Close your eyes, and wave your hand over your head. No, really. Try it. Even with your eyes closed, you can tell when your hand is over your head, right? You can also tell when you’re moving it forward or backward. This ability is thanks to what is perhaps our most overlooked sense: Proprioception.
So what is Proprioception?
It’s pronounced PRO-pree-oh-Sep-shun, and comes from the Latin proprios, meaning “one’s own,” and percipere, meaning to “seize, understand.” So it refers to self-perception, or “understanding one’s self.”
It’s one of the less-known human senses. The more familiar senses of sight, hearing, touch, etc., give us information about our external environment. Proprioception gives us information about our internal state, such as joint angle, muscle length, and muscular tension. This collective information is integrated to tell us where our body is in space, and where our limbs are relative to each other.
Why is it important?
- Moving without looking
Without proprioception, we would have no way of knowing what our arms or legs were doing without looking at them. We would literally have to watch our feet in order to walk down the street. We would be dependent on our sense of sight to tell us where our body was in space at all times.
- Clear vs Blurry
If you wear glasses, or have had your eyes dilated for an eye exam, you know how challenging it can be to navigate the world with blurry vision. A similar effect can happen with a “blurry” proprioceptive sense. Instead of having a clear sense of where your body is, it’s more of a vague, general impression. The extra work it takes to manage even small tasks through that “blurriness” will make it harder to focus, learn, or interact with others. It will simply take much more effort than if your proprioceptive sense is clear and “in focus”.
- Emotional sense of Self
The very root of the word means “to understand one’s self.” Beyond the mechanical aspect of knowing where we are in space, proprioception is at the core of giving us our internal sense of “Self.” Through learning to discriminate between subtle physical sensations, we learn where “I” end and “another” begins. We also learn to sense in our bodies whether we are tired, excited, scared, hungry or peaceful.
The Neglected Sense
Proprioception is easily overlooked because it’s so basic and automatic that our conscious mind barely notices it. But without it, we’d be unable to walk down the street without watching our feet, we’d drain lots of energy clumsily stumbling around, and we’d have very little information to inform of us our emotional states or biological needs.
Like any physical skill, proprioception can be improved through training. In future posts, we’ll explore the importance of Proprioception in more depth, and give insight into how you can improve your body’s proprioceptive accuracy.