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Focus vs. Blur: Multi-Sensory Learning, Motivated Focus, & The Mass: Pt. I


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

How Does Multi-sensory Learning Theory Help Us Understand the Difference Between a “Complete” Mass and a “Minimal” Mass?

Reasoning by analogy can open up new and helpful ways of thinking.  The Holy Mass may be viewed as a school for souls, an instructional method, similar to the methods skillful teachers use to help students grasp challenging concepts.   An analogy is a comparison that functions as a thought experiment, not an exercise in “nothing but-ism”, reductionism, or pseudo-scientific materialism.  Rather, the analogy of the Mass as a school for souls invites us to appreciate the practical wisdom of the liturgy in a different way.

A parish has much in common with a public school.  Parishioners and students are similar mixed bags.  Whether in the church or the classroom, we find all manner of personality types, learning styles, levels of motivation, personal backgrounds, ethnicities, and aptitudes.

If many kids act unmotivated and disengaged in a public school classroom, it’s useless to blame their low academic achievement on vague “problems in our society”.  In practical terms, that’s a way for teachers to wriggle out from the need to re-examine their instructional methods and make some necessary changes.  For example, traditional lectures work well for the high IQ verbal learners who also speak English as their mother tongue.  This group of students may be a rather small percentage of the entire class.  What about everyone else?  Should the teacher simply allow the rest of the class to drift along in a state of confusion and disengagement?  The answer is not to dumb down the academic standards to hide the reality that 90% of the class is achieving “below basic”.  Instead, instructional methods are most effective when teachers balance direct explanations of Big Picture concepts with a variety of learning options, so there is something for everyone.

The purpose of the school is to educate the students; the purpose of the Church is to sanctify the laity.  Sadly, many of us lay people drift along in a state of confusion and disengagement; our spiritual achievement is “below basic”.  In time, we may drift out of the Faith altogether.  Why is this happening? It’s useless to blame our underdeveloped spirituality on “problems in our society”.  In practical terms, that’s a way for both priests and people to wriggle out from the need to re-examine what they’re doing and to make some necessary changes.

Supporters of the Reform of the Reform know full well what these necessary changes really are, how the changes should look and feel,  and why these changes are vital from a theological perspective.  Unfortunately, however, knowledge isn’t always power. Advocates of authentic liturgical renewal often exhibit considerable emotional scar tissue due to years of frustration.  They know full well that ROTR is vital to the New Evangelization, but it’s difficult to get traction in actual parishes.  Liturgical renewalists read each other’s brilliant articles and attend one another’s fascinating conferences, but how to break out of the closed circle?  How to convince the fence-sitters to quit dithering and take concrete steps to improve the situation?

To develop the analogy and seek new ways to encourage the fence-sitters, we’ll limit discussion to how the “complete” Holy Mass benefits lay people.   Accordingly, the following discussion is a theology-free zone.  This series of three short articles will define certain terms imported from the psychology of education, provide an analytical structure, and unpack detailed examples.  We’ll endeavor to answer three questions:

  • How does multi-sensory learning theory help us understand the difference between a “complete” Mass and a “minimal” Mass?
  • How does the complete Mass build motivated focus? How does a minimal Mass induce blur?
  • How does a complete Mass help lay people learn by osmosis?

“Complete” vs. “Minimal” Holy Masses

A complete Mass, whether in the OF or the EF, provides worshippers with the ultimate expression of multi-sensory learning, because it includes all the bells and smells, liturgical gestures, liturgical vesture, plus sacred music, art, and architecture.  Spaced repetition reinforces multi-sensory learning: the people repeat important sensory experiences in a variety of ways.  In the complete Holy Mass, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts; beauty unites the parts and gives form to spiritual feeling.  No one thread can be pulled out without weakening the entire fabric.  When a pastor provides his people with the complete Holy Mass, he exercises a high level of pastoral care and sows seeds that will bear wonderful spiritual fruit.

From an instructional methods point of view, in a complete Mass, multi-sensory learning and spaced repetition combine to support conceptual unity, so the Big Picture becomes clear.  As lay people learn the Faith through the complete Mass, the instructional methods are simultaneously deductive and inductive.  The homily presents the Big Picture in a straightforward way.  Simultaneously, holistic understanding is built from the ground up as worshippers participate in the full range of conceptual, emotional, and sensory experiences provided by the Mass itself.

In contrast, the “minimal” Holy Mass discards many multi-sensory learning opportunities and limits spaced repetition.  The bells and smells, liturgical gestures, liturgical vesture, sacred music, art, and architecture are absent, minimal, or of poor aesthetic quality.  A minimal Mass presents many disjointed parts that do not seem to combine to form a comprehensible Big Picture.  A minimal Mass also over-emphasizes the verbal learning style, so the worship experience feels talky and abstract, yet bland and vague.

This disjointed quality extends to the music program in a minimalist parish.  The music director tends to choose contemporary Catholic songs, or imported Protestant hymns, that do not connect very well with the actual day on the liturgical calendar.  For example, in a minimalist parish on the first Sunday of Advent, the music director may choose to omit the O Antiphons in favor of “The Old Rugged Cross” — a tune he enjoys and that he thinks is popular with the congregation.  This choice diminishes the impact of the first Sunday of Advent upon the people.  The First Sunday of Advent is made to seem like any other Sunday, because the people do not associate “The Old Rugged Cross”  with any special time or purpose.

A few conceptual imports

To understand why the complete Mass is so powerful and so beneficial to the people, it is helpful to import a few ideas from the psychology of education.

Multi-sensory learning engages more than one sense, which heightens focus and aids storage in long- term memory.  Each sense is associated with a natural learning style or personal aptitude. Different people have different learning styles.   Most people have a preferred or predominant learning style, with the other styles functioning in a secondary but supportive way.  Both primary and secondary learning styles become stronger through the right kind of experience and practice.  Our society values the verbal and analytical styles over the visual, aural, and kinesthetic/tactile styles.  The academic-industrial complex associates verbal and analytical fluency with high intelligence.  This is not always accurate:  artists, musicians, and athletes are highly intelligent, but not in the same way as writers or software engineers.  For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test does not measure artistic, musical, or athletic aptitude, although these abilities are important in the Real World.

Spaced repetition is a type of reinforcement that supports multi-sensory learning.  Spaced repetition incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent reviews of previously learned material in order to consolidate learning permanently in memory.  The manner of repetition can take many forms; all combine to support the unifying Big Picture concept.  For example:  the Hail Mary is said, the Salve Regina is sung, and the statue of Mary is seen. References to Mary are repeated throughout the Mass, but in different ways that connect with the different learning styles.

Major learning styles

  • Verbal: learns through words; easily grasps abstract concepts expressed in words.
  • Analytical: learns through abstract concepts presented systematically as logical wholes, including lists, if-then relationships, cause-effect relationships etc.
  • Visual: learns through pictures, colors, physical position of objects.
  • Aural: learns through sounds and music, poetic rhyme and rhythm.  Words associate easily with musical settings.
  • Kinesthetic/tactile/proprioceptive: learns through bodily motions, sense of touch, and sense of effort felt in muscles and joints.

Minor learning styles that may support any or all of the major styles 

  • Olfactory: associates aromas with concepts
  • Gustatory: associates tastes with concepts


  • Sensory memory: brief impression formed by input to any or all of the senses.
  • Short-term memory, AKA working memory: what has been learned in the last few minutes, without conscious recall or practice.  Example:  ability to repeat a phrase verbatim after hearing it just once.
  • Long-term memory: permanent storage available for retrieval at will.
  • All memory starts as sensory input, goes into working memory, and finally into long-term memory. 


Example:  Entering the church

Now let’s unpack an action that happens before every Mass, entering the church, and analyze it according to the principles developed above.  When people first enter the church, the kinesthetic/tactile learning mode is paramount, but the other four major styles are present, plus one minor style.  The people become recollected and ready for Mass.

(Click image to enlarge)

Readers, here’s your homework!  Please choose your favorite Catholic rite.  Take pencil and scratch paper, or fire up your laptop, and construct a chart similar to the one above.  How many multi-sensory learning opportunities and spaced repetitions do you discover?  What are they and how do they support one another to strengthen the people’s motivated focus?

Next, please rank your own learning styles in order, from most to least natural for you.  Your author’s rank order of learning styles are verbal, analytic, aural, visual, and kinesthetic / tactile.  Even though aural learning is third on my list, it’s extraordinarily important for my emotional relationship with the Holy Mass.  Since visual and kinesthetic learning are fourth and fifth on my list, I have particular need for the liturgy to use these learning styles to strengthen my natural weaknesses.  What about you?

In the next part, we’ll take a look at the differences between motivated and coerced learning, and the role each play in developing our focus.

6 thoughts on “Focus vs. Blur: Multi-Sensory Learning, Motivated Focus, & The Mass: Pt. I”

  1. When one affirms the Feeneyite version of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus the Mass, (Novus Ordo or Traditional Latin), takes on a new intensity.One knows that the rest of the world is going to Hell literally and this is the Mass in the only Church which counts.The only Church which saves from the fires of Hell through all eternity.

  2. Linda, your essay here captures both the science and the art of pedagogy. As a former teacher at the elementary, high school, and adult levels, I recognized, after kicking and screaming, that there are significant differences not just between ages but also between individuals despite their age. But, their are also two, dominant factors that mean more than any of the others put together: attitude and attraction. What you bring to church, to prayer, to work, to school, to a marriage, to any personal relationship or community endeavor is a two-way street, yes? The conversation, if there’s to be any at all, has to be bilateral. Thus, personal attitude or a self-willed application of the senses that desires, yearns for, and finally, accepts a new norm that totally rejects the zeitgeist comes to be. But, only after a battle of wits against the forces of our decadent culture. A culture I also must battle against every day. Looking forward to you next post. Please continue to enlighten and guide us.

  3. Very good Linda. Every week before Mass our Rector spends 5 minutes or so highlighting items in the weekly parish paper, and exercise in redundancy. Wouldn’t it be lovely if he would take the time to explain how we can get more involved in the Mass as you did above by understanding what we are supposed to gather from the proceedings. For most folks the whole thing is a kind of mindless exercise. How unfortunate! And what a loss!

  4. This is an interesting contemplation. Spaced repetition is certainly at work as it helps us become accustomed to practices and rituals. This allows us to engage in them more deeply as we can offload some of the cognitive load of recalling responses, songs, etc, freeing us to attend to other aspects of the Mass experience and enter into the liturgy.

    Alignment to “learning styles” is a bit off though. There’s ample evidence debunking them, and they’re kind of misaligned with this argument. There’s a very good summary of this here:

    Really, it seems more appropriate to focus on features of the ritual and how they produce an immersive experience that can lead to “flow”, a concept studied related to the psychlogy of religion (see Csikszentmihalyi). The multi-sensory experiences induced by many religions is known to deepen an experience of worship, and it’s certainly been honed in the Mass over the years.

  5. Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.‘[“] [cf. Mk 12:29-30 (RSVCE)]


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