Some call it our sixth sense – the kinesthetic or position sense – our somatosensory system… It’s proprioception!
Proprioception is fundamental to balance and coordination. Here’s how Radio Lab describes it:
“There’s a sense so essential to our everyday functioning, it is almost impossible to describe beyond… simply being. Or existing, physically. Called proprioception, and sometimes referred to as the sixth sense, it is the sense that the body uses to detect itself.”
Radio Lab talked to one man and his doctor who have an interesting vantage point for explaining this proprioceptive sense. Ian Waterman can describe this sense so accurately because he is one of the few people in the world to have lost it. Ian and his doctor, Jonathan Cole, pressed themselved into the world’s smallest BBC recording booth to talk to us about what Ian doesn’t feel.
This Radio Lab segment is called “The Butcher’s Assistant”: http://www.radiolab.org/2006/may/05/the-butchers-assistant/
I recommend the entire Radio Lab episode entitled “Where Am I?” Here is a brief overview of the one hour show:
“How does your brain keep track of your body? We examine the bond between brain and body, and look at what happens when it breaks. First, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks tries to find himself using magnets. Then, a century-old mystery: why do many amputees still feel their missing limbs? We speak with a neuroscientist who solved the problem with an optical illusion. Up next, the story of a butcher who suddenly lost his entire sense of touch. And we hear from pilots who lose consciousness and suffer out-of-body experiences while flying fighter jets.”
The term proprioception is sometimes used interchangeably with “kinesthetic sense.” This article on wikipedia explores the distinction.
Proprioception is one of the three major sensory inputs the brain integrates in order to maintain our balance. The other two are vision and the structures of the inner ear (referred to as our vestibular system). If one sensory input is compromised or weakened, then we rely on the other two more heavily to determine where we are in space and how we need to adjust to maintain balance. Typically we rely on vision heavily. To prove this to yourself all you have to do is stand on one leg with your eyes closed. For most people it is much more difficult to maintain balance than with eyes open. However, some people have developed their proprioceptive sense to such a degree that vision is not critical to their ability to stay balanced.
For most people our proprioceptive ability reaches its zenith somewhere between the ages of 15 and 25 years old. After that point it begins to decline very gradually. Little by little we limit our physical activities to what feels safe to do. However, some people actively train this sense. High wire walkers like Karl Wallenda maintain excellent balance skills into old age. You don’t have to be a circus legend to have good balance as you grow older. Anyone can cultivate their proprioceptive skills and improve their dynamic stability!
Explore the other pages on this website and begin the journey!