Proprioception refers to the brain’s ability to know where our body is in space. The brain gathers information from a wide range of senses and then processes this information in order to compare it with a virtual body map, or body schema, stored in our memory. The outcome is that we know where, for instance, our limbs are without looking at them. It also allows us to locate our ear without the aid of a mirror, or scratch an itch on our back. It is even possible to extend our body map to include the car we’re driving. Most experienced drivers ‘know’ the width of their car with inch-accurate precision.
The proprioceptive system gathers information from:
- The vestibular (or balance) system in the inner ear regarding the position of our head, the pull of gravity, the speed and acceleration of our movements
- Our hearing which can estimate our distance to objects that make a sound (like a car), but also from reflective sound when indoors
- Our eyes which can see the space around us, our position in this space and our body posture
- Our sense of touch regarding all objects that we are in contact with
- Our sense of smell, a sense on which we unconsciously rely to discern direction and distance from objects and events in our environment
- Stretch receptors that monitor length, tension and pressure in our muscles, joints and tendons
If any of these inputs are missing or distorted, or if the internal body map is incomplete or faulty, we will have a diminished sense of body-in-space and have to place greater reliance on other senses such as our eyes to compensate. This can lead to lack of concentration, tiredness and a failure to achieve to our full potential.
People that often walk into door frames, bump themselves or others, that don’t quite know where the seat of a chair is when sitting down, that have difficulties stepping off pavements or that cautiously walk down stairs with one foot joining the other on each step probably have difficulties with their proprioceptive sense.
Proprioception differs from kinesthesia in that kinesthesia is the sense of relative muscle, joint and tendon position in specific situations. Kinesthetic memory involves learning these positions and the sequence of shifts in these positions for repeated movements such as required for writing. Proprioception is a dynamic sense, allowing continuous accommodation and adaptation to a shifting environment, such as in dance, or moving through a crowded room.
Although there is no direct way to impact on our sense of proprioception, working on the vestibular system through the ears and eyes, using sound and light will indirectly assist in strengthening this system. A variety of neuro-developmental exercises are also specifically designed to address deficiencies in the sense of proprioception.