Proprioception

‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes). The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.’

Wittgenstein

It is important to remember that human evolution has taken at least 5 million years; we are only able to describe the last few thousand as ‘civilised’, implying that our biology is the product or result of the slowly changing demands of nature. “We live in a time of rapid change” is a phrase in constant use these days usually referring to technological advances, scientific breakthroughs and so on. It also applies to us as a society – ideas change, different political parties come and go and social norms shift. Obviously, as individuals we are affected too.

Before modern times, this slow rate of change allowed humans to adapt the body gradually and unconsciously to new conditions. Now, however, we are able to change the environment around us and we do it more and more rapidly. Think for a moment of your day, from when you wake up in the morning, and contrast it with what living in the wild must have been like. We react to the events we cannot hear or see directly via telephone, radio and TV. What do such upheavals do to our bodies, not to mention our minds and relationships? Is it any wonder many of us become over-tense and collapse in a heap at the end of such a day? We become so preoccupied with signals from the outside world that signals from within the body become supressed, resulting in poor muscle function.

The changes mentioned above are only a few of those that occur constantly in our everyday lives. In total, they are more dramatic and wide-ranging than we imagine. Because of this tension in our bodies, the information our brains receive about where parts of the body are and what they are doing relative to each other, whether they are moving or still, is less reliable than when we lived in the wild. This information concerning the state of the body, called ‘proprioception’ by Charles Sherrington in the 1890s, comes mainly from the joints, tendons, and muscles. In addition to the five senses that we traditionally know, proprioception has been called our ‘sixth sense’.

The importance of proprioception cannot be exaggerated: it is so automatic, so familiar that we never give it a moment’s thought. It is the basis for balance, posture and movement. Even more fundamental, it is the basis for our sense of self. The neurologist Oliver Sacks’ in his book, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’, wrote a case study entitled, ‘The Disembodied Lady’, about a woman who lost almost all proprioception. It vividly illustrates this aspect of proprioception and her accompanying loss of her sense of self, and her emotional, as well as physical difficulties, make harrowing reading.

We do not notice the general deterioration in the way we use our bodies due to our loss of proprioceptive acuity. We do not consider the possible effect of the general misuse of our bodies on our ability to carry out ordinary as well as skilled actions, on our health and even on our underlying psychological state. Instead, we only notice specific symptoms and then try to treat them in isolation. We do not see the connection of a headache, for example, to the way we are using our body.

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