Sensory Enhanced Learning

By Kathy Cascade, PT, International TTouch Instructor

We have all witnessed the sometimes remarkable changes in dogs following a few minutes of TTouch™ body work or leading exercises through the Confidence Course™. Often a hyperactive, unfocused dog quickly becomes calm, relaxed, and able to follow commands. While we can easily observe the outward changes in a dog’s behavior or posture, explaining how these shifts occur is not always so simple.

How does a specific form of touch or movement influence the very function of the nervous system, and subsequently, the ability to learn new behavior? One way we can understand this process is to examine how the nervous system takes in and makes sense of information. This is the function of sensory integration, and it is what allows both humans and animals to learn, and make adaptive responses to each new experience or situation.

Input – How Information Is Recognized

Most of us are very familiar with the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. We also have two other sensory systems that process information from “inside our bodies”, rather than external sources. The vestibular system responds to changes in head position and is critical to balance and postural security. The receptors are located in our inner ear. Anyone who has ever had an inner ear infection or vertigo knows what happens when this system is malfunctioning! The proprioceptive system is what gives us our internal awareness of where our body parts are in space. It is critical to spatial awareness and coordinated movement. The receptors for proprioception are located in our joints and muscles, and they respond to compression of joints or movement (exercise). People or animals who have suffered a stroke or other head injury often experience a loss of proprioceptive function and tend to have very impaired movements.

Of particular importance when talking about touch is understanding how the tactile system processes various types of sensation. This system is actually very specific. Not only can we perceive temperature, pain, and vibration, but also the difference between light touch and pressure touch. The receptors for each of these modalities are specific and are located in the skin and other membranes such as the mouth. The tactile system is our first communication system and serves two purposes: The first is protective and carries the signals about temperature, pain, and light touch. Light touch receptors detect very subtle movement of the hair on the skin, for instance when a small bug crawls on your arm. It is alerting and draws our attention immediately. The second purpose is discriminatory, and carries signals about vibration and pressure touch. Pressure touch receptors are located just under the skin surface, and allow us to detect where we were touched, for how long, and how much pressure was applied. This is actually the type of touch receptor activated when we use TTouch on the body. It is interesting to note that pressure touch tends to be calming and we will see why in the next section.

Processing – How Information Is Transferred and Interpreted

At its most basic level, TTouch is a form of communication. We are giving information to the nervous system, which then processes and interprets that information. We can give information to the body using our hands to perform various TTouches, using other tools such as a wand, or body wrap and through leading a dog in various movements over the confidence course. In other words, we are giving tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular input to the sensory part of the nervous system. Thanks to major advances in neuroscience over the past twenty years, scientists now recognize a complex communication system powered by chemicals known as neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. These chemicals act as an informational network between the various systems within the body, and virtually every cell.

There are three classes of neurotransmitters, each having a specific function in terms of how they respond to information (sensation). Some excite cells or “turn the volume up” and some inhibit cells, or “turn the volume down.” The class that we can influence by giving specific input or sensations (tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular), are called Biogenic Amines and includes Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine. The names are not so important, but guess what these neurotransmitters do? They are the cell programmers! The function of these chemicals in the body is very widespread and they are critical to our survival mechanisms of eating, drinking, reproduction, and sleep. They also are key to arousal, motivation, emotion, and pain relief. It is thought these neurotransmitters are the major link between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Much has been written on the relationship between stress and digestive and immune disorders.

You may recognize Serotonin as being associated with positive emotional states, and often people with low levels of Serotonin experience depression. It helps us to feel safe, secure, and content. Proprioceptive input (movement) enhances Serotonin release. Sensual pleasures found in nature also enhance Serotonin. (This includes interacting with animals). In states of stress, especially chronic stress, Serotonin is depleted and Norepinephrine is increased. Norepinephrine is the chemical of activation and arousal. It contributes to the sympathetic response of fight, flight, freeze, and fool around. Of course, we need a certain amount of arousal in order to focus or pay attention. New situations or novel experience (non-habitual) enhances Norepinephrine release, but too much can result in reactive or aggressive behavior. Dopamine has a significant impact on the emotional centers of the brain, allowing us to feel pleasure and is associated with bonding and attachment. It also affects motivation and focused thinking. Pressure touch (the type of input done with TTouch) enhances the release of Dopamine.

Another important aspect of sensory processing is how sensation is carried through the nervous system to specific areas of the brain. There are separate pathways that carry specific sensations. One pathway carries protective sensations of pain, temperature, and light touch. The other pathway carries discriminative sensations like pressure touch, proprioception, and vibration. When we look at the difference between the two pathways in the chart below, it is interesting to see how the sensations associated with a slower form of pressure touch and proprioception appear to be carried by the Discriminative Pathway, and result in the type of responses we often observe in the dogs we work with.

Protective Pathway

Discriminative Pathway

Carries pain, temperature, light touch Carries vibration, proprioception, pressure touch
Older, more primitive system Newer, more sophisticated system
Faster, imprecise, can’t tell exactly where contact was made Slower, precise, can tell exactly where contact was made
Often response is avoidance Usual response is approach
Can trigger sympathetic response Can trigger parasympathetic response
Evaluates information – do we need to be concerned Carries information that encourages us to learn and explore
Activates and energizes Calms and organizes

From the chart, we can also see why a simple tool known as the body wrap may have such a significant effect on dogs in terms of increasing focus, calming, and improving body awareness. When applied to a dog, the body wrap provides pressure touch, as well as enhancing the brain’s perception of where the body is in space.

Response – The Effect of Sensory Processing

The ability to adequately recognize and process sensory information is what enables people and animals to respond to the world around them. The type of input greatly influences our responses. Too much stimulation can be overwhelming and too little input does not keep us interested or focused. We refer to this principle as the “Just Right Challenge,” giving the appropriate amount of new information (sensation) to encourage learning without overloading the dog’s coping ability. We apply this principle when working with dogs using TTouch bodywork and purposeful movement exercises through the confidence course. By carefully observing the dog’s responses, we know when to change the type or level of input. We can do this by using a slightly different type of touch, changing the pressure or tempo of the touch, moving to a less threatening part of the body, or changing how much of our hand is in contact with the dog. When doing leading exercises, we ask the dog to slow down and focus on walking over simple obstacles or textures. During this process, we ask the dog to frequently stop and experience a state of physical balance, which is often associated with a more focused mental state (enhances learning).

Responses to sensory information can be physical, emotional, and behavioral. Physical responses include changes in muscle tone (release of tension), postural adjustments (tucked tail to relaxed tail), and other internal physiological changes like respiration rate, blood flow, etc. As sensory information is relayed to many areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, we often see shifts in a dog from an unfocused, anxious state to a more calm and focused state. Behavioral responses change as well, leading to improved performance and adaptive responses.

Conclusions

Sensory enhanced learning techniques such as Tellington TTouch can easily be incorporated into any training program to improve performance by reducing stress, improving focus (ability to learn), and building confidence.

References

Ford, Clyde W. Compassionate Touch: The Role of Human Touch in Healing and Recovery. 1993.

LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. 1996.

Pert, Candace. Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel The Way You Feel. 1997.

Sands, Robert. “The Power of the Parasympathetic Nervous System” Stress News October 2002 Vol. 14 No. 4

Manual from two day course: Sensory Integration: It’s Effect on Learning, Behavior and Motor Control. Presented by Debra J Denniger OTR/L, BCP

Manual from three day course: Evaluation and Treatment of Sensory Processing Disorders. Presented by Bonnie Hanschu, OTR.

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