Proprioception (from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own") is the sense of the position of parts of the body, relative to other neighbouring parts of the body. Unlike the five exteroception human senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing, that advise us of the outside world, proprioception is the "sixth" sense that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally. It is the sense that indicates whether or not your body is moving with required effort as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other.
The proprioceptive sense is believed to be composed of information from sensory neurons located in the inner ear (motion and orientation) and in the joints and muscles (stance). There are specific nerve receptors for this form of perception, just like there are specific receptors for pressure, light/dark, temperature, sound, and other sensory experiences.
Proprioception is tested by police officers using the field sobriety test where the subject is required to touch their nose with their eyes closed. People with normal proprioception may make an error of no more than 2 cm. People with severely impaired proprioception may have no clue as to where their hands (or noses) are without looking.
Proprioception is what allows someone to learn to walk in complete darkness without bumping into the furniture. During the learning of any new skill, sport, or art, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some proprioceptive concerns specific to that activity. Without the appropriate integration of proprioceptive input, an artist would not be able to brush paint onto a canvas without looking at the hand as it moved the brush over the canvas; it would be impossible to drive an automobile because a motorist would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead; we could not use touch typing or perform ballet; and one would not even be able to walk without literally "watching where you put your feet".
The proprioceptive sense can be sharpened through study of many disciplines. The Alexander Technique and related methods use the study of mannerisms to directly enhance kinesthetic judgment of effort and location. Juggling trains reaction time and spatial location.
Oliver Sacks once reported the case of a young woman who lost her proprioception due to a viral infection of her spinal cord. At first she was not able to move properly at all. Later she relearned by using her sight (watching her feet) and vestibulum only. She eventually acquired a stiff and slow movement, which is believed to be the best possible in the absence of this sense.
Apparently, temporary loss or impairment of proprioception may happen periodically during growth, mostly during adolescence. Possible experiences include: suddenly feeling that feet or legs are missing from your mental self-image; the need to look down at arms, hands, legs, etc. to convince yourself that they are still there; falling down while walking, especially when attention is focused upon something other than the act of walking (e.g., looking at a person who started talking or reading a billboard).
The proprioceptive sense can become confused because humans will adapt to a continuously-present stimulus; this is called habituation or desensitization. The effect is that it seems as though proprioceptive sensory impressions disappear, just as a scent seems to disappear when a person smells it for a prolonged period of time. One practical advantage of this is that unnoticed actions or sensation continue in the background while an individual's attention can move to another concern. Alexander Technique addresses these issues.
People who have a limb amputated may still have a sense of that limb; this is termed a phantom limb. This phenomenon is not limited to one sensation, however. Phantom sensations can occur that are perceived as movement, pressure, pain, itching, or hot/cold as well. (Note: The work of V. S. Ramachandran indicates that despite popular belief, the phantom limb phenomena is actually the result of neural signal bleed through in the brains sensory maps, rather than from stimulation of nerves.)
There is one known case of a person losing her entire proprioceptive sense, which is one of the cases discussed in Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
- The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing http://www.istd.org/features/health/proprioception.html
- A comprehensive Alexander Technique site http://www.alexandertechnique.com
Last updated: 02-10-2005 13:02:29
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55