Sensory Deprivation

Robert J. Doman, M.D.

Stimulation is vital to our brain’s efficiency. It is the regular and proper stimulation of our brain through our five senses that permits us to be able to function on a relatively steady, even keel most of the time as our brain relates us to what is happening around us. Proper stimulation leads to the proliferation of more and more connections between brain cells creating more efficient pathways of brain function.

But what happens to the brain’s efficiency when the brain is deprived of proper stimulation? Sensory deprivation studies show us that sudden and nearly complete deprivation of stimulation through the five senses can lead to dramatic changes in the brain’s efficiency with a partial loss of memory, a lowering of the I.Q., personality changes including withdrawal, hallucinations, and in some people even an abnormal electroencephalogram, a picture not unlike what is seen in the mentally ill patient who becomes withdrawn and hallucinates.

The bright side of such studies on sensory deprivation is that they teach us that the adverse effects of deprivation can be reversed if the deprivation is stopped and the brain properly stimulated. It is important that we realize such problems are reversible with proper stimulation.

Let’s look at some chronic or longer lasting forms of sensory deprivation. Sadly, this country’s recent history provides a number of examples of just such deprivation with its sometimes tragic results. Captured U.S. soldiers fighting in Korea were subjected to a prolonged period of isolation by their captors. During such isolation they were forced to listen to propaganda. Their brains, dulled by prolonged isolation, were vulnerable to the propaganda to the degree that when a truce was declared and prisoners exchanged, many U.S. soldiers refused to return home. Later after being taken out of isolation and permitted the normal stimulating effects of an active environment, their brains’ efficiency improved to the point that most of them wanted to, and finally did, return home.

The Pueblo incident and the sad effects of isolation on Captain Bucher and his crew should have taught us that none of us would be immune to the adverse effects on the brain of other forms of sensory deprivation. For example, the cerebral palsy child whose body is restricted by braces and a wheelchair is deprived of some of his most needed forms of stimulation, that which comes from uninhibited movement providing the brain with tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive feedback stimulation from the body extremities, the muscles, and the joints. Adult head injury patients and stroke patients are also frequently subjected to the same restrictive environment depriving their brains of desperately needed stimulation. Being confined to the non-stimulating environment of the nursing home dulls the patient’s brain, adding to any disorganization and confusion produced by the brain injury itself. Sedatives and tranquilizers often prescribed for such patients add to their mental confusion making it even more difficult for the patient to properly relate to his surroundings and causes deeper and deeper withdrawal.

A classic example of a withdrawn child is the Autistic child. In treating the many Autistic children seen by NACD, we find one of the frequent observations is that many such children have turned off one or more of their senses, thus creating their own isolation from which we must shake them. To a lesser degree, the child who daydreams in class is temporarily turning off the world, contributing to a possible future learning disorder. The normal child who turns off his parents and teacher may be developing a behavior problem. Schools and homes together are turning many children off to learning.

NACD, with its evaluation of a client’s brain efficiency using the Developmental Profile, is aware of any shortcoming in sensory intake and is able to provide an individualized program of sensory stimulation designed to prevent or overcome any associated problems thereby broadening the brain’s horizons.

Reprinted from the Journal of The NACD Foundation (formerly The National Academy for Child Development)

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 5 No. 3, 1984 ©NACD


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