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by Maike Storks

The term proprioception is composed of the Latin proprius (one’s own) and perception and thus literally designates one’s own perception. It is the sense of position and posture, movement and velocity of the body and body parts. This involves the location of our body or body parts in space, the relation of our body parts to one another, and the extent to, and pace at, which they change their position. Some accounts also attribute to proprioception a sense of effort through which weight can be evaluated and a sense of touch through which the size and shape of objects as well as the geometry of external space can be detected (Berthoz 2000:27-31, Hamilton 2005:273, McCloskey and Gandevia 1993:3, Paterson 2009:769-770, Smetacek and Mechsner 2004:21, Stock Kranowitz 2005:136).

While there are specialized organs for exteroceptive senses such as sight and hearing, there is no exact correlation between receptors and organs for proprioception. The mapping of receptors at the base of proprioception, also called proprioceptors, has therefore been a major interest of neurologists, physiologists, and psychologists. Such proprioceptors have been identified to be located in the muscles, joints, and skin. Thus, for example, receptors located at the junction of muscle and tendon, the Golgi tendon organs, provide information about the effort exerted by the muscle on a joint. Muscle stretch is detected by specialized fibers in all the muscles of our body, the neuromuscular spindles. Together, these receptors in muscles and joints detect the movements of limbs. In addition, various cutaneous receptors located on the skin provide information on different aspects of contact with the external world such as pressure, friction and stroking, heat and cold as well as pain (Berthoz 2000:26-31, McCloskey and Gandevia 1993:4-6, 10-11, Paterson 2009:769-770, Smetacek and Mechsner 2004:21).


The term proprioception was coined by Sir Charles Sherrington in 1906 when he introduced the classification of the senses into exteroceptive (cutaneous), interoceptive (visceral) and proprioceptive (deep) fields and postulated proprioception as our “secret sixth sense” (McCloskey and Gandevia 1993:3, Paterson 2009:769, Smetacek and Mechsner 2004:21, Sherrington 1961:132-133, 320, Wade 2009:66).1 Sherrington’s identification of proprioception is part of the scientific quest for inwardly oriented senses thought to constitute a world “beneath the five senses”. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, developments in physics, anatomy, and physiology allowed researchers to specify and distinguish between the senses by reference to such criteria as the quality of the experience, the nature of the stimulus, the anatomy of the receptor system, and the pathways to, and representation of the modeling on, the cortex. Empirical support was given to the division of touch into a panoply of senses such as the muscle sense, the movement sense and multiple dimensions of cutaneous sensitivity. The fractioning of the sense of touch involved the questioning and reassessment of the number of the senses (Howes 2009:22-23, Paterson 2009:768, Wade 2009:55-57, 60-63, 80).

Wade locates the original discovery of proprioception within the investigation of muscular sensitivity subsumed under the muscle sense. Supported by phenomenology, physiology, and psychophysics, the status of the muscle sense as a sixth sense was well founded in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, Sherrington dedicated a chapter on the muscular sense before he, six years later, introduced his distinction of propioceptors and exteroceptors (McCloskey and Gandevia 1993:3Wade 2009: 63-66) which he related to the muscle sense in the following way:

The excitation of the receptors of the proprio-ceptive field in contradistinction from those of the extero-ceptive is related only secondarily to the agencies of the environment. The proprio-ceptive receive their stimulation by some action, e.g. a muscular contraction which was itself a primary reaction to excitation of a surface receptor by the environment. […] Reflexes arising from proprio-ceptive organs come therefore to be habitually attached and appended to certain reflexes excited by exetero-ceptive organs (Sherrington 1961:132-133).

Relation to other Senses

Proprioception thus originally stems from the fragmentation of the sense of touch. As such, proprioception is still classified as a component of touch or the haptic system. The haptic system consists not only of immediate skin contact and tactility but also internal bodily, or somatic, sensations. Proprioception constitutes one of these somatic sensations within the haptic system. In addition to proprioception, these somatic sensations comprise kinesthesia (the sense of movement) and the vestibular system (the sense of balance) (Paterson 2009:768-770).

It is important to note that these components of somatic sensation interact among each other and, as already pointed out by Sherrington, with the outwardly oriented senses (Paterson 2009: 768). Vision is the outwardly oriented sense that is most often described as assisting somatic sensations as it detects shifting images and thus movement as well as the position of objects in space, their shape and color (Berthoz 2000:26). Interestingly, anthropologist Michael Taussig inverts this relationship in his investigation of everydayness in the city. Rather than merely being grounded in optical reception, Taussig points out that we sense the city through “usage, meaning, to some crucial extent through touch, or better still by proprioception”. Thus, proprioception “exerts a decisive impact on optical reception” (Taussig 2009:269): a fact which is true not only when we take in the city, but landscape generally as has been demonstrated for the act of walking. In walking, internally felt and externally oriented senses are combined and a separation of the head and the eyes from the remainder of the body, especially the feet does not hold up. Instead, we find the complete “sensorium in action” (Paterson 2009:777).

Because the senses do not necessarily or even normally work in isolation but in collaboration, the loss of a single sense can – to a certain extent – be compensated for by training the remaining senses. This was the case for Ian Waterman who, at the age of 19, took ill with a flu-like virus which damaged some of his nerves. In consequence, he lost his sense of proprioception. While his muscles worked perfectly, he could not control them and was initially paralyzed. Waterman managed, however, to compensate for his lack of proprioception with other forms of sensory feedback such as vision and touch. Monitoring his body parts by vision and paying attention to the tug of a jacket sleeve or the cool air on his armpit when moving his arm allowed him to know where his body part was. Understanding where they were allowed him to control them and to regain a fair amount of motor skill. Although in many situations it was possible for Waterman to regain control of his body through great will and training, he experienced severe limitations in other situations due to his deficit in proprioception. Thus, when the lights were turned off, for example, Waterman was largely unable to control his body. Proprioception, like other senses, can be substituted but not entirely replaced and it remains that the senses work best in collaboration. (Abbot 2006:125, Noë 2004:13-14)

The Socio-cultural Context of Proprioception

Although proprioception works in collaboration with other senses, we find that its role, its meaning, and its relationship to the other senses are conceptualized in different ways cross-culturally. Western philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists, for example, have dedicated themselves to determining, locating, and isolating the senses, instead of focusing on the complete sensorium, and interrelations of the senss. The debates on the status of proprioception as a sixth sense are part of this tradition. In order to qualify as a sixth sense, the proprioceptors needed to be located and the role of consciousness in proprioception needed to be demonstrated (cf. Berthoz 2000:25). The mapping of proprioceptors outlined above can be seen as in line with Aristotle’s association of each sense with a specific sense organ (cf. Wade 2009:56). While there is no one such organ for proprioception, it has been crucial in Western science to locate the various proprioceptors and to determine their exact function. The role of consciousness in proprioception is highly debated (cf. Hamilton 2005, O’Shaughnessy 1995, Smetacek and Mechsner 2004) because “proprioception has an ambiguous status […]. It involves knowledge of an object – one’s body – yet that knowledge is groundless, at least in what are usually referred to as ‘internalist’ terms” (Hamilton 2005:289).2 Western investigations therefore have been structural and neurological in orientation and centered upon the individual subject (Geurts 2005:166).

Among the Anlo-Ewe people of Ghana, on the other hand, we find an integrative conception of the sensorium as expressed through the term seselelame. Seselelame translates as perceive-perceive-at-flesh-inside and is a more generalized feeling in the body that consists of a wide array of internal senses (e.g. proprioception) and external senses, emotions, cognition, and intuitions. More precisely seselelame might refer to physical sensations; sexual arousal, heartache, passion, and pain; inspiration; intuition; or a generalized feeling in or through the body. It incorporates various sensations and actions such as aurality and hearing; balance and equilibrium; walking and kinesthesia; visuality and seeing; tasting; smelling; vocality and talking. In short, seselelame expresses a sensory order inherently different from the Western five-sense model. Proprioception as experienced by the Anlo-Ewe as part of seselelame is inherently intersubjective and based on shared feelings, it is phenomenological and processual in character. Thus, for the Anlo people perceiving their own body requires paying attention to the bodies of those around them (Geurts 2005).

The Anlo conceptualization of seselelame is implicit in many aspects of their lives. Their migration myth is one example of this. It describes the strenuous journey of their ancestors from what is current day central Togo to the southeastern part of Ghana. The journey is said to have ended when the leader of the group collapsed from exhaustion or “folded”, “rolled up” into himself. When narrating this myth, people would imitate this act and fold their own bodies inward. Through the narrating of the story and the imitation of the movement, the narrators express an emotional connection to their ancestors’ arduous experience of the long journey and their exhaustion. Furthermore, the act of folding into oneself indicates introspection and requires the internal senses such as balance and proprioception in order to maintain this position. Interestingly, the term for this position in the Ewe language is nlo. This term and its meaning acquired through the myth are at the origin of he appellation this West African people: Anlo-Ewe (Geurts 2005:173-174).

The discrepancies between the focus of the Western and the Anlo-Ewe account of the sensorium demonstrate that the classification of sensations is always a product of a certain socio-historic context and may vary over time and cross-culturally. Just as the Anlo-Ewe account of seselelame is deeply engrained in their social world (such as in the migration myth), the Western account of proprioception is deeply embedded in its wider socio-cultural context. Geurts points out: “speculations in psychology [and we might add philosophy and physiology] are influenced by changing notions of the person and by the technology of the day” (Geurts 2005:169). I will point out how some of the changes in the notions of the person and technological developments had an impact on the discovery of proprioception as well as on the neurological and individualistic nature of the conceptualization of proprioception in the West. Here I want to look at proprioception under two slightly different, but closely related perspectives: that of proprioception as self-perception and that of proprioception as one’s own perception.

Proprioception is self-perception and as such clearly related to conceptualizations of the person. Marcel Mauss states: “It is plain, particularly to us, that there has never existed a human being who has not been aware, not only of his body, but also at the same time of his individuality, both spiritual and physical” (Carrithers et al. 1985:3). Awareness of one’s body is here closely related to awareness of one’s individuality. Looking at the evolution of the notions of individuality and self might therefore give us some hints about the development of the conceptualization of body-awareness including proprioception.

Some thirty years after the discovery of proprioception, Marcel Mauss traces the evolution of the notion of self in his essay titled Une Catégorie de l’Esprit Humain: La Notion de Personne, celle de “Moi” [A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; the Notion of Self]. Interestingly, he demonstrates that the category of the self only came to be established at the beginning of the 19th century and “continues here slowly, and almost right up to our own time, to be built upon, to be made clearer and more specific, being identified with self-knowledge and the psychological consciousness” (Carrithers et al. 1985:20). He identifies Hume, Kant, and Fichte as having a central role in the specification of the notion of the person by which it came to signify the self, more precisely the conscious self and in creating the notion of the self as a primordial category. Hume maintained that it is consciousness and perceptions that make up the soul, Kant turned this individual consciousness into the sacred character of the human person, and Fichte established the individual self as a category (Carrithers et al. 1985:21-22). Mauss terms this new significance of the notion of self a “revolution of mentalities” (Carrithers et al. 1985:22). As pointed out above, the consolidation of this conceptualization of the individual continued throughout the in the nineteenth century and was thus of central concern at the time of the discovery of proprioception.

In addition, we observe that various techniques of surveillance such as the Panopticon were developed in order to observe individual subjects in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century (Howes 2010: 13-15). In a socio-historic context where society is already understood as being made up of individuals, the step from watching and observing other individuals to watching and observing the self might not be such a big step. Proprioception is self-perception and the hypothesis might be advanced that the discovery of proprioception in the early 20th century is well embedded in a growing concern with the self and the individual and trends of observation and control of individuals.

The role of individuals, especially their place within a given community such as the state, is closely entwined with ideas of property. With the rise of individualism, we also find the development of a specific form of property: private property. Both private property and free individuals are key elements of the dominant liberal paradigm which is commonly traced back to Adam Smith. Thus, the form of individualism that emerged throughout the 18th and 19th centuries can be qualified in Macpherson’s terms as “possessive individualism”. The intellectual foundations of possessive individualism have been identified to lie in 17th-century England where Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have advanced their conceptualization of property. The idea of private property was consequently extended from private ownership of land to private ownership of the means of production more generally. For this extension of the idea to take place, the transition to industrialization and capitalism was central. Not surprisingly, England, the world’s first nation having completed this transition, is also the first country in which the rise of the liberal property paradigm can be observed. (Alexander and Peñalver 2010:vii, Hann 1998:1, 5-9, 7-8).

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, property relations increasingly were the focus of intellectual and political debates. Private property was rendered formal and explicit and continued to become increasingly engrained in Western culture (Hann 1998:7, 13-15). The discovery of proprioception in 1906 in England might also be seen in light of the development of the notion of private property. Proprioception is one’s own perception; it refers to the perception of our body that we privately and individually own. Here it is useful to consider Ian Waterman’s initial reaction to his loss of proprioception. Recalling his condition, Waterman said: “I lost ownership of my body” (Abbot 2006:125). The loss of proprioception involved the loss of ownership over his body. This remark might indicate that proprioception is a notion closely related to the concept of ownership or property. Tellingly, its discovery occurred when debates of private property had reached an apogee.

The rise of individualism and the notion of private property, the implementation of industrialization and capitalism and the development of surveillance technologies precede and are of central importance at the moment of the discovery of proprioception by Sherrington in 1906. Thus, a focus on the individual and an isolation of the sense of proprioception in Western thought are deeply engrained in their socio-historic context. The discrepancies between the focus of the Western and the Anlo-Ewe account of the sensorium remind us that the classification of sensations is always a product of a certain socio-historic context and may vary over time and cross-culturally.

Even within Western science there are discrepancies concerning the classification of the somatic senses. Paterson, as outlined above, considers kinesthesia and proprioception to be equal components of somatic sensations and notes that they work in conjunction with the vestibular system (Paterson 2009:769). Hamilton points out that proprioception comprises kinesthesia as well as the knowledge of fatigue and warmth and cold, the vestibular system, the visceral sense and visual proprioception (the kinesthetic function of vision) (Hamilton 2005:273). Berthoz, in turn, classifies proprioception as a component of kinesthesia which also includes the vestibular system and vision (Berthoz 2000:25, passim). Although at least three different ways of classifying proprioception can be identified here, it is obvious that what varies are not the components themselves but merely their hierarchical positioning in a system of classification. Paterson therefore distinguishes between sensations (information routed via distributed nerves and sense-system clusters) and sensuous disposition (the socio-historical construction of the sensorium, its reproduction over time and its alteration through contexts and technologies) (Paterson 2009:779). This point is also obvious in Wade’s observation concerning Western science that “the number of senses has always been arbitrary, depending on the criteria that are applied. Adding one or more senses to Aristotle’s five reflected the advances that were taking place in nineteenth-century neuroscience” (Wade 2009:80). I argue that the discovery of proprioception as a sixth sense not only reflects advances in neuroscience but that advances in neuroscience themselves reflect developments of the notions of individualism and property in the 19th century England. The discovery of the sense of proprioception in Western science is thus a product of its socio-historic context.


1. It should be noted that Sherrington identified the proprioceptive and the exteroceptive fields as the primary distributions of receptor organs and that he accords a more marginal role to the interoceptive field (Sherrington 1961:316-317).

2. “Internalist terms“ or internalism is a notion mainly used in the philosophy of mind and epistemology (to which the questions of consciousness applies). Internalism treats mental states such as consciousness “as confined within the person who has them and as independent of anything outside, so that to find whether a person has a given mental state we need only examine that person” (Lacey 2003:162).


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