Proprioception from Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 proprius, meaning "one's own" and perception, is the sense
Senses are physiological capacities of organisms that provide inputs for perception. The senses and their operation, classification, and theory are overlapping topics studied by a variety of fields, most notably neuroscience, cognitive psychology , and philosophy of perception...

 of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. It is distinguished from exteroception, by which we perceive the outside world, and interoception, by which we perceive pain, hunger, etc., and the movement of internal organs.

History of study

The position-movement sensation was originally described in 1557 by Julius Caesar Scaliger
Julius Caesar Scaliger
Julius Caesar Scaliger was an Italian scholar and physician who spent a major part of his career in France. He employed the techniques and discoveries of Renaissance humanism to defend Aristotelianism against the new learning...

 as a "sense of locomotion". Much later, in 1826, Charles Bell
Charles Bell
Sir Charles Bell was a Scottish surgeon, anatomist, neurologist and philosophical theologian.His three older brothers included John Bell , also a noted surgeon and writer; and the advocate George Joseph Bell .-Life:...

 expounded the idea of a "muscle sense" and this is credited with being one of the first described physiologic feedback mechanisms. Bell's idea was that commands are carried from the brain to the muscles, and that reports on the muscle's condition would be sent in the reverse direction. Later, in 1880, Henry Charlton Bastian
Henry Charlton Bastian
Henry Charlton Bastian was an English physiologist and neurologist. Fellow of Royal Society in 1868.Bastian graduated in 1861 at the University of London....

 suggested "kinaesthesia" instead of "muscle sense" on the basis that some of the afferent
Afferent is an anatomical term with the following meanings:*Conveying towards a center, for example the afferent arterioles conveying blood towards the Bowman's capsule in the Kidney. Opposite to Efferent.*Something that so conducts, see Afferent nerve fiber...

 information (back to the brain) was coming from other structures including tendons, joints, and skin. In 1889, Alfred Goldscheider
Alfred Goldscheider
Johannes Karl Eugen Alfred Goldscheider was a German neurologist who was born in Sommerfeld ....

 suggested a classification of kinaesthesia into three types: muscle, tendon, and articular sensitivity.

In 1906, Charles Scott Sherrington
Charles Scott Sherrington
Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, OM, GBE, PRS was an English neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and a pathologist, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society in the early 1920s...

 published a landmark work that introduced the terms "proprioception", "interoception", and "exteroception". The "exteroceptors" are the organs responsible for information from outside the body such as the eyes, ears, mouth, and skin. The interoceptor
An interoceptor is a sensory receptor that detects stimulus within the body. Examples of stimuli that would be detected by interoceptors include blood pressure and blood oxygen level....

s then give information about the internal organs, while "proprioception" is awareness of movement derived from muscular, tendon, and articular sources. Such a system of classification has kept physiologists and anatomists searching for specialised nerve endings that transmit data on joint capsule and muscle tension (such as muscle spindles and Pacini corpuscles).

Proprioception and kinesthesia

Kinesthesia is another term that is often used interchangeably with proprioception, though use of the term "kinesthesia" can place a greater emphasis on motion.

Some differentiate the kinesthetic sense from proprioception by excluding the sense of equilibrium or balance from kinesthesia. An inner ear
Inner ear
The inner ear is the innermost part of the vertebrate ear. In mammals, it consists of the bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity in the temporal bone of the skull with a system of passages comprising two main functional parts:...

 infection, for example, might degrade the sense of balance. This would degrade the proprioceptive sense, but not the kinesthetic sense. The affected individual would be able to walk, but only by using the sense of sight to maintain balance; the person would be unable to walk with eyes closed.

Proprioception and kinesthesia are seen as interrelated and there is considerable disagreement regarding the definition of these terms. Some of this difficulty stems from Sherrington's original description of joint position sense (or the ability to determine exactly where a particular body part is in space) and kinesthesia (or the sensation that the body part has moved) under a more general heading of proprioception. Clinical aspects of proprioception are measured in tests that measure a subject's ability to detect an externally imposed passive movement, or the ability to reposition a joint to a predetermined position. Often it is assumed that the ability of one of these aspects will be related to another; however, experimental evidence suggests there is no strong relation between these two aspects. This suggests that while these components may well be related in a cognitive manner, they may in fact be physiologically separate.

Much of the foregoing work is dependent on the notion that proprioception is, in essence, a feedback mechanism; that is, the body moves (or is moved) and then the information about this is returned to the brain, whereby subsequent adjustments could be made. More recent work into the mechanism of ankle sprains suggests that the role of reflexes may be more limited due to their long latencies (even at the spinal cord level), as ankle sprain events occur in perhaps 100 ms or less. In accordance, a model has been proposed to include a 'feedforward' component of proprioception, whereby the subject will also have central information about the body's position prior to attaining it.

Kinesthesia is a key component in muscle memory
Muscle memory
Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to...

 and hand-eye coordination, and training can improve this sense (see blind contour drawing
Blind contour drawing
Blind contour drawing is a method of drawing widely used by art teachers, where an artist draws the contour of a subject without looking at the paper. The artistic technique was introduced by Kimon Nicolaïdes in The Natural Way to Draw, and further popularized by Betty Edwards as "pure contour...

). The ability to swing a golf club or to catch a ball requires a finely tuned sense of the position of the joints. This sense needs to become automatic through training to enable a person to concentrate on other aspects of performance, such as maintaining motivation or seeing where other people are.

Basis of proprioceptive sense

The initiation of proprioception is the activation of a proprioreceptor in the periphery. The proprioceptive sense is believed to be composed of information from sensory neuron
Sensory neuron
Sensory neurons are typically classified as the neurons responsible for converting external stimuli from the environment into internal stimuli. They are activated by sensory input , and send projections into the central nervous system that convey sensory information to the brain or spinal cord...

s located in the inner ear (motion and orientation) and in the stretch receptors located in the muscles
Muscle spindle
Muscle spindles are sensory receptors within the belly of a muscle, which primarily detect changes in the length of this muscle. They convey length information to the central nervous system via sensory neurons. This information can be processed by the brain to determine the position of body parts...

 and the joint-supporting ligaments (stance). There are specific nerve receptors for this form of perception termed "proprioreceptors," just as there are specific receptors for pressure, light, temperature, sound, and other sensory experiences. Proprioreceptors are sometimes known as adequate stimuli
Adequate stimulus
The adequate stimulus is a property of a sensory receptor that determines the type of energy to which a sensory receptor responds to with the initiation of sensory transduction....


Although it was known that finger kinesthesia relies on skin sensation, recent research has found that kinesthesia-based haptic perception
Haptic perception
Haptic perception is the process of recognizing objects through touch. It involves a combination of somatosensory perception of patterns on the skin surface and proprioception of hand position and conformation....

 relies strongly on the forces experienced during touch. This research allows the creation of "virtual", illusory haptic shapes with different perceived qualities.

David Bohm
David Bohm
David Joseph Bohm FRS was an American-born British quantum physicist who contributed to theoretical physics, philosophy, neuropsychology, and the Manhattan Project.-Youth and college:...

 expands the idea of proprioception to include the "self perception of thought" in which thought is aware of its movement.

Conscious and unconscious proprioception

In humans, a distinction is made between conscious proprioception and unconscious proprioception:
  • Conscious proprioception is communicated by the posterior column-medial lemniscus pathway
    Posterior column-medial lemniscus pathway
    The posterior column-medial lemniscus pathway is the sensory pathway responsible for transmitting fine touch, vibration and conscious proprioceptive information from the body to the cerebral cortex; as well as tactile pressure, barognosis, graphesthesia, stereognosis, recognition...

     to the cerebrum.

  • Unconscious proprioception is communicated primarily via the dorsal spinocerebellar tract
    Dorsal spinocerebellar tract
    The dorsal spinocerebellar tract conveys inconscient proprioceptive information from the body to the cerebellum....

    , to the cerebellum
    The cerebellum is a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control. It may also be involved in some cognitive functions such as attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure responses, but its movement-related functions are the most solidly established...


  • An unconscious reaction is seen in the human proprioceptive reflex, or Law of Righting – in the event that the body tilts in any direction, the person will cock their head back to level the eyes against the horizon. This is seen even in infants as soon as they gain control of their neck muscles. This control comes from the cerebellum
    The cerebellum is a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control. It may also be involved in some cognitive functions such as attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure responses, but its movement-related functions are the most solidly established...

    , the part of the brain affecting balance.

Law enforcement

Proprioception is tested by American police officers using the field sobriety test, wherein the subject is required to touch his or her nose with eyes closed. People with normal proprioception may make an error of no more than 20 millimeters. People suffering from impaired proprioception (a symptom of moderate to severe alcohol intoxication) fail this test due to difficulty locating their limbs in space relative to their noses.


There are several relatively specific tests of the subject's ability to propriorecept. These tests are used in the diagnosis of neurological disorder
Neurological disorder
A neurological disorder is a disorder of the body's nervous system. Structural, biochemical or electrical abnormalities in the brain, spinal cord, or in the nerves leading to or from them, can result in symptoms such as paralysis, muscle weakness, poor coordination, loss of sensation, seizures,...

s. They include the visual and tactile placing reflexes
Placing reflexes
There are two frequently used placing reflexes. They are tests which allow clinicians to assess the proprioceptive abilities of small domestic animals . The first test is to lift an animal and bring the anterior/dorsal surface of a paw up to a table edge. The normal animal will position its paw...


Learning new skills

Proprioception is what allows someone to learn to walk in complete darkness without losing balance. During the learning of any new skill, sport, or art, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some proprioceptive tasks specific to that activity. Without the appropriate integration of proprioceptive input, an artist would not be able to brush paint
Paint is any liquid, liquefiable, or mastic composition which after application to a substrate in a thin layer is converted to an opaque solid film. One may also consider the digital mimicry thereof...

 onto a canvas without looking at the hand as it moved the brush over the canvas; it would be impossible to drive an automobile
An automobile, autocar, motor car or car is a wheeled motor vehicle used for transporting passengers, which also carries its own engine or motor...

 because a motorist would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead; a person could not touch type or perform ballet; and people would not even be able to walk without watching where they put their feet.

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks
Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE , is a British neurologist and psychologist residing in New York City. He is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he also holds the position of Columbia Artist...

 once reported the case of a young woman who lost her proprioception due to a viral infection of her spinal cord
Spinal cord
The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the brain . The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system...

. At first she was not able to move properly at all or even control her tone of voice (as voice modulation is primarily proprioceptive). Later she relearned by using her sight (watching her feet) and inner ear
Inner ear
The inner ear is the innermost part of the vertebrate ear. In mammals, it consists of the bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity in the temporal bone of the skull with a system of passages comprising two main functional parts:...

 only for movement while using hearing to judge voice modulation. She eventually acquired a stiff and slow movement and nearly normal speech, which is believed to be the best possible in the absence of this sense. She could not judge effort involved in picking up objects and would grip them painfully to be sure she did not drop them.


The proprioceptive sense can be sharpened through study of many disciplines. Examples are the Feldenkrais method
Feldenkrais method
The Feldenkrais Method is a somatic educational system designed by Moshé Feldenkrais . The Feldenkrais method aims to improve movement repertoire, aiming to expand and refine the use of the self through awareness, in order to reduce pain or limitations in movement, and promote general well-being...

 and the Alexander Technique
Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique teaches the ability to improve physical postural habits, particularly those that have become ingrained and conditioned responses...

. Juggling
Juggling is a skill involving moving objects for entertainment or sport. The most recognizable form of juggling is toss juggling, in which the juggler throws objects up to catch and toss up again. This may be one object or many objects, at the same time with one or many hands. Jugglers often refer...

 trains reaction time, spatial location, and efficient movement. Standing on a wobble board or balance board
Balance board
A balance board is a device used for recreation, balance training, athletic training, brain development, therapy, musical training and other kinds of personal development....

 is often used to retrain or increase proprioception abilities, particularly as physical therapy for ankle or knee injuries. Standing on one leg (stork standing) and various other body-position challenges are also used in such disciplines as Yoga
Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on Supersoul...

, Wing Chun
Wing Chun
Wing Chun , also romanised as Ving Tsun or Wing Tsun, ; ; is a concept-based Chinese martial art and form of self-defense utilizing both striking and grappling while specializing in close-range combat.The alternative characters 永春 "eternal spring" are also...

 and T'ai chi. Several studies have shown that the efficacy of these types of training is challenged by closing the eyes, because the eyes give invaluable feedback to establishing the moment-to-moment information of balance. There are even specific devices designed for proprioception training, such as the exercise ball, which works on balancing the abdominal and back muscles.


It has been seen that temporary loss or impairment of proprioception may happen periodically during growth, mostly during adolescence. Growth that might also influence this would be large increases or drops in bodyweight/size due to fluctuations of fat (liposuction
Liposuction, also known as lipoplasty , liposculpture suction lipectomy or simply lipo is a cosmetic surgery operation that removes fat from many different sites on the human body...

, rapid fat loss or gain) and/or muscle content (bodybuilding
Bodybuilding is a form of body modification involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. An individual who engages in this activity is referred to as a bodybuilder. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, bodybuilders display their physiques to a panel of judges, who assign points based on their...

, anabolic steroids, catabolisis/starvation
Starvation is a severe deficiency in caloric energy, nutrient and vitamin intake. It is the most extreme form of malnutrition. In humans, prolonged starvation can cause permanent organ damage and eventually, death...

). It can also occur in those that gain new levels of flexibility
Flexibility (anatomy)
Flexibility or limberness refers to the absolute range of movement in a joint or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints. Flexibility is variable between individuals, particularly in terms of differences in muscle length of multi-joint muscles...

, stretching
Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific skeletal muscle is deliberately elongated, often by abduction from the torso, in order to improve the muscle's felt elasticity and reaffirm comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and...

, and contortion
thumb|upright|Contortionist performingContortion is an unusual form of physical display which involves the dramatic bending and flexing of the human body. Contortion is often part of acrobatics and circus acts...

. A limb's being in a new range of motion never experienced (or at least, not for a long time since youth perhaps) can disrupt one's sense of location of that limb. Possible experiences include suddenly feeling that feet or legs are missing from one's mental self-image; needing to look down at one's limbs to be sure they are still there; and falling down while walking, especially when attention is focused upon something other than the act of walking.

Proprioception is occasionally impaired spontaneously, especially when one is tired. One's body may appear too large or too small, or parts of the body may appear distorted in size. Similar effects can sometimes occur during epilepsy
Epilepsy is a common chronic neurological disorder characterized by seizures. These seizures are transient signs and/or symptoms of abnormal, excessive or hypersynchronous neuronal activity in the brain.About 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and nearly two out of every three new cases...

 or migraine
Migraine is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by moderate to severe headaches, and nausea...

Aura (symptom)
An aura is a perceptual disturbance experienced by some migraine sufferers before a migraine headache, and the telltale sensation experienced by some people with epilepsy before a seizure. It often manifests as the perception of a strange light, an unpleasant smell or confusing thoughts or...

. These effects are presumed to arise from abnormal stimulation of the part of the parietal cortex of the brain
The brain is the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals—only a few primitive invertebrates such as sponges, jellyfish, sea squirts and starfishes do not have one. It is located in the head, usually close to primary sensory apparatus such as vision, hearing,...

 involved with integrating information from different parts of the body.

Proprioceptive illusions can also be induced, such as the Pinocchio illusion
Pinocchio illusion
The Pinocchio illusion is an illusion that one's nose is growing longer, as happened to the literary character Pinocchio when he told a lie. It is an illusion of proprioception, reviewed by Lackner ....


The proprioceptive sense is often unnoticed because humans will adapt to a continuously-present stimulus; this is called habituation
Habituation can be defined as a process or as a procedure. As a process it is defined as a decrease in an elicited behavior resulting from the repeated presentation of an eliciting stimulus...

, desensitization
Desensitization can refer to:* Desensitization * Desensitization * Desensitization * Desensitization of explosives, see Phlegmatized...

, or adaptation
An adaptation in biology is a trait with a current functional role in the life history of an organism that is maintained and evolved by means of natural selection. An adaptation refers to both the current state of being adapted and to the dynamic evolutionary process that leads to the adaptation....

. The effect is that proprioceptive sensory impressions disappear, just as a scent can disappear over time. One practical advantage of this is that unnoticed actions or sensation continue in the background while an individual's attention can move to another concern. The Alexander Technique addresses these issues.

People that have a limb amputated
Amputation is the removal of a body extremity by trauma, prolonged constriction, or surgery. As a surgical measure, it is used to control pain or a disease process in the affected limb, such as malignancy or gangrene. In some cases, it is carried out on individuals as a preventative surgery for...

 may still have a confused sense of that limb existence on their body, known as phantom limb syndrome
Phantom limb
A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. 2 out of 3 combat veterans report this feeling. Approximately 60 to 80% of individuals with an amputation experience phantom sensations in their...

. Phantom sensations can occur as passive proprioceptive sensations of the limb's presence, or more active sensations such as perceived movement, pressure, pain, itching, or temperature. There are a variety of theories concerning the etiology of phantom limb
Phantom limb
A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. 2 out of 3 combat veterans report this feeling. Approximately 60 to 80% of individuals with an amputation experience phantom sensations in their...

 sensations and experience. Jack Tsao, MD. at Walter Reed Hospital
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
The Walter Reed Army Medical Center was the United States Army's flagship medical center until 2011. Located on 113 acres in Washington, D.C., it served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the military...

 has advanced a theory based on the concept of "proprioceptive memory." This theory argues that the brain retains a memory of specific limb positions and that after amputation there is a conflict between the visual system, which literally sees that the limb is missing, and the memory system which remembers the limb as a functioning part of the body. Phantom sensations and phantom pain may also occur after the removal of body parts other than the limbs, such as after amputation of the breast, extraction of a tooth (phantom tooth pain), or removal of an eye (phantom eye syndrome
Phantom eye syndrome
The phantom eye syndrome is a phantom pain in the eye and visual hallucinations after the removal of an eye .- Symptomatology :Many patients experience one or more phantom phenomena after the removal of the eye:...


Temporary impairment of proprioception has also been known to occur from an overdose of vitamin B6
Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin and is part of the vitamin B complex group. Several forms of the vitamin are known, but pyridoxal phosphate is the active form and is a cofactor in many reactions of amino acid metabolism, including transamination, deamination, and decarboxylation...

 (pyridoxine and pyridoxamine). Most of the impaired function returns to normal shortly after the intake of vitamins returns to normal. Impairment can also be caused by cytotoxic
Cytotoxicity is the quality of being toxic to cells. Examples of toxic agents are a chemical substance, an immune cell or some types of venom .-Cell physiology:...

 factors such as chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with an antineoplastic drug or with a combination of such drugs into a standardized treatment regimen....


It has been proposed that even common tinnitus
Tinnitus |ringing]]") is the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound.Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom that can result from a wide range of underlying causes: abnormally loud sounds in the ear canal for even the briefest period , ear...

 and the attendant hearing frequency-gaps masked by the perceived sounds may cause erroneous proprioceptive information to the balance and comprehension centers of the brain, precipitating mild confusion.

Proprioception is permanently impaired in patients that suffer from joint hypermobility or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
Ehlers–Danlos syndrome is a group of inherited connective tissue disorders, caused by a defect in the synthesis of collagen . The collagen in connective tissue helps tissues to resist deformation...

 (a genetic condition that results in weak connective tissue throughout the body). It can also be permanently impaired from viral infections as reported by Sacks. The catastrophic effect of major proprioceptive loss is reviewed by Robles-De-La-Torre (2006).

External links

  • Somatosensory Pathways from the Body from the Washington University School of Medicine's Neuroscience Tutorial
  • Joint & Bone – Ehlers-Danlos/Joint Hypermobility Syndrome – Proprioception
  • Humans have six senses, why does everyone think we only have five? at Everything2
    Everything2, Everything2, or E2 for short is a collaborative Web-based community consisting of a database of interlinked user-submitted written material. E2 is moderated for quality, but has no formal policy on subject matter...

  • Proprioception this essay by Charles Wolfe takes its cue from such thinkers & artists as Charles Olson
    Charles Olson
    Charles Olson , was a second generation American modernist poet who was a link between earlier figures such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and the New American poets, which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance...

    , Merleau-Ponty, James J. Gibson, and Andy Clark
    Andy Clark
    Andy Clark is a Professor of Philosophy and Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Before this he was director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University in Bloomington. Previously, he taught at Washington University at St. Louis and the University...

    to illustrate the view of the "priority of dynamic embodied activity over isolated 'mental' and 'physical' regions" to define this concept
  • WNYC – Radio Lab: Where Am I? (May 05, 2006) radio program looks at the relationship between the brain and the body
  • The Dancers Mind ABC (Aust) podcast on the nature of proprioception.
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