Sensory Modalities – Stacking Patterns - International Academy for Deep Transformation

Sensory Modalities – Stacking Patterns


While most people are blessed with five senses, the way the senses are used varies enormously. Typically, we tend to favour one of the three primary modalities of seeing, hearing, and touch/feeling, while the other channels fall somewhat into a background, supportive role, influencing the nature of our experience profoundly. Our preferences make a big difference to our personalities, our interests, and abilities.

French author and educator, Antoine de La Garanderie has written extensively about the implications of favouring the visual or auditory channels in shaping our learning preferences. More recently, Dawna Markova  has coined the term ‘Modality Stacking’ to denote the way we favour a focused conscious modality, with our least favoured modality working unconsciously in the background and a third modality in the midground, bridging our conscious and unconscious modalities.

Becoming More Sensitive And Aware

We introduce Modality Stacking in our Deep Transformational Coaching training to stimulate sensitivity to the way people inhabit quite different worlds through the strong biases in how they direct their attention.

The Modality Stacking model helps participants recognize more fully the profound difference that our sensory preferences can make to what works and what doesn’t work in our lives. Firstly in our personal experience and then in the patterns of others’ lives.

The Modality Stacking model helps people become more sensitive to the systemic nature of sensory experience, and how developing a particular sensory bias has consequences for our relationship to how we use the other senses.

Foreground, Midground, Background

The Modality Stacking model helps us tune into the way our experience typically has a strong conscious focus (foreground), a less prominent subconscious focus (midground), and a more unconscious (background) experience.

For instance, within the visual channel, reading these words, generally involves a central foveal vision, around the words being read at the conscious level – conscious focus. At the same time, we may be partially aware of the surrounding field of peripheral vision (the rest of the page, screen, and beyond) that may be present, but whose detail is fuzzier, at least until we focus on it. This peripheral field of experience is more subconscious.

Typically this foreground-midground relationship allows us to have a clear conscious focus, but to switch quickly if something that is not in sharp conscious focus, but close to it, becomes more prominent. For example, we are reading, but recognise that something unusual is moving at the edge of our field of vision, and we check to see what it is.

Even more in the background are elements of our experience that are completely out of awareness., to the point we could say that they are unconscious. For instance, while concentrating deeply on reading, we may not notice sensations in our body.

Long-Term Tendencies

The Modality Stacking model suggests that this momentary shifting systemic relationship among the senses gives rise to long-term habits. People become specialized in the sense that they most rely on for their conscious experience, while the other senses function in the background, or virtually unconsciously. These preferences influence academic orientation, professional strengths, and patterns in relationship.

The midground channel that is more loosely focused than the directed focused foreground attention channel typically mediates between the conscious foreground and the still more broadly focused unconscious background channel. For instance, we may have a conscious visual focus, and auditory may be midground as we metacomment on what we are seeing. This subconscious internal dialogue may serve as bridge to ‘tune into’ what we are feeling but are not so aware of.

The background channel may be either the channel that is out of conscious awareness because it is so highly developed that the processes are automatic and happening by themselves without need for conscious control or out of awareness because it is underdeveloped. Sometimes it can be both: someone may have sophisticated proprioceptive skills – e.g., wonderful sporting abilities, where the finely developed skills in movement are background and unconscious, but the emotional sensitivity may be underdeveloped, and they may ignore their inner feelings about their experience.

Personal Tendencies

To give a personal example, I tend to have a conscious visual bias, with subconscious auditory, which can switch to foreground auditory with subconscious visual. Kinaesthetic is typically the more unconscious background modality. It is difficult for me to learn dance-steps with this pattern. I will tend to look at the dancer demonstrating and talk to myself about what I see and should do. I find it difficult to feel what I’m seeing in my body. Worse still, I may talk to myself about how I can’t do it and feel clumsy and awkward as a result. My unconscious kinaesthetic works very well, however, in spontaneous movement where the unconscious broad kinaesthetic focus can become ecastatic foreground in which I let go of the auditory and visual.


With respect to the relationship between foreground and background experience, in today’s world, for very many people smell and taste may typically be less well-developed with our cultural focus on what we see, hear, and touch/feel. However, smell may have an important influence on us at the subconscious or even unconscious level.

The whole perfume business is predicated on this. While some people may put on a lot of perfume which brings it strongly to the foreground, typically perfume is used more in the midground, between conscious and unconscious, where it affects attitudes and responses subliminally.

Of course, the perfume brand, and presumably the odour of the perfume get hooked to visual images of style and other values (sensuality, popularity, elegance, wealth, etc.), which presumably are influencing the wearer of the perfume at an even more unconscious level.

How Robust is the Markova Modality Stacking Model?

Personally, I’m not sure how accurate the Markova Modality Stacking Model is in ‘real life’. Human experience is complex, subtle, and rapidly shifting. I find the basic model leaning in the direction of over-generalization and over-simplification. But I think it is useful as a training tool and has more than a grain of truth in it. Our sensory predilections do make a difference in the short term in the moment and in the longer term for more abiding tendencies. And our sensory bias has consequences for how the senses dance together.

Enriching Experience

For instance, a strong conscious preference for visual processing means that the auditory channel is likely to have a more subconscious, but important mid-ground supportive role in labelling and commenting on the meaning of mental images. Conversely, a strong tendency to focus on language and so-called ‘auditory digital’ verbal content, may mean that, in the midground or background, visual images are used to provide the ‘big picture’ organizing or connecting the more linear verbal material.

In some coachings, recognizing the client’s biases may be central to what needs to change or be learnt. For instance, you’re not going to succeed in learning geometry, interior design, or architecture, if you can’t hold internal visual images. And you won’t enjoy literature if you have limited sensitivity to language. But fortunately, we can develop our sensory flexibility and greatly enrich our quality of life in the process.

Above all, it is worth noting that often the most influential part of a person’s experience are elements that are present in the client’s field of experience but completely out of the client’s conscious awareness. There is an art to recognizing these elements and bringing them to consciousness that takes time to develop and lots of practice. Markova Modality Stacking Patterns are one element to help develop that systemic sensitivity to sensory experience and the ability to tune into not only what is obviously conscious, but what is out of awareness but still having an influence, whether as language, images, or feeling-sensations.

If you would like to learn more about Modality Stacking Preferences,  you can consult the following resources:

See also: Dawna Markova, The Open Mind: Exploring the 6 Patterns of Intelligence, Conari Press, York Beach, ME, USA, 1996