Kinesthesia and proprioception

While I was researching a chapter for my book on awareness, I was searching for research to back my ideas that improving your sense of self and your internal body schema were related to proprioception. What I discovered was my understanding of proprioception and how it works was actually misinformed. Somehow, in all of the years I have spent researching and writing about movement, I completely missed the kinesthesia research, which is the word that more accurately depicted what I was trying to convey with my statements. Hopefully, I can clarify the terms kinesthesia and proprioception for you, two concepts which inform each other, but aren’t exactly the same thing.

Where am I in space? It’s a question you learn to ask if you do any form of exercise or movement modalities. Your ability to discern where your arm is, feel your foot on the ground, and understand how to rotate your right thumb away from your body is useful for certain skills. This internal “knowing” permeates your overall sense of self and comes from the act of using your body regularly.

This body awareness is called kinesthesia. It can be improved through things like touch, focused attention, and the sensation of effort in the muscles during specific tasks. It’s a valuable awareness to cultivate because it makes you feel more in control of your body and its parts. It begins to merge the mind body connection by creating a relationship between your thinking self and your physical self.

When you reach for a glass, how do you know how much you have to extend your arm? Or when you are walking, how do you know when there is a ledge and you have to step your foot up on to the ledge? These things happens unconsciously, every day, allowing you to navigate the world safely. This is your proprioception, considered by some to be the body’s sixth sense, an eerie sort of knowing that occurs every time you move over or around something, or you “just know” and object is nearby, even though you didn’t consciously see it.

“Jenn, this is all fine and dandy, but really, it’s just semantics,” you may be thinking, and while that may be true, it could also be argued semantics matter. These words are thrown around in the fitness and movement world, often incorrectly, which must frustrate the neuroscientists who devote their lives to studying the mechanisms behind mechanoreceptors and motor control. (Or maybe the neuroscientists are so busy studying the underpinnings of how we work they aren’t following how their work is being misinterpreted. I hope it’s the latter.)

Anyway, I do think there is value to understanding what these two terms means and how they differ, so let’s look at things a little more closely.

My almost 13 year old pomapoo has cataracts. He doesn’t see well and bumps into things regularly. I took him out in the early morning recently, letting him roam and do his business. I called him back to me. He turned, trotted towards me, and stopped, just shy of my shoes to sit down. How did he “know” where I was?

His sense of proprioception kicked in, telling him where he was in relation to me. I was in an open space, there was nothing else around, and he was able to accurately detect me and the space I took up as opposed to the succulents that line our walkway, which are often a source of lots of bumping and reorienting.

Proprioception is how athletes know how to navigate their bodies between players and get to the ball. It’s your ability to lift your foot just the right amount to clear the step. It’s the feeling you get when you look at the obstacle between you and where you want go and you instinctively know whether you can make it over the obstacle—or not.

Like all things in life, proprioception is heightened when you practice it. Just like a sommelier has an ability to taste subtle differences in cabernets, picking up on hints of fruits and wood, the elite athlete’s proprioception is finely tuned, enabling him to inherently know exactly where his body is in relation to a ball/balance beam/another person. The athlete, then, is able to move through an obstacle course fluidly, while a desk worker who doesn’t use his body in a comprehensive way regularly will struggle, stopping regularly to figure out how to lift his leg/place his arm/step over the elevated obstacle.

Try this:

Place a block or book on the ground. Stand in front of the block or book with your feet even and reach your right foot back to touch the block without looking. Bring your right foot back to the ground. Now, reach your left foot back to touch the block. Once you touch it, bring the left foot back to the ground.

Look down. Are your two feet even?

Your ability to touch the block without looking is proprioception. Where you placed your foot after touching the block is also proprioception. Both skills required a “sense” of the objects around you and your relationship to them.

Kinesthesia, on the other hand, is your conscious awareness of you, your body, and where it is located in space. If you were to ask me right now which sitting bone is heavier to the floor, I would immediately respond “left.” If you were to question how my shoulder blades were resting against the wall I am leaning against, I would be able to give you, what I think, is an accurate description quickly. I have practiced feeling different parts of myself and where they reside. As a result, my body schema, the internal map my brain has of me and its parts, is a fairly accurate representation of my actual physical self.

Curiously, just because athletes have amazing proprioception, it doesn’t mean all of them have amazing kinesthetic awareness, and just because I have good kinesthetic awareness, it doesn’t mean I have great proprioception. In fact, my proprioception is less good when it comes to accurately gauging jumps and landings than it is when it comes to balancing on uneven surfaces or knowing where I am in relation to another person.

Your kinesthetic sense can be further altered by things like fatigue or injury (kinesthetic literature review), which just means your sense of how you are moving may not be an accurate representation of how you are actually moving, and those two representations, your felt sense and your actual self, may move further apart as you get tired or after you’ve sprained an ankle or had surgery.

Try this:

Close your eyes. See if you can feel each of your left toes. How long are they? Where are they resting in relation to each other? Now shift your awareness to your left foot. What shape is the top of your left foot? Where does it meet the ankle? What shape is the bottom of your foot? What does your arch look like? What shape is the heel of your foot?

Now, open your eyes and look at your foot. How accurate was your visual representation? Is there anything about your foot that surprises you when you look at it compared to what it felt like in your mind?

A number of things influence your ability to accurately gauge both your body position and your kinesthetic sense of self. They include detecting a sense of tension or force, the sense of effort, and the sense of balance. Your ability to observe limb position and movement is certainly based on these things, and so it’s safe to say kinesthetic awareness informs proprioception. I would also venture to say good proprioception makes it a little bit easier to improve your kinesthetic awareness. If you have spent time thinking about how to manipulate your body in space, it generally makes it easier to feel your body and how it is moving.

Think of it this way: in the earlier example with the block, you may have known where the block was behind you and you may have felt yourself touch the block, but are you able to articulate how you touched the block? Did you point your toe or extend your hip? Did your knee bend? Did your body rotate? What was your strategy? The more kinesthetic awareness you have, the easier it is to articulate how you performed a specific skill. For those of us who teach, our ability to put into words what the body is doing at specific points throughout a skill creates an opportunity to teach a deeper awareness. Sometimes, just asking “how are you accomplishing that?” Is enough to give a person a deeper sense of his physical self.

Ultimately, what matters is the ability of an individual to feel secure during movement so he can interact with the world in a meaningful way. Proprioception and kinesthesia are two pieces to a larger puzzle that includes strength, mobility, awareness, and integration. Practice both for a well rounded movement experience.

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