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Proprioception is an essential part of our bodies’ ability to move. Learn more about proprioception and the importance of this sense with an exercise and test your understanding with a quiz.

The Senses

Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch; these are the things we think about when someone mentions the senses of the body.

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Most often the word sense is defined as any of the abilities by which humans and animals can experience the world around them. Many scientists disagree on the definition of this seemingly simple word, but these five senses remain the ones traditionally agreed upon and taught to us as children. However, scientists believe that there are many other senses that are not so easily recognized.Let’s see what we can discover.

For a moment, relax, loosen your body and pay attention to the space around you. What can you hear? Even if there is no noise in your environment, that lack of noise tells you something. Imagine for a moment if you heard the hiss of a snake instead; your reaction would have been much different! Are there smells in the room? What can you see? For a moment, focus on the places where your body touches a surface, such as the chair or floor.

These are all important senses. Now what if I asked you what temperature it is? Although you may not be able to give a precise number, you can certainly tell if it is comfortable, too cold or too hot. That would be your sense of the temperature in the room, and scientists have given it the name thermoception. We also have a sense of time passing. We can be very accurate about telling the time without a clock.

Proprioception

Let’s try one more activity. Close your eyes and raise your arms straight into the air. While keeping one arm straight up, use the other hand to touch your index finger to the tip of your nose. No peeking!Most likely you are able to touch the tip of your nose with relative ease.

How did you do that with your eyes closed? You used a sense called proprioception. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense where all of its body parts are relative to each other and to objects in its environment. Without this sense, very normal activities would be very difficult.

For example, without proprioception, we would not be able to walk without watching each leg raise off the ground and lower again to a safe and stable standing position. Phew! What a lot of work for something we take for granted! Think about any activity that uses the body, such as sports. Proprioception is involved in every physical activity we do. The proprioceptive sense continuously provides information to the brain as to the position, location, orientation and movement of the body. Proprioception allows us to move and react without watching our limbs at all times.

When Problems Occur With Proprioception

It is believed that our sense of proprioception comes from nerves in the limbs and inner ear and involves the entire nervous system. The inner ear is well known for affecting our stability and balance, which both work in harmony with proprioception.Did you recognize the activity we performed earlier to demonstrate this sense? If you watch a police show, it is likely that you will see an officer giving this test to someone pulled over on the side of the road.

Touching your index finger to your nose while your eyes are closed is part of a standard field sobriety test used to see if a driver is intoxicated. These tests can be very accurate due to the negative effects that alcohol has on the sense of proprioception. Alcohol greatly reduces the accuracy of the proprioceptive sense and allows for police to use the field sobriety test as an accurate measure of intoxication.Other problems can occur with a person’s proprioceptive sense. Proprioception, like all other senses, can be dulled by age, but also by fatigue or exhaustion.

More injuries occur in all types of sports when athletes get tired. Severe migraines and inner ear problems can also cause trouble with proprioception.One common problem with proprioception occurs very naturally and stops with maturity. Great fluctuations with growth, as seen in children and teenagers, can cause awkward movement when the proprioceptive nerves cannot catch up. With time, children and teenagers will learn to feel and coordinate their limbs. It is common to see a toddler misplace a foot or catch her shoe while walking due to the undeveloped proprioceptive sense.

Adults can also have problems with proprioception for the same reasons when severe weight gain or loss occurs.Science has discovered another oddity about our proprioceptive sense. Often when a limb has to be removed due to disease or injury, the person reports still feeling the missing limb. This is called phantom limb syndrome. Scientists believe that this experience is caused by memories of the proprioceptive nerves in the brain and body that still remain.

People with phantom limb pain can experience itching that they cannot scratch, feelings of movement, pain, temperature and many other sensations.

Lesson Summary

Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense where all of its body parts are, relative to each other and to objects in its environment. Although most of us take it for granted, proprioception allows us to enjoy even the simplest movements of walking and running without it being a tedious chore. So next time you run over an uneven surface or drive a car without staring at where your arms are on the wheel, thank proprioception!

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