How to hack your pleasure pathways

Can you remember the feeling of coming back from a holiday? Feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and inspired. All of your neural pathways were reset, or at least rearranged. For those few weeks, you were out of your comfort zone, having new experiences, new sensations and new adventures which will change how you live your life and how you view your world.

We know that these experiences are part of what makes life worth living, and that new experiences are a wonderful antidote to boredom, frustration and stagnation that can sometimes set in. Our brains need these new sensory experiences every once in a while, and we need to be exposed to things that challenge us and immerse us.

A new concept has arisen with the rise of mindfulness-based interventions, which has been termed ‘sensory adventures’ – our growing awareness of the power of sensory experiences to impact how we feel. You might be able to remember the last time you felt completely immersed in a sensory experience, whether that be through smell, feeling, taste or sound. That incredible feeling of being absorbed or completely focused on a sensation or experience is something that we can rarely achieve, but when we do, it is profound.

A friend recently described a hand massage she received years ago; the sensation of the scrub being rubbed into her skin, and paying attention to the touch and slippery feeling of the water as it washed her hand and then the perfume of the lotion as it was rubbed into her skin. The years have passed, but the pleasure and enjoyment of that experience remain, as it was such a treat for her senses.

We often crave sensory-rich experiences like massages, spas and gourmet meals, but at least part of the enjoyment we get from these experiences is the fact that we are paying attention to the experience, and appreciating the effects on our bodies and taste buds. Mindful eating has been shown to be effective at improving health and wellbeing, and this also extends to other mindfulness activities which encourage us to focus on the enjoyment and sensation of the present moment.

Hack your pleasure pathways

How does this help us?

Well, the good news is that these sensory adventures are right in front of us, and we can go on a small journey simply by attending to the experience in front of our noses. The idea is to pay as much attention to these experiences as you might at a wine tasting, paying attention to the flavour notes, the colour, the residue of wine on the side of the glass, the different smells and tastes that come out of a single drop. Perhaps if we paid this kind of attention to every sip, we might have a very different relationship with alcohol.

So these are the reasons to have a sensory adventure, but what kinds of sensory adventures are out there? Just like you might put a lot of time and effort into planning and booking a real-life adventure, it can be a lot of fun to plan your next sensory adventure.

Here are some ideas to get started:

Sound Adventure: Curate a playlist that evokes a certain mood in you, whether that is melancholy, romantic, excited, relaxed, whatever you feel like at the time. Then choose a place in your city that really matches the playlist, and walk through this area while listening to the playlist. While you’re doing this, see if you can attend to the internal and external sensations that come up for you. Allow yourself to get swept away with the sensory experience and notice how that feels.

Smell Adventure: Go to your spice cabinet at home and take out all of the spices. Sit down, and one by one, open up each jar and take a moment to smell each spice. See if you can notice all of the scents that come up as you smell, and what they do to your sensory organs. What involuntary responses do you have? What memories come up for you with certain smells? What foods come to mind when you smell certain things?
Whichever spices you would like to taste, try some on your tongue and notice how different the taste and smell are. Here is a recommended combination of spices that you can try cooking with, to give you a full sensory experience:
Fajita seasoning: Chili powder, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and cumin powder
Herbs de provence: Thyme leaf, marjoram leaf, rosemary, lavender flowers, ground fennel, dried orange zest
Pumpkin spice: cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves

Taste adventure: Go to the supermarket and buy three items that you really enjoy the taste of. These can be things that go together, or are good by themselves. Do not buy large amounts of these, just enough for the exercise. They should be three things that complement each other, and that are quite high-value or tasty foods.
Some examples might be:
Crackers, sharp cheese, olives – make a plate with these and mindfully eat, paying attention to the sounds, sensations in your mouth, taste and sensation of the different textures.
Butter, brown sugar, banana – melt butter and brown sugar together, pour over banana. As the butter and brown sugar combines, notice the smell and aromas that arise, and as you eat the dish with the banana, notice the different textures and the different temperatures in the meal.
Peanut butter, honey, crackers – assemble these foods and notice the different smells, tastes, textures and sensations of the ingredients as you chew them.

Sight Adventure: Consider what kinds of things might stimulate you visually. What kinds of art or design has really interested you in the past? Once you have figured this out, set aside a morning or afternoon to absorb yourself with this. It might involve visiting a local gallery or museum to come face-to-face with the artworks, or searching on the internet for pictures that inspire or interest you. Take these few hours to give your eyes a treat, whether it is through colour, design or shape. Consider how immersing yourself in these images, colours or designs impacts you. You might want to curate a playlist to listen to at the same time, that fits with the images you are viewing and enjoy the feeling of becoming absorbed in this world. You might take this opportunity to change your living space or move things around, to make the aesthetic more pleasing, or go through your wardrobe to find inspiration in colour and design.

Some good websites to visit for inspiration are:
unsplash.com
contemporaryartdaily.com
https://www.artsy.net/

As you can see, sensory adventures are everywhere we look. In your typical day, you probably have a number of sensory-rich experiences, like patting your dog, drinking your morning coffee or having a shower. All of these are opportunities to have a fully immersive experience, diving into your senses and attending to the feelings and sensations that arise.

The key here is what we pay attention to, and the value comes from appreciating and making time for the sensations to arise, rather than thinking about something else, or rushing to the next thing. The science behind things like sensory adventures indicates that it is our perception of these experiences that matter, rather than how ‘good’ or ‘fun’ something is.

So there it is, next time the real world is getting to be a bit much, and that longing for a holiday arises, see if you can take some time out for a sensory adventure and enjoy being immersed and amazed by what these experiences have to offer.

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