The term Proprioception refers to our sense of ourselves. That probably sounds a bit vague but try this little test and you’ll see what we mean.
Try this experiment:
- First close your eyes.
- Raise both hands above your head and keep them still.. no finger wiggling!
- Keeping your eyes closed, now touch the end of your nose with the forefinger of your right hand and then up again to touch the thumb of your left hand.
- Now continue the experiment by using different fingers on your right hand to touch your nose and then the thumb of your left hand.
How did you get on? Could you ‘find’ your thumb each time? Was it easier the more you tried out the experiment? Did you try swapping hands so that the fingers on your left hand had to tap your nose and then find the thumb on your right hand? Which was better?
So now that you’ve looked like a complete fool in front of everyone, you’re beginning to understand what proprioception means. The body’s ability to know where it’s at!
Knowing where our body is and what it’s doing is extremely important and it’s something we learn to do from the moment we’re born. Think of the last time you saw a baby. Babies like to reach out and grasp objects, often trying to put things into their mouths. As they get older they test out their balance when they try to walk and they practice feeding themselves (with various results!).. Well, you get the picture.
So what happens once we’ve learned all these skills? We have a sense of self. Even with our eyes closed we can perceive where we are and how to react to our environment.
Conscious proprioception is described by the experiment you tried out above and is governed by the cerebrum. The cerebellum, however, is the area in the brain that is largely responsible for coordinating the unconscious aspects of proprioception. Unconscious proprioception could be demonstrated by our ability to drive a car - we can use the pedals, steering wheel and indicators all whilst looking at the road ahead.
Can you lose your sense of proprioception? Yes. There are currently 6 known cases in the world of patients who have a total loss of proprioception (mainly due to a viral infection that has destroyed key nerves). Imagine what it would be like to try to walk but not to be able to know whether your feet were touching the ground or to try to move your arm but not know if it’s moving in the correct direction!
Excessive alcohol consumption is the most frequent cause of a loss of proprioception. US Police Officers use the ‘field sobriety test’, which relies on similar tasks to the one above that you carried out, to determine whether someone is fit to drive.
Lots of experiments have been done to test levels of proprioception and how our brains learn to adapt to our environment. Sports and Physical Therapists use a variety of proprioception training aids to continue training the brain. Continued proprioception development enables athletes to perform better and patients who have suffered a stroke (or other injury) to re-train their brains to enable their bodies to function more effectively. Even patients with a severe loss of proprioception have been taught how to re-wire their brains and learn to have a sense of self again.