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Sensory Deprivation: The Impact on Human Development

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  • 0:06 Description and Definition
  • 1:55 Therapeutic Use
  • 2:26 Negative Effects
  • 3:06 Developmental Effects
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

What is sensory deprivation? What are its impacts on human development? Learn the answers to these questions and more in this lesson, then test your knowledge with a quiz!

Description and Definition

Imagine yourself standing outside your house on a normal day. You can see the sunlight and feel its warmth on your face. You feel the wind blowing and see the breeze moving through the leaves on the trees. Maybe you can hear birds, cars driving by, or people talking. Perhaps you can smell your neighbor cooking some steaks on his grill. You take a drink of your lemonade and realize you didn't add sugar. It makes your eyes water because it's so sour.

This scenario is just an example of how much input we are constantly getting from our senses. What would happen if this input were not there?

First let's take away your sense of smell. You now have no idea that your neighbor is grilling a steak. Next we will take away your sense of taste so you cannot tell your lemonade is too sour. It doesn't seem too bad so far. Sure, you may miss out on a steak dinner because you don't know that your neighbor is grilling and you should stop by, but you also miss out on the shock of your sour lemonade. Now we take away your sense of touch. You can't feel the breeze or the sun on your face, and you can't tell how tightly you're holding your glass. Oops! The glass drops on the ground and shatters because your grip wasn't tight enough. This is starting to become a bit of a problem! Let's take away sound and see what happens. No more birds, cars, or people talking. It's a good thing you can still see. Oh no! We are taking that away next!

Living without sensory input would be difficult. When someone loses one or two senses, they can often use the remaining senses to compensate. But if we lost all sensory input, we would be completely lost.

A condition in which a person receives little or no sensory input is known as sensory deprivation.

Therapeutic Use

Sometimes partial sensory deprivation is used as a form of therapy, and it can provoke a sense of well-being. A float tank is often used to create the therapeutic environment. This type of therapy can be beneficial when it's used properly. It induces deep relaxation, which can in turn produce a healing effect. However, generally speaking, sensory deprivation is not a good thing. Sensory deprivation during developmental periods and long-term sensory deprivation have negative effects.

Negative Effects

Imagine going without sensory input for a couple of days. First you could lose your sense of time. Then you may even start to hallucinate. You hear strange sounds that aren't there or imagine that you can see something even though it's completely dark. You may even lose your sense of identity, and you could become depressed or angry.

This total sensory deprivation is an extreme example, but less dramatic sensory deprivation can still have profound effects on a person. If someone is deprived of one or more senses for a long period of time, it can have a significant impact on their further life experiences, personal relationships, physical health, and mental well-being.

Developmental Effects

Now imagine a child experiences this sensory deprivation during an important developmental period of their life. Our brain growth is dependent on our experience to a great extent, and our experiences are produced by our senses.

One known aspect of early sensory experience is the ability to distinguish pleasure from pain. Without the experience of pleasant sensations during early brain development, the brain only learns to react to unpleasant stimulation. This may cause a negative reaction to pleasant stimulation later in life, because the brain processes the information in the same way as it would negative stimulation. In fact, more emotional damage can occur from sensory deprivation than from a traumatic experience.

This effect was demonstrated years ago when a researcher named Harry Harlow separated newborn rhesus monkeys from their mothers and raised them in isolation and without touch. Their brains' ability to differentiate the sensations of pleasure and pain was impaired later, causing the juvenile and adult monkeys to react to any touch with extreme violence and agitation.

The link between sensory stimulation and brain development is still being researched. This is an important link that we are learning more about every day.

To help understand the idea better, let's compare a developing child to a growing plant. A child needs sensory input to develop properly, just like the plant needs good soil, air, water, and sunlight to thrive. Any change to the environment will change the plant's development. If a plant is not receiving enough sunlight, it will produce a leaf that's small and yellow instead of green. If the plant doesn't receive enough water, it will begin to wilt.

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