Do you thrive on the buzz at work, or do you grimace at the mere thought of phones ringing or colleagues shouting at each other across the office floor?
According to Cape Town-based Dr Annemarie Lombard, CEO of Sensory Intelligence Consulting, our sensory thresholds play a crucial role in our perception of the world.
Understanding whether you have a high or low threshold for different senses can have a considerable impact on both your personal and working life.
“Sensory intelligence has a major role to play because the world is so technology orientated, overloaded and disengaged,” she says.
Lombard explains the brain has three levels that work in conjunction with one another. The top level is the cortex of the brain and the IQ center, where thinking, learning and reasoning take place. The middle section is the stronghold of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). The lower brain level, often referred to as the primitive brain, is the sensory intelligence area of the brain and the gateway for all information. This information is filtered and creates triggers for the two top parts.
“Sensory intelligence is the understanding and insight on how your lower brain triggers actions and responses in order for people to make adaptations and better choices. If we can understand and control the brain at this level, we can use the senses to influence cortical thinking and working of the higher brain structures,” says Lombard.
With a PhD in Health Sciences and 24 years of national and international clinical experience as an occupational therapist, Lombard says sensory intelligence thresholds have a direct impact on our behaviors, habits, relationships and choices.
“A low threshold to a sense means the body recognizes it quickly, over-responds and tends to go into over stimulation, while a high threshold means the body takes longer to create the firing pattern, under-responds and is often under-stimulated,” she says.
While typically each individual will have a different threshold for each sense, Lombard says that more often groupings occur, with people often having low thresholds across various senses resulting in a generalized low threshold sensory profile and vice-versa.
“While we see fluctuations across various systems, low threshold people typically will be fussy eaters, dislike certain tastes and textures. They will go to the same restaurant and may have particular daily rituals. They can be change aversive, hate surprises and prefer to mingle in small groups. They can be seen as fussy and controlling, but are in fact continuously working hard to ‘protect’ themselves from over stimulation. They have a tendency to say no as they need to think and process more,” says Lombard.
On the flip side, high threshold people love going to a new restaurants, drive change and surprises. They are often sociable and enjoy being in a large group, are often daring and say yes very quickly.
Lombard says sensory thresholds drive the brain to naturally avoid what feels wrong and seeks out what feels right. She adds that companies taking sensory processing into consideration when planning an office environment can boost productivity and cohesion.
For example, a person with a low threshold for sound will do better in a quiet corner of the office, with the phone volume turned down, whereas a person with a high threshold for sound will do well in the busiest part of the office.
“Our sensory behaviors drive a huge amount of our working habits. It is critical to understand and manage engagement and collaboration in open plan office environments. People get irritable, distracted and fight because they don’t understand the underlying triggers, which 80 percent of the time have a sensory root,” says Lombard.
Understanding your thresholds also allows you to put strategies in place to reduce distractions in order to improve concentration and focus, and reduce stress.
“Know what to avoid, anticipate what you cannot change and plan accordingly. You can also self-regulate by using high threshold drivers which help to reduce sensory overload,” says Lombard, who has trademarked her company name.
Many occupational therapists work with sensory processing as a therapy, particularly with children. But Lombard says her focus has been to see how sensory intelligence can be of use to every person and to the business environment.
And according to Queen Ramotsehoa, Founder of the Tsheto Leadership and Coaching Academy in Johannesburg, understanding her sensory profile created a new path to self-awareness.
“I find the layers available for leaders in terms of knowing themselves and their team members go deeper than a lot of people recognize. One of the characteristics of both leaders and employees alike is the intake of stimuli through their senses. I know a lot of people battle in open plan offices, including the arrangement and even color of the furniture,” says Ramotsehoa.
Having had her profile done in 2012, she says: “I learned a cluttered and noisy environment makes me miserable. I realised self-awareness immediately empowered me to manage myself, especially when under pressure, firstly by understanding where the irritation comes from and what to do to ensure I don’t end up snapping and upsetting people around me. For maximum performance, leaders need to take sensory profiles into account when they create space for themselves and for others.”