Experience, by Linda Messbauer

Without the shared experience of the event, we cannot join in with the emotion of the memory. This is why there is compassion, sympathy and empathy

The Enigma of Experience

Why actively and dynamically working in a Multi-Sensory Environment with an individual and creating an essential positive experience is paramount to having success. Why you must have the “Sensory Enriched Experience”. It is the foundation of experiencing time together to engage in joy and sharing in the moment that allows the opportunity to unite and form a relationship that then can be extended. That is what the formation of the therapeutic or any relationship is; it is the basis of developing trust. The “Show” as I call it, has a protocol to follow. But unfortunately, most folks lose sight that it is all about maintaining constancy, consistency and keeping the “Show” positive (pleasurable) and novel that causes the experience to first be intense enough to want it to be repeated. I keep pondering the definition of experience and, the neuroscience; that term “experience dependent neuroplasticity”, how growth is dependent on experience… why is experience so hard to explain…why is it hard to relate it to another? I read so many neuroscience research articles that discuss “external cues”, environments” and “enrichment” of the stimuli. They draw conclusions that establish trends in having to experience the phenomena for the desired potential to happen.

A recent science article spoke to some aspects of this process; The secret of empathy: Stress from the presence of strangers prevents empathy, in both mice and humans.*1 Refers to the playing of a video game together for 15 minutes is enough to create empathy between two strangers. However, to paraphrase their findings: empathy cannot happen in the presence of a stranger without them sharing the experience.

So, what does this mean for us in a MSE? It means that the Trained Practitioner using mindfulness and therapeutic presence is accompanying and sharing the experience with the individual through providing the “Show”. This is now a shared pleasurable social/emotional experience. They are no longer strangers and empathy is shared. (The show is based on the individual’s needs and preferences, not the Practitioner’s sensory diet) This is why the story I tell of a 6 year old child in a Mental Health unit, who I ran one thirty minute “show” for, who could not even fully see my face. This child not only recognized me six months later, but from in a Time-Out room! He looked up with the broadest smile from ear to ear and said “The lady with the room!”. Remember now, I don’t speak or try and make eye contact during the “Show”. And only when the “Show” is over do I ask the big question: “Did you have a good time?” and “Would you like to come back?” Guess what answer I get! Often from children with Autism, their response is their first words…

The phrase “Experience is the Best Teacher” is very accurate to anyone who has suffered pain from touching something hot or bumping into something due to lack of paying attention. Once you experience the occurrence you try not to repeat it again. On the other hand, if you took a risk and went on a hot air balloon or simply tried a new restaurant with different food and you really had a wonderful and pleasurable (time) experience, you want to go back and do it again and again and again, depending on the reward or pleasure. Isn’t this the same reason you can’t get kids to let go of something that they enjoy? You get into a tug of war (conflict) — I’m not going to go there —except to say this is why there is a protocol to the “Show”. It has a defined beginning and defined end. The motivation is gone when the “Show” is over. Even the design of the room helps set limits for the individual experience.

You cannot relate to experience by a “cognitive” process. Experience ties “feelings/emotions” to an event, and the event is accompanied by a “sensory-motor” array of input to the brain (sights, smell, taste, sound, as well as it coming into the brain at different strengths or intensities, etc.). When combined, it creates a memory…

This memory can be positive, negative or neutral. I like to think of memories as being on the Richter Scale. You know, the one they use for Earthquakes. Only this time, the rating can go from negative (-10) to a positive, (+10) with zero (0) being neutral. The brain has different pathways or routes depending on the positive or negative rating. If the memory has been a positive 10 on the scale, it produces awesome pleasure and we want to repeat that “feeling”, and therefore the event. On the other hand, if it is a negative 10 the memory made is awful; one that we do not want to repeat or relive. The brain path or route is different and can cause stress, anxiety, anger and a cascade of other behavioral health issues. The event or experience may have been such a traumatic one that the negative memory formed is looped and experienced over and over again, for example causing PTSD.

I apologize for over-simplifying this, but the more folks can take this information away to help others, the better off we will all be.

Here is one more example that “experience” is not a cognitive process: Let’s say you try and tell a story of something funny that happened to you to someone else. After your story, you look up at the other person’s confused facial expression and you say “Oh, I guess you had to be there”. The person listening to you can’t get it; they were not there and didn’t feel the emotions and sensations of the event. It was a social experience not shared by the two of you. Ever have to watch someone else’s vacation pictures? How does it feel? I rest my case! So go out and make memories; all you need is a little time…

“We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”

― Walter Anderson
*1 McGill University. “The secret of empathy: Stress from the presence of strangers prevents empathy, in both mice and humans.” Science Daily, 15 January 2015 www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150115122005.htm.

©LMessbauer started 10/14 finished 4/15