Editor's letter: Dr Kate Stone on sensory experiences

As we explore our senses in our Live Life Better series, Dr Kate Stone will be guiding us as guest editor. Here, she shares some of her sensory experiences and why she thinks it's important to understand how we interact with the world...

Seven years ago I discovered a passion for sauntering off into the wilderness of the Lake District, in the north of England, where I would sleep as high up a mountain as I dared on some of the coldest and windiest nights of the year. I was struck by what incredible balance and perspective these trips bought to my life. The experiences and insight have become a huge part of who I am and helped me start to think differently about the relationship between my environment and wellbeing. To the extent that, three years ago I moved to the US because I was literally in pursuit of a New York State of Mind - and what better way to embrace that than living by in Manhattan. 

Once in New York, I found I still needed my wilderness fix and took a train most weekends to the forest upstate. There the mountains were higher, the nights colder and the wildlife more dangerous. I would walk for several hours to find a place to hang my hammock, on the edge of a cliff, on top of a hill or by a lake, build my fire and sit and think. I do love it but most nights, even now, I’m terrified when the darkness descends. So again, it prompted me to ask myself why I do this - and why it seems to give me such a better sense of who I am.

Dr Kate Stone

One day as I entered the forest, finding and following the path, ducking under the branches, clambering over fallen trees, hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing streams, I started to realise how much my stream of consciousness was influenced by my journey. I began to see and feel that my thoughts were a conversation between myself and the rocks, trees, rivers and any animals I might encounter, as though my environment was communicating with me. I could hold a question in my head about my week, family, friends or just life and have this ancient wilderness guide my thought processes towards paths that I knew would have been different had the environment been my Manhattan home or elsewhere.  

It struck me that if my thoughts are dependent on my physical experience and environment, then who I am is the combination of my body and its journey through the world. I realised that my mind, whilst centred about my head and body, is much greater than my physical human form. I feel that our minds consist of two parts - your inner mind (body and brain) and outer mind (environment), connected through the combination of all my senses. My brain processes all of this and conjures up a believable reality. 

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The forest path I followed was like a vinyl record, my feet the needle and the thoughts in my head the music. The journeys we take each day through our environments are so important to determining the quality of thoughts we experience; if you don’t like the music then change the record. We cannot underestimate how much our environment, journeys and other people are a part of who we actually are. If we want to take care of ourselves then we must look to curate our environment as well as working on our thoughts. In this context mindfulness is achieved when we fully connect our inner and outer minds.

I feel that’s why when our environments are changed suddenly or without our knowledge it can feel as though someone is messing with your mind. Take an animal out of its habitat and it will no longer thrive, in fact caged animals are often observed quite literally to ‘go out of their minds’, becoming confused and ultimately depressed.

Our ego leads us to believe we exist separately to an environment that we can control. However, as we start to see that we are part and the same as our environment, then can we better design products and services that take account of the conversation unfolding in users’ minds as they journey through experience. These should be critical considerations for how we design homes, work, communities and travel.   

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Consider the role of our digital devices. As I walk down the street staring at my smartphone most of my senses are tuned towards it, disconnecting my inner mind from the immediate environment. That literally drives me out of my mind, isolating me from usual thoughts and conversations with my surroundings, losing many of the clues connecting me to who I am. Instead I become the combination of my body and the digital world. It also creates a mismatch in our senses - putting my attention towards an environment that I can’t smell, feel, hear.

Read: Sensory Sparks - simple actions to take to enhance your sensory experiences

Could this be the greatest evolutionary change humans have ever experienced? With such a sudden change we have not had chance to understand its impact or how to live with our digital devices. What happens to the state of our mental health when we connect our inner mind to this new outer mind, and with no history, experience or understanding of the consequences? What role does this play in the rise of mental health concerns amongst young people?

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In the future connections between our body, physical environment and digital environment will be so much better understood and I believe the role of our physical world will be treated with greater respect and perhaps even placed at a premium. The value of going for a walk, spending time in nature, reminding ourselves who we are. Finding this balance may enable us to embrace our digital world with our feet firmly placed in our inner and outer minds.

I decided to evolve my New York State of mind by moving to Woodstock in upstate NY. I live in a house looking out over the wilderness; the people in this place, the wildlife, the hills, trees and lakes have become a new part of who I am. I get to wander into the forest, wake up to a beautiful sunrise, and breathe in the environment that I love. I have never felt so balanced and mindful.

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