Is One of Your Senses Better Than the Others? Here’s Why It Can Seem Like It

When you’re reading a book in a buzzing coffee shop, do you find it easier to pay attention to what you’re reading or listen in on the conversation happening next to you?

Chances are you know the answer to that question, but the reasons behind it aren’t always clear. Many people born with both sight and vision tend to favor either visual stimulation or auditory information when they’re trying to get stuff done, but the significance of that preference (or if it’s significant at all) has been somewhat of a hotly debated subject, particularly when it comes to helping kids in school optimize their learning.

For example, there have been a number of headlines in recent years as research has come out against the use of learning styles in the classroom as they relate to “visual learners” versus “auditory learners.” Some detractors argue that children could be pigeon-holing themselves into one type of learning if they are continually told they’re better at just one thing, especially when there’s not evidence to back it up as a way to improve learning.

But the fact that many people have a preference for how they receive sensory information may be harder to deny, even if there’s a spectrum of how much that preference matters. (Preference does not mean effectiveness in learning or comprehension.) Over time, and especially as quickly developing children, we tend to develop skills that help us optimize relevant information, according to Jessica Stern, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the psychiatry department at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. 

“There is a preference that people tend to lean toward,” Stern said. “The brain adapts to what it needs.” 

An example with some actual research behind it is that of people who are either blind or deaf. People who are born blind, or become blind early in life, often have more “nuanced” hearing, according to the National Eye Institute, including better musical abilities (on average) as well as a better ability to track moving things, like a car. The reason, according to one University of Washington researcher who authored two 2019 studies on hearing in blind individuals, may be that blindness increases the need for more information to be “extracted” from sound, so a better capacity for it develops in the brain. 

Conversely, those who are deaf may have better visual attention, or the ability to pick up more visual information from the environment. (In some cases, however, better peripheral vision may cause more distractions.) 

Some people may also be closer to one end than the other if they have a disability that affects the senses, like auditory processing disorder, or a condition like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder that may affect the body’s response to different types of sensory input. 

While we may need more studies to understand how vision and hearing are related and how they impact our well-being, one fun part of living is toying around with what we already have: our own sensory experiences. 

Below are some tips from Stern on how to optimize your visual or auditory skill set when it comes to your work or daily life. 

Woman looking at post-it notes.

Seng Kui Lim/Getty Images

Tips for using visuals to be more productive 

If you like to work with what you see, you may start to “organize visually,” Stern said. Here are some of the ways you can mark your world visually:

  • Write things down in notebooks 
  • Lean into Post-it notes 
  • Color-code things (whether it’s your closet, work space or something else you want to feel on top of)  

Tips for using sound to be more productive

For people who prefer auditory information or listening to things, Stern suggests leaning into technology. You may try:

  • Podcasts or audiobooks (as opposed to reading “traditional” articles, like this one)
  • Listening to music while you work (specifically, music without lyrics for better focus) 

Read more: The Best Meditation Apps for Improving Stress

Improving observation – can it be done?  

Plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change, is much sharper the younger we are. This is why childhood is considered the formative period in terms of our cognitive development. However, there are ways you might improve your neuroplasticity as an adult, or at the very least, introduce some nuance to keep your mind on its toes through art, positive adjustments to your environment and more. 

In terms of processing information that you hear or see, with the hopes of becoming a little more observant in either, one of the simplest ways you can turn up the volume on a particular sense is by paying attention to it. You may do this by practicing mindfulness — a meditation for beginners, basically, with a hard focus on being “present.” While it can’t heal physical conditions like vision issues, practicing mindfulness or meditation has also been helpful to some people managing somatic or sensory symptoms, like tinnitus

To use mindfulness to better focus your senses, try homing in on one at a time. For example, in your typical (whatever minute) practice, focus only on the sounds around you. Or practice mindfulness on your walk in what you see — noting the color of the trees you pass, the style and cut of that passerby’s shirt, the chipped paint on the building and so on. 

Practicing mindfulness may also make you more aware of the way you process or absorb information, according to Stern. She gave the example of the common experience of listening to an audio, or reading a book, but frequently tuning out for short stints that require you to “turn the page back” or rewind. Being more generally mindful or present can help you realize you’re doing this and take steps toward improvement. 

Read more: Need to Get More Done? Try These 8 Productivity Hacks

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