “Exercise Art Material” and “Exercise catching the Eye”. Third, I will reflect on the feedback that I gave and received from my peers during the course. Finally, I will offer a summary of the key findings and insights gained from this course in the conclusion. Overall, the “Sharpening Your Senses” course has been an enlightening and empowering experience. It has taught me how to appreciate the sensory richness of the world around me and provided me with valuable skills that I can apply to my personal, academic and professional life. I hope that my reflections in this blog post will inspire others to explore the potential of their senses and engage in the exciting field of sensory-based learning.
Why the Senses?
Sensory-based learning is an intriguing pedagogical approach that draws upon theoretical frameworks to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of senses in learning and education. The traditional Western approach to education tends to emphasize sight and hearing, while other cultures employ a wider range of senses to acquire knowledge. For instance, Howes and Classen (2014) explain how societies that practice herbal medicine may teach children to differentiate between plants using their sense of smell, while Inuit children learn about sculptures by feeling the texture of the stone. Other scholars such as Shams and Seitz (2008) have highlighted the crucial role of sensory perception in comprehending the world and acquiring knowledge. They suggest that multisensory learning, which combines different senses, is even more effective. For example, when learning to distinguish between bird species, a multisensory approach is recommended. Historically, researchers believed that introducing sound features during a visual task would disrupt learning. However, recent studies indicate that multisensory exposure can enhance object recognition and memory compared to unisensory exposure. Hence, including both visual and auditory information in a training protocol can produce more efficient and effective learning.
By combining insights from sensory-based learning and multisensory processing research, educators can develop more effective and engaging educational and training programs that utilize the natural interplay of different senses. Some scholars across the Netherlands have spearheaded this effort by aiming to further develop the pedagogical methodology of senses-based learning. In their manifesto, the scholars argue that senses-based learning enriches tertiary education by offering a contextual, interdisciplinary, transferable, and constructive learning experience. Additionally, they suggest that senses-based learning fosters attentional awareness and benefits students with diverse learning preferences and abilities. Finally, they contend that senses-based learning is compatible with digital tools and can be seamlessly integrated into blended or hybrid teaching settings.
A multidisciplinary approach is required for the training of the senses, and numerous instruments and activities can be used to achieve this objective. Due to this, the course included both guided and independent activities conducted throughout Maastricht and at one local museum, Marres – house of contemporary cultures. The activities included free painting, audio tours of the city, eating food slowly, spending time with a composer to explore how they use senses, and visits to museums. This section of my blog post will explain and compare two (in my opinion) of the most engaging activities: free painting, blind sculpting and the puppet exercise.
Exercise art materials
Art is often seen as something that is intellectual, something that is meant to be analyzed for its themes, meanings, and technical aspects. However, on the 28th of February during one the field experiments of the course at Marres, my peers and I were given the unique opportunity to engage with art in a more embodied way, relying on our senses and imagination to create art rather than just analyzing it intellectually.
Firstly, we were instructed to create a free-form painting on a blank canvas. Painting was difficult for me because I usually plan out my drawings and writing beforehand. However, the purpose of the exercise was not to produce a structured final product, so I allowed my imagination to direct the movement of my brush. As I worked, I used green and yellow to paint geometric shapes while embracing my body’s movement by utilizing the entire canvas. When unsure of how to proceed, I took a moment to gain perspective by observing my painting from a distance. When I realized I was running out of time during the 15-minute exercise, I decided to use random colors and splash them on the canvas. This activity was extremely gratifying, not only because of its aesthetic outcome, but also because it involved my entire body in the creative process.
The subsequent sculpting activity was equally challenging and highly rewarding. Although I had experience drawing faces, I had never attempted to create a three-dimensional clay sculpture, much less one while blindfolded. Everyone has a general concept of what a face should look like, so I was initially not too concerned. I quickly realized, however, that working with clay was more difficult than I had anticipated. The material’s cold, rigid texture made it difficult to manipulate, and I struggled to estimate how much clay I had available. Unfazed, I decided to begin with a simple structure, constructing a large ball for the head and a neck to support it. I then began sculpting the facial features, including the eyes, nose, and mouth. I had to rely solely on my sense of touch and memory to create the sculpture, which was a trying experience. Despite this, I enjoyed the activity tremendously because it allowed me to fully engage my sense of touch and rely on my imagination and memories to guide my hands as they shaped the clay. I felt a sense of accomplishment as I added the finishing touches, such as the hair, eyebrows, and pupils, having successfully created a three-dimensional object through the power of my touch and imagination.
Proprioception is an important concept that I learned about during this experience. The latter is the capacity of the body to perceive its position and movements in space (Wolff & Shepard, 2013). It enables us to navigate our environment and execute coordinated movements, such as those required for painting and sculpting. Proprioception is often taken for granted, but it plays a crucial role in our daily lives, especially for artists, athletes, and anyone whose livelihood depends on coordinated movement. Through these activities, I gained a greater appreciation for the role of the senses in artistic creation and learned to embrace the creative potential of touch and imagination.
In conclusion, the guided field experiment at Marres was an invaluable opportunity to engage with art in a more corporeal manner. It required us to rely on our senses and imagination to create art and allowed us to become completely immersed in the creative process. I believe this experience has not only taught me about art, but also about myself and how my senses and imagination can be potent tools in the creative process.
Exercise “Catching the Eye”
On March 28th, I participated once again in a multisensory activity called “catching the eye” at Marres. It was a puppetry exercise that required us to engage our senses and use our bodies more physically. Our task was to create a paper puppet and bring it to life in groups of three. Each member of the team was responsible for controlling a different body part: one controlled the head and, another the arms, and the third the legs. To convincingly bring the puppet to life, we had to work as a team and carefully coordinate our movements.
This activity allowed us to reflect on our own body movements and consider the complexity of the actions we take for granted on a daily basis. While moving the puppet, I had to consider its movements in relation to my own bodies and adjust our movements accordingly using my senses. Across the activity, we heavily relied on the sensory feedback we received from our eyes, hands, and other body parts. We had to observe each other and the puppet’s movement while using our hands to feel the paper’s texture and weight. I did reflect a lot on how I move my body on a dailiy basis. For instance, prior to that day I had never thought about which movement my arms do while I walk. Overall, It was an enlightening and enjoyable experience that taught us the significance of sensory awareness.
Both the “free-painting and blindfolded sculpting” and “catching the eye” puppetry exercises provided unique opportunities to engage with art in a more embodied and multisensory manner. Both activities required us to rely on our senses and imagination in order to create art and to pay close attention to the sensory feedback our bodies provided.We utilized touch, memory, and proprioception to create paintings and sculptures. The exercise required us to let go of our preconceived notions and embrace body movement in the creative process. In contrast, the puppetry exercise heavily relied on our visual senses, requiring us to pay close attention to the puppet’s movements and coordinate with our teammates.
Overall, both activities enhanced our understanding of the role of our senses in artistic creation and taught us to embrace the creative potential of touch, imagination, and sensory feedback. In addition, they helped us develop a deeper understanding of our bodies and the significance of sensory awareness in our daily lives.
Giving and Receiving Feedbacks
One of the fundamental aspects of this course was the practice of giving and receiving feedback among peers. To achieve this, we needed to develop several observation skills such as mindfulness, embracing the experience, quality communication, and translating theory into practice. At the end of each activity, we were assigned a partner for a feedback session.
In my opinion, one of the most challenging activities in the course was the cookie experiment. The task was to eat a plain cookie very slowly and reflect on the sensory impressions and memories it triggered. Together with the class, we then had to write a sensory text describing the experience. Unfortunately, I was sick on the day of the experiment and had to do it by myself. I devoted approximately 20 minutes to the task, focusing intently on every aspect of the rounded sweet. I made a conscious effort to immerse myself in the experience and be present in the moment. Afterward, I wrote a sensory text to convey the fullness of my experience:
The following week, I shared my experience of the cookie experiment with the rest of the class, and I received positive feedback. However, the comments from my supervisors and classmates made me realize that there were two areas where I could improve to make my sensory diary more immersive. Firstly, I learned that I could have used a broader vocabulary to describe my experience of eating the biscuit. I could have been more precise in my communication of the senses by using a variety of words to describe the sight, sound, touch, and taste of the cookie. For instance, I could have described the cookie as having a “curved” and “fuzzy” surface, which revealed a “pointed” and “grainy” taste upon being bitten. The sound of its chewing could have been described as “crunchy” and “chalking,” while its smell could have been described as “fragrant” and “perfumed.”Secondly, after discussing with my classmates, I realized that I could have recalled more of my memories related to chocolate cookies during the experiment. I frequently crave something sweet when studying for exams, and I always buy that particular brand of chocolate cookies from Aldi, which serves as both motivation and reward for me. Even if it might look as an easy an activity, the pure action of eating a cooking can hide many meanings. Hence, including these memories in my sensory diary would have made it more personal and immersive.
In my opinion, the feedback sessions were an incredibly useful instrument to sharpen my senses and improve my sensory diary writing skills. While our senses may be considered universal experiences, they are also deeply personal and unique to each individual. By sharing our sensory experiences with colleagues, I was able to unlock new thoughts and perspectives that I had not previously considered, and reflect on ways in which I can improve my sensory practices. Finally, I learned that everyone perceives sensory experiences differently, and by engaging in open and honest communication, we were able to learn from each other and expand our understanding of the senses. I believe that this is a valuable tool not only for improving our sensory diary writing skills but also for enhancing our ability to experience and appreciate the world around us.
Reflecting on my experience in the “Sharpening the Senses” course, I can confidently say that it was a transformative journey for me. Prior to starting this project, I had never given much thought to the role that our senses play in shaping our understanding of the world around us. The course challenged me in ways that were unfamiliar, given that its pedagogical methodology was quite different from what I was accustomed to.
Throughout most of my life, I believed that learning was simply a matter of acquiring passive knowledge from books and relying on descriptive realities. However, thanks to this course, I have come to realize that learning can also involve experiencing and understanding the world using our bodies as a measurement tool. It is possible to learn about history using our sense of smell, for example. The unique and precious scent of old churches, for instance, is hard to find in modern buildings, and yet it offers a glimpse into a different time and place.
Moreover, this course challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and embrace my most “primitive” experiences. Admittedly, I initially felt uncomfortable and even a bit foolish when we were asked to blindfold ourselves in the city center and try to draw sounds. However, I learned to trust my instincts and rekindled my belief in myself. Our bodies are capable of telling us so much about our reality, but we are often too caught up in distractions and moving too quickly through life to pay attention.
In conclusion, I am convinced that I will apply those methods again in the future. My area of expertise entails digital cultures. In the past few years, incredible developments have been made in terms of Augmented and Virtual Reality. These technologies are expanding the ways we can experience and interact with the world around us, and the senses play a major role in this scenario. However, as we rely more on technology to shape our sensory experiences, it is important to also consider how it may diminish or alter them. Further research on these issues definitely must be addressed, and I believe that the techniques I learned in this course will be invaluable as I continue to explore the intersection of digital culture and sensory experience.
Howes, D. & Classen, C.(2014). Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. New York: Routledge.
Shams, L., and Seitz, A.R. Benefits of multisensory learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 60, November 2008, pp. 411–17.
Senses-Based Learning – Education. (n.d.). https://sensesbasedlearning.org/
Jamie Ward “Multisensory memories: how richer experiences facilitate remembering” pp.273-284 in Sobol Levent,N.; Pascual-Leone A., Lacey S., (2014) The Multisensory museum: cross-disciplinary perspectives on touch, sound, smell, memory, and space.
Wolff, P., & Shepard, J. (2013). Causation, Touch, and the Perception of Force. Elsevier eBooks, 167–202. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-407237-4.00005-0