The Secret Sense

proprioception the secret sense 112815
Right now, as you read this, you have a secret sense at work in your body. Right now, this secret sense is allowing you to hold whatever position you’re in, to manipulate the device you are reading on, scratch an itch while you are reading, and even to speak, gesture, and tell someone how awesome this post is and that they should be reading it, too.

Proprioception is the secret sense that gives your body a sense of itself. Sometimes called the hidden sense or the sixth sense, proprioception is what allows the body to find itself in space and time but more than that, proprioception allows us to be embodied. [For a great explanation of proprioception, check out this excellent post by Todd Hargrove.]

Proprioception is so essential to our physical functioning and sense of ourselves that most of us take it for granted until it goes off track. Proprioception calculates where your body has been, where it is, and where it’s going. A common example of mis-propriocepting is when you think there is one more step at the top of the stairs and do that awkward-wackadoodle-over-stepping thing on the landing. Proprioception also calculates how much stretch and strength is needed for an upcoming movement. So when you see a box that you think is full of books but when you lift it find that it is actually full of tissue paper, you’ll lift wildly and probably toss the paper across the room.

But to get a true picture of how integral proprioception is to our physical functioning, imagine what would happen if a body lost it entirely. In his case study, The Disembodied Lady (from his brilliant 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat), Oliver Sacks writes fascinatingly about just that. He tells about Christina who, when given preoperative antibiotics before gallstone surgery, lost her proprioception. This young, athletic woman suddenly was unable to move, sit, speak or use facial expression. When she began to regain some movement, she could only move body parts she could see and even then movement was drunken, flailing, and wildly awkward.

In his early observations of Christina, Dr. Sacks writes

the collapse of tone and muscle posture, from top to toe; the wandering of her hands, which she seemed unaware of; the flailing and overshooting, as if she were receiving no information from the periphery, as if the control loops for time and movement had catastrophically broken down.

As Christina herself describes it

I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself… It has no sense of itself.

Truly, the proprioceptive sense is indispensable for creating the normal, easeful, graceful movement that most of us do automatically.

The body’s sense of itself comes from three systems: vision, balance organs (the vestibular system), and proprioception. Usually the three work together and should one system fail, the others can compensate. It is for this reason that Christina could use her eyes to create movement since the body had gone “blind” and couldn’t “see” itself.

For a deeper understanding of the connection between vision and proprioception, watch even a few minutes of the amazing 1998 BBC documentary, The Man Who Lost His Body.* The film tells the story of Ian, a man who lost his proprioception at the age of 20 and his miraculous rehabilitation to near full-functioning. Like Christina, in order for Ian to move, he has to see himself do it. His vision is so utterly tied to his ability to move that when the lights went out suddenly in a power outage, he completely collapsed to the floor.

Why do we care about this secret sense? Unlike Christina and Ian most of us have fully functioning proprioception. (Whew, right?) So why is it worth knowing about a system that is working without any input from us?

First, we can strengthen proprioception through movement, awareness, and body-mind exercises. By strengthening our secret sense, we can avoid injury and improve balance, agility and grace. Who wouldn’t like a little more of that? (On Tuesday, in the Art in Action post, I’ll talk about specific things you can do to boost your proprioceptive skills.)

Second, understanding the fundamental, hidden power of proprioception is like noticing your habits. By taking proprioception out of the shadow of unconsciousness into the light of awareness, it gives us and a deeper understanding of what our bodies and brains are doing for us in every moment and we can then make choices to bolster it.

Not least, understanding proprioception gives cause for celebrating miracles. Miracles like touch typing, scratching an itch in the middle of your back, and walking without looking at your feet. And that can transform the secret sense into secret sauce.


* [RABBIT HOLE ALERT – I was only going to watch a few minutes of this documentary to see what Ian’s movement looked like, but got completely fascinated and watched the whole thing.]
BBC Documentary The Man Who Lost His Body (1998)
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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