Juliette Kando is a dancer, choreologist, author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.
If you think you have only five senses think again. In addition to the five senses that you already know about and use every day, the somatosensory and proprioception systems reveal that there are several additional senses at our disposal. These can be studied and trained for better health and for a more comfortable old age. So how many new senses are we talking about? But first, what are the somatosensory and proprioceptive systems? The yellow part of the next illustration may help to answer those questions.
What Is the Somatosensory System?
The somatosensory system manages your
- Pain threshold
What Is the Proprioception System?
The proprioception system is a branch of the somatosensory system. The proprioception system adds to the family of senses with a sense of ...
- Location: spacial awareness - where the body and its limbs are in space
- Direction: which way to go, focus, target, or retreat
- Force: how much or how little force to use
- Timing and Tempo: when, how fast or slow to move
Proprioception is also the sense that allows you to move in the dark, go up and down the stairs without looking at your feet, or successfully crack an egg without getting your fingers all messed up.
How Does it Work?
The body needs receptive organs for the five senses we know about, right? Eyes for sight, a nose to smell, a tongue to taste, ears to hear, and skin to feel touch. The sense of proprioception also needs organs to receive input messages from outside the body that can be transmitted to the central nervous system (includes the brain). Once the connection is made, the brain sends instructions back to the muscles so they can act appropriately with the right force in the right direction at the required speed. For example, if someone is just about to punch you in the face, your sense of proprioception takes care of quickly telling your brain to order your muscles to duck as fast as you can!
So what are those mysterious proprioceptive organs? Where are they? What do they do? While the skin organ plays an important role in proprioception (as in feeling cold, wind, etc.), two additional, lesser-known, organs come into play in proprioception. Those two organs are:
- The Golgi Tendon Organ
- Muscle Spindles
1. Golgi Tendon Organ for a Sense of Force
The Golgi tendon organ is a proprioceptive receptor; a tree-like sensory ending enclosed in a connective tissue capsule lying near the junction of a tendon and the end of a muscle. Are you caressing a baby or hitting a nail into the wall? Depending on the required action, the Golgi tendon organ’s function is to let you feel how much tension (force) a muscle needs to exert to perform a task.
2. Muscle Spindles for a Sense of Timing
Muscle spindles situated inside a muscle, are delicate sensory receptors that inform the central nervous system about changes required in the speed at which muscles are working to contract (shorten) or release (lengthen).
Degrees of Proprioception
Like with any other function or skill, some people are better equipped than others. The good news is that discovering new skills and targeted training always improves any faculty. Where do you place yourself in the hierarchy of proprioceptive skills?
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If you have an average (normal) sense of proprioception you can easily
- ride a bicycle
- walk down the stairs or kick a ball without looking at your feet
- touch your nose with your eyes closed
- enjoy being part of a dancing crowd
Those with a highly developed sense of proprioception would be
- blind people
Those with a poorly developed or damaged sense of proprioception may experience
- difficulty with modulating force - how much pressure to apply
- postural instability and a lack of balance
- clumsiness, crashing into things, bumping into people
- unconscious nervous twitching of the legs or feet when sitting
- Increased risk of falling
Where ever you place yourself in the above spectrum, maintenance and improvement require learning and training. To this end, try some of the 6 proprioceptive exercises that follow.
1. Romberg Test
The Romberg test is a test of proprioception. Stand, feet together with eyes open, then with eyes closed. Someone with a proprioceptive deficiency may be able to stand still with eyes open because vision compensates for the loss of spatial sense but that same person will sway or fall when trying to stand still with their eyes closed. Without visual input, they are unable to keep their balance.
Watch the next video for another easy test and a proprioceptive exercise for the shoulders.
2. Testing and Ball Throwing
3. Balancing on One Leg
Stand upright and shift your weight onto one foot while raising the other foot slightly off the floor. Hold the position for as long as you can/wish. Repeat on the other leg. When standing on one leg becomes too easy, try the Yoga “Tree” pose with each leg in turn. Increase the challenge by moving the arms, the head in various ways. Extend the raised leg behind you as in a classical arabesque.
4. Walking Toe to Heel
Walk toe to heel forward in a straight line, then backward. When the exercise becomes easy to do, repeat with eyes closed.
5. Three Way Leg-lift
Stand upright, feet together. Now lift one leg up towards the front while holding it straight. Hold it for a few seconds before slowly putting it down back to the starting position. Repeat the leg-lift with the same leg to the side. Then to the back. Repeat the whole sequence on the other leg.
6. Shoulder Proprioception Exercise
Activities That Enhance the Somatosensory System
- Playing darts
- All ball games, tennis, ping.pong, bowling, frisbee, badminton, etc.
- Playing blind man’s buff
- Hanging Upside down on a gravity inversion table
This exercise will literally turn your world upside down but in a good way. If you want to know more about the immense benefits of gravity inversion, check out the link at the end.
Hanging Upside Down on a Gravity Inversion Table
Where Can You Get a Gravity Inversion Table?
Benefits of Proprioceptive Practice
If you have read the article in full so far and watched all the videos, it should be easy to see the benefits of being aware of the complete sensory system. When we recap on all the somatosensory and proprioceptive senses just added to the five senses you can see that we have gained no less than 8 new senses, all falling under the umbrella of the somatosensory system. Let us look at the visual again.
Complete Sensory System
It now appears that the complete sensory system has a total of 13 senses.
- space and direction - position of a joint in space
- coordination - movement awareness
- force - how to use force and pressure
- timing - velocity and reaction speed
Note that we have not touched upon mastering emotional senses like a sense of compassion, jealousy, hatred, or anger, revenge, love, etc. How does the body generate and process emotions? But that’s another story. I find all this very interesting and I hope you do too. Thank you for reading to the end. If you like, please share this article and/or leave a comment with your questions and ideas to keep the discussion going.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on July 29, 2021:
Thanks for dropping by Glenn
You didn’t know about the Golgi Tendon Organ or Muscle Spindles I mentioned for coordination?
Please allow me to clarify: The Golgi Tendon Organ = sense of Force.
The Musce Spindles = speed, a sense of Timing.
The remaining 2 proprioceptive senses are Location and Coordination. But of course, they all work together.
Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on July 28, 2021:
This is an interesting article, Juliette. I learned more from you than I knew before about all this. I was aware of Merkel Cells in the skin, which are also sensory receptors in the somatosensory system. But I didn’t know about the Golgi Tendon Organ or Muscle Spindles you mentioned for coordination.
I’m really into exercising. So I’m going to try those proprioceptive exercises in the videos.
By the way, the sense of emotion would be another interesting subject. I never thought of that as being a sense, per se. But I am aware of how emotions affect the body. So since you mentioned it at the end of your article, I’d look forward to your writing about it too.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 28, 2021:
Hey Sue, I am an exercise enthusiast. This week, I am completely off all workouts to a full body recovery. But I let myself go loose by standing with legs apart and closing my eyes for a minute...good I keep my balance, because, I have been practising the one leg stand, and taking m the yoga tree posture for long. From next week, I will incorporate the exercises into my routine. Much thanks.