I’m the type of person who is always stubbing her toes, knocking elbows into door frames, and shattering glasses by accidentally bashing them into things. I’ve always thought of myself as clumsy, but maybe the problem is that I’ve got a lousy sense of proprioception.
What’s proprioception? It’s one of your senses, and if you’ve never heard of it you’re not alone. Most of us learned back in elementary school we have five senses — vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell — but according to a fascinating post on the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog our well-meaning teachers actually left out quite a few senses.
Understanding the full range of human perception, the post argues, can help you be healthier (with, I’m hoping, fewer bruised shins), happier, and even more effective professionally.
“Proprioception — the sensing of the location of our body parts in space — has been relatively ignored, but it’s critical for confidence in using our bodies,” explains BPS. “If you now shut your eyes, and extend a leg, it’s thanks to this sense that you know exactly where your leg is. To go for a run, then, or work out in the gym, and not fall or injure yourself, you need a good sense of proprioception.”
And just like a master sommelier can develop her senses of taste through years of study and exposure, we can develop our proprioception — or let it wither. Any activity that demands complicated, coordinated bodily action, be it ballet, tree climbing, or scrambling up a steep slope on a hike improves this sense. Sitting around on the couch eating Cheetos during a pandemic dulls it.
Which means that being more physical will help protect you from bashed toes and multiple trips to Ikea to buy more wine glasses. But it has other benefits too. “According to research led by a team at the University at North Florida, these kinds of exercises not only improve physical coordination but also working memory,” reports BPS.
Every day you wake up with an instant sense of which way is up. That’s thanks to your vestibular senses’ finely honed ability to sense the direction of the pull of gravity. This system allows you to keep your bearings on even the wildest roller coaster, but it sense also helps humans with more day-to-day tasks.
“Research shows that a healthy vestibular system is important not only for balance but for our sense of being grounded inside a physical body; in fact, people with vestibular problems are more likely to report out-of-body experiences. They’re also more likely to get lost, because a healthy vestibular system is important for a good sense of direction,” notes BPS, which recommends tai chi if you feel your vestibular system could use a tune up.
Sit still for a moment and try to sense your heartbeat without feeling for a pulse. If you can manage that easily, you are one of around ten percent of people with a strong sense of interoception.
The ability to sense your own heartbeat and other inner bodily workings might sound like a party trick, but science suggests it’s an ability that’s tightly linked to high EQ.
“Research shows that people who are better at so-called ‘cardiac interoception’ experience emotions more intensely, enjoy more nuanced emotions, and are better at recognising other people’s emotions, which is a critical first step in empathy,” claims BPS. “In contrast, people who don’t experience emotions in the typical way… suffer from impairments in inner sensing.”
This sense too can be trained simply by trying the exercise that opened this section — sit somewhere quiet and try to count your heartbeats over a given period of time without resorting to physically feeling for a pulse. If you struggle at the beginning, a little exercise before you sit down will make your heart beat stronger and the exercise easier.
These are only three of a longer list of senses covered by BPS, including temperature sensors and our body’s ability to use light to keep track of time. Check out the post for more fascinating details, but what’s clear even from a quick look is that recognizing and developing these abilities can boost empathy, improve memory, and generally increase well-being. That’s pretty impressive for a handful of senses you probably didn’t even realize you had.