©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

Human beings tend to return to environments that are perceived as nurturing, validating, accepting, and comfortable—that acknowledge their sensory preference.
—Arlene R. Taylor PhD 

articles200408Sensory Preference refers to the type of brain an individual possesses in relation to sensory stimuli (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), including the type of sensory data that registers most quickly. Sensory preference impacts the way you take in sensory data, your comfort level in any given situation, the way you learn new information most easily, and the way in which you interact with others and with the environment. You tend to feel affirmed and understood when you receive sensory data in your preferred system.

Think of the sensory systems as portions of the brain where sensory stimuli are decoded. Some models portray the sensory systems in combination with other types of brain functions. I perceive them as separate overlays. Early in life human beings tend to use the three sensory systems almost equally. By the age of 5 or 6 the brain begins to identify with one sensory system over the other two, although what triggers the selection isn’t well understood. Unimpaired human beings can input and decode the entire range of sensory stimuli. Generally however, one type of sensory stimuli will register most quickly in your brain.

Decoding centers for most sensory stimuli are housed in the six lobes of the cerebrum, three in each cerebral hemisphere. They can receive and decode up to 10 million bits of data per second—far more than human beings are capable of processing at a level of conscious awareness. The six cerebral lobes are:

  • Two occipital lobes that decode data absorbed through sight.
  • Two temporal lobes that decode data absorbed through sound.
  • Two parietal lobes that decode kinesthetic data (e.g., taste, touch, smell, position, physical stimuli). Note: Odors can trigger memories faster than any other type of sensory data--and odors are believed to be decoded in the limbic system or mammalian brain. The nose is only one synapse away from the amygdalae in the emotional brain. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that odors can often trigger recall of memory faster than either sight or sound.
Cerebral Sensory Decoding Centers

Estimates are that sensory preference probably occurs in the general adult population as follows:

Auditory Preference - 20%

Visual Preference - 60%

Kinesthetic Preference - 20%

More females than males when tallied by gender
Who is best at taking data in through sound?

More males than females when tallied by gender
Who is best at taking data in through sight?

Equal females and males when tallied by gender
Who is best at taking data in via taste, touch, smell, and body position?

Sensory Preference Assessment

Identifying your own primary sensory preference can enable you to:

  • Understand why you gravitate toward some environments and avoid others
  • Enhance your speed of learning
  • Pay closer attention to data you typically miss because it comes to you outside of your preference
  • Heal past sensory woundedness
  • Select a career path that utilizes your sensory preference
  • Assist others to feel more comfortable and accepted as you acknowledge their preference
  • Communicate more effectively with individuals whose sensory preference differs from yours

The highest score on The Sensory Preference Assessment [Adobe Acrobat PDF - 22.53 KB] usually represents your overall sensory preference, unless you have adapted away from it for some reason.

  • Column one = auditory
  • Column two = visual
  • Column three = kinesthetic

Remember that you may use all of your senses most (if not all) of the time. Preference refers to the type of sensory stimuli that usually gets your attention most quickly and that may require the least energy expenditure.

If two scores are tied, one of the scores likely represents your preference and the other represents a sensory system that you’ve had to develop in order to relate to someone significant in your life. If one of the tied scores is kinesthesia, consider the possibility that your innate preference is kinesthetic and that, for some reason, you have pulled back from it. If all scores are equal, you may have pulled in your own preference due to trauma or crisis, and developed skills in the other sensory systems in order to relate to, or please, people who are important in your life.

Use your scores as a starting point for evaluating your sensory history. Try to uncover and identify factors that may have influenced you to repress your sensory preference. Recall examples of specific situations and behaviors and make an educated guess.
Here are sample questions to get you started:

  • Was your sensory preference the same or different from that of your parents, siblings, or caregivers?
  • Which sensory system was emphasized in your home, school, church, or social club?
  • Were there opportunities for you to use, and be rewarded for using, your sensory preference?
  • Were you shamed for your sensory preference?
  • Do you know what you need, want, and like in relation to your sensory preference, and are you able to state your needs and wants clearly and unemotionally?
  • Do you take responsibility for getting your needs (and some wants) met rather than expecting others to do this for you or even to read your mind, and do you readily ask for and accept sensory nurturing?
  • Is kinesthesia your first or second preference? If so, do you take responsibility for meeting your skin-hunger needs appropriately (refer to comments related to kinesthesia)?
  • Are you able to recognize the sensory communication attempts of others and accept the nurturing offered even when it doesn’t match your own sensory preference?
  • Is there some past sensory woundedness that you need to identify and heal?
  • Do you nurture your partner/children/friends in a style that matches each one’s sensory preference?

Sensory Adapting

If you were shamed, bruised, or ignored because of your sensory preference, or if you observed others being shamed, bruised, or ignored for their preference, the experience may have influenced your use of that specific sensory system. For example:

Did you have a visual preference, but were you:

  • Not looked at or given very little eye contact?
  • Subjected to angry facial expressions?
  • Provided with clothing that was unattractive, mismatched, torn, or out of style?
  • Deprived of a visually attractive environment or one that contained color?
  • Unable to experience museums or galleries?
  • Not given much in the way of objects to look at?
  • Shamed for your visual sense?

Did you have an auditory preference, but were you:

  • Subjected to the silent treatment?
  • Often told to be seen but not heard?
  • Subjected to harsh, loud, or cruel voice tones?
  • Exposed to annoying, irritating, or raucous sounds?
  • Unable to listen to music, join a choir, take music lessons, or attend concerts?
  • Subjected to an unpleasant environment in terms of sound?
  • Shamed for your auditory sense?

Did you have a kinesthetic preference, but were you:

  • Touched roughly, or sexually, or not touched at all?
  • Spanked, hit, swatted, jerked, or kicked?
  • Provided with clothing that did not feel good against your skin?
  • Subjected to tickling or hair pulling?
  • Sexually or physically abused in childhood or adulthood (actually or vicariously)?
  • Subjected to unpleasant odors or textures?
  • Given food that didn’t taste or smell good or didn’t feel good in your mouth?
  • Shamed for your kinesthetic sense?

If any of these or similar situations were true in your life, you may have repressed your own innate sensory preference in favor of developing skills in another sensory system that were more acceptable in your environment or more rewarded by people who were important to you. If you discover this is the case, you can take steps to reown your sensory preference.

A Word about Skin-Hunger Needs

Everyone has skin-hunger needs. Studies of infants in orphanages showed that without sufficient touch, the babies died. When elderly volunteers were recruited to hold infants on the average of 15 minutes per day, the babies stopped dying. All children need nonsexual touch affirmation. So do all adults.

In a “no-touch” society where there are cultural prohibitions against touching, many individuals experience difficulty getting their skin-hunger needs met adequately, especially males. Consequently, many are touch-deprived. This can be an even larger problem for those with a kinesthetic preference.

Some are fortunate to have a partner and/or friends with whom they can exchange touch. Others have pets that can be handled, stroked, and cuddled. Still others attempt to meet their skin-hunger needs through sexual activity. This can result in the individual putting a great deal of pressure on a partner for “sex” in an attempt to get skin-hunger needs met. Sexual activity is primarily about self-gratification and doesn’t fulfill the need for nonsexual, physical touch. Children who do not get their touch needs met appropriately may fail to thrive, or to learn, may be more vulnerable to touch (e.g., sexual abuse, physical abuse), or may be at higher risk for unwed pregnancies.

It can be critically important to take positive steps toward obtaining non-sexual physical-touch affirmation, especially if kinesthetic is your first or second preference. Teach your friends to touch you non-sexually, spend time with a pet that likes to be touched (e.g., curls up in your lap and soaks in petting). If you live or work with children, find ways to affirm them kinesthetically through appropriate non-sexual touch.

If you want a kinesthetic to pay attention to what you are saying, try placing your hand gently on his/her arm or shoulder (if you have a relationship that permits this). The touch registers kinesthetically in the brain and allows the individual to focus more easily on receiving the information through the auditory or visual sensory system.

NOTE: Individuals with a kinesthetic preference can sometimes pay attention to auditory or visual stimuli (e.g., seminar setting) much more easily if they can hold something kinesthetically pleasing in their hand (e.g., a soft object or toy, squeezie, stress-reducer ball). This is particularly true of the male brain and often true for some female brains (e.g., kinesthetic, extroverted). That’s one reason I encourage participants to bring handwork to seminars I present if they know they listen better when doing something with their hands.

Tips for Improving Sensory Skills

A desirable goal is to identify your own preference and figure out how you take in data most efficiently, and then build sufficient skills to access any and all of the sensory systems by choice, depending on what is required or would be most effective for the situation at hand. Knowing your own sensory preference, recognizing that of others, and matching your communication style to theirs whenever possible can enhance all your relationships and improve your career success. Here are some tips to help you increase your sensory system skills:

  • Knowledge

Identify your own sensory preference and then be alert to situations that could be improved through sensory system recognition and application.

  • Choice

Make a choice to exhibit whole-brain-nurturing behaviors, to use all three systems when communicating with others whenever possible.

  • Competency

Develop skills in each of the three sensory systems and become comfortable with each system.

  • Creativity

Be innovative and creative in using the sensory systems. Try something new! Brainstorm alternative ways to offer nurturing to others.

  • Implementation

Communicate with others in their sensory preference. Specifically offer nurturing in the other person’s sensory preference when you know what that is. When in doubt, use all three!

  • Acceptance

Recognize and graciously accept nurturing from others even when it doesn’t come to you in your preferred style, realizing that the other person is likely trying to communicate with you through his/her sensory preference. Otherwise you may miss a great deal of affirmation because it came to you in a nonpreferred sensory system.

Differences in sensory preference impact relationships and underlie many communication problems, situational misunderstandings, and feelings of discomfort. Understanding this can alert you to ways in which you can prevent some of these from occurring in the first place and can offer strategies for resolution when problems already exist. Unless you make a conscious choice to do differently, you tend to communicate with others in your preferred sensory system. When your sensory preference matches theirs or the specific environment you tend to feel accepted, validated, smart, comfortable, and affirmed. When your sensory preference does not match, the opposite can occur. Communication that acknowledges sensory preference is a learned skill.

Practical Applications

Sensory preference impacts every facet of life. For example, when a child isn’t getting along well with others in the classroom, check to see if his/her sensory preference is in the minority or is different from that of the teacher’s. Sensory preference does influence the way in which a person learns most easily.

When couples experience discord, compare their sensory preferences. If they differ, likely neither feels nurtured and affirmed. For example, a visual brings an auditory partner flowers when the brain might respond much more quickly to a musical concert or conversation. Do something every day for your partner in his/her sensory preference and watch your relationship improve.

When customers aren’t responding, the salesperson’s sensory preference may be different from that of the customers or perhaps the business waiting room contains stimuli for only one or two of the main sensory types. Use all three systems during any interaction when you aren’t certain of the other person’s preference.

When attendees don’t feel comfortable in a church setting, there may be little in the environment or in the service that matches their sensory preference. For example, are they kinesthetic and the room is too hot or too cold or the chairs/pews too hard? Are they auditory and the public address system is too loud, too soft, or making unpleasant sounds? Are they visual and the environment is devoid of pleasing colors or architectural design?

Differences in sensory preference underlie many communication problems, situational misunderstandings, and feelings of discomfort. Understanding this can alert you to ways in which you can prevent some of these from occurring in the first place and can offer strategies for resolving those that do occur.

Visual Sensory Preference versus Visualization

I am asked frequently about the difference between a person having a visual sensory preference and being able to visualize. Having a visual sensory preference means that visual stimuli typically register more quickly in your brain than either auditory or kinesthetic sensory stimuli, although there might be specific situations when you are more aware of auditory (symphony program) or kinesthetic (eating Thanksgiving dinner) stimuli.

The term visualization describes an ability to create internal mental pictures. This is different from possessing a visual sensory preference. Most people can train themselves to visualize, although an individual with biochemical preference in the right frontal lobe of the cerebrum may be able to hone this ability to a higher level of competence.

Likewise most people can train themselves to be more observant regardless of sensory preference, although it may be more energy intensive for a nonvisual. Having said that, based on your brain lead you may be more or less aware of “details.” If you have a frontal right brain lead (e.g., the FR pays attention to when things are different or changing) you may enter a room and sense that something is different, although if you don’t have a visual sensory preference you may need to have the details pointed out to you.

If you have a visual sensory preference and have been taught that there is one right way for things to “look” in order to meet societal or family expectations, you may want your person or your environment to look a specific way. This means that if you have a frontal right brain lead you might be much more concerned that your “stacks” are lined up in a visually pleasing way, as compared to what might be important to you if you have a different brain lead.

If you have both a visual sensory preference and a lead in the frontal right you may be quite concerned about appearances, especially if you grew up absorbing expectations about the importance of how things look. This is not good or bad. It just is. Different individuals often have very different perceptions and expectations.

Feeling Real

One evening, a family decided to go out for dinner at their favorite restaurant. They were shown to a table that overlooked the bay and within minutes the waitress arrived to take their order. She began with the father and asked each member in turn what he or she wanted to eat. Turning to the youngest member of the family the waitress asked, “And what would you like to eat, young lady?”

“A burger and fries,” the little girl answered politely.

“Bring her lasagna,” said the mother. The waitress wrote on her order form.

“And what would you like to drink?” the waitress continued.

“7-Up, please,” the child replied.

“Bring her lasagna and milk,” the mother said firmly. The waitress looked from the mother to the little girl, back to the mother, and wrote on her order form. When the food arrived (to the delight of the little girl and the consternation of her mother), the waitress placed a burger, fries, and 7-Up in front of the littlest member of the family. Her eyes glowing with excitement the child fairly shouted, “Mommy, Mommy! That lady thinks I’m real!”

People like to feel real. Human beings seem to have an unfortunate tendency to exhibit the same behaviors over and over again, even when those behaviors aren't producing the desired outcomes. Understanding the concept of sensory preference and knowing your own gives you the option of tweaking your communication behaviors in a more positive direction, by design.

The Sensory Preference Assessment [Adobe Acrobat PDF - 22.53 KB]

Preferencia de Evaluación Sensorial [Adobe Acrobat PDF - 32.36 KB]