– Multi-sensory immersive environments: activating our minds through enhanced perception
We all have experienced Nature's therapeutic effect as we walk through the countryside, a forest or a beach. We feel the warmth of the sun, hear the crashing of the waves or the chirping of the birds, we experience tingling in our palms as we sift sand through our hands... It's very relaxing but at the same time, we are more present and aware than ever. We are more engaged because our senses have been awakened. Great thinkers and poets have often referred to this state of mind in their writings. Japanese culture even has a word, and a whole philosophy about the benefits of 'Forest bathing': 'Shinrin-Yoku'.
Exploring the world through our senses is both curative and a way to activate our mind.
But for people with special needs, reduced mobility or elderly people, it's not so easy to engage in outdoor activities. How could they benefit from a similar experience? Living in large cities has made it even harder, reducing our contact with the natural environment and numbing our senses, overwhelmed as they are with unwanted stimuli.
How could this gap be solved?
Multi-Sensory Immersive Environments are here to provide the answer.
What are Multi-Sensory Environments?
A Multi-Sensory Environment (MSE) is a room designed to control all kinds of sensory stimulation that are happening inside of it, so as to intensify or diminish it at will. Besides, by choosing the right stimuli for each person, providing a personalized experience to meet the individual's particular needs, they can improve in areas that are a challenge for them.
The goal is a double one: on one hand, these environments can relax or calm the user, relieving stress and enhancing the feeling of well-being, as well as increasing their focus or alertness. On the other hand, it can engage them (through active or passive interaction with the sounds, lights, smells, tactile experiences, room temperature...)
In the long run, this relaxation and engagement can change behaviours or emotional states and help with cognitive and motor skills development.
The starting premise is simple: Our senses connect our brain to the world. Sensory input excites the brain, as sensory neurons within the nervous system respond to external stimuli converting them into electrical impulses and send these signals to the spinal cord or brain. New connections between neurons (synapses) are then created enabling the brain to recover from injury and facilitating cognitive development.
This process is particularly critical during the nervous system maturation at a young age. But even during our adult life, if our neurons are not properly stimulated we lose the neuronal connections that are not being used.
Who can benefit from Multi-Sensory Environments?
Stimulating all of our senses in a controlled environment, in an immersive experience where the outside world's irrelevant sensations are blocked and new sensorial experiences are recreated tailored to each different person's specific needs (intellectual disabilities, memory loss, brain damage...) can be a real game-changer for all those involved.
Multi-Sensory rooms are particularly beneficial for a series of conditions:
· Autistic behaviours: Autistic children have trouble organizing the sensations from their own bodies. MSEs help them to reconnect with them and work on proprioception, or the awareness of their body parts and what are they doing.
· Special needs students or people with cognitive impairment: can improve concentration, communication, emotional self-regulation and mobility and also develop new brain connections for better learning.
· Mental health patients: MSEs help users to cope with overwhelming feelings, as they recreate calm and safe spaces.
· Brain injury patients and reduced mobility individuals: SMEs can be used for both physical and cognitive rehabilitation.
· Elderly people. People that show loss of cognitive abilities or dementia can feel increasingly isolated and bored. SMEs provide activities adapted to them and increase their awareness.
To make the most of them, Multi-Sensory Environment activities are planned, guided and contextualized by a therapist, who guides and monitors the users throughout the complete experience, adapting everything that happens to their inner journey and their current mood.
What features can a Multi-Sensory Environment (MSE) have?
Multi-Sensory Environments (MSEs) offer a variety of sensory experiences:
· Video projections: they recreate places such as natural environments that help the participants to reduce anxiety.
· Lighting effects: Led lights in different, changing colours, ultraviolet lamps and optical fibre that recreate "starry skies", mirror balls and projectors that create changing light patterns, bubble lamps... All of them improve visual tracking and engagement.
· Sound effects and music: melodies or sound patterns also require focus and engaged attention to keep track of the different notes and melodies. Similarly, nature or street sounds help with recreating different ambiances.
· Sensory activities: items such as changing textures in interactive panels, vibrating elements, massage kits, soap bubbles and ball pools... are adequate to train motor skills.
· Elements to help improve proprioception: Mirrors, weight jackets and blankets and floating pools improve self-consciousness, making users aware of their body and presence. They also are known to have a calming effect.
· Temperature controls: Hitachi’s extensive product range creates creates body awareness and help participants reach a calmer state.