Proprioception – the physiological reality behind a “natural” technique

It is said that a concert pianist has fine motor-control skills with a degree of coordination which exceeds that of a brain surgeon during operations. To perform of piece of music which demands that each finger, each joint of that finger and each muscle in the hand, arm and body cooperates and contributes to the end result and that this end result is experienced as harmoniously, melodically and rhythmically complete is really somewhat of a physiological and neurological miracle.

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Perhaps the reason why most of us still don’t reflect on this when great art is presented to us is because one of the hallmarks of great art is that it is perceived as “effortless”. We sense the coordination, the seamless conversations within the body of the practitioner, how everything just seems to “flow”, yet a part of our mind is aware of the enormous amount of coordination happening and realises that there is no way we can consciously control all of these minuite operations.

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Photo by Varshesh Joshi on Unsplash

It is like the joke about the centipede who one day suddenly started pondering which leg to move first and from then on were unable to move ever again. Our brain grasps that there must be some sort of overall awareness coordinating everything so that it just happens “naturally”.

“Naturally” is, however, a nice fluffy term for something which we instinctively recognise without really understanding what it is or how it works. Musicians are very often taught to be looking for a “natural technique” although much of this training  tends to focus more on how it is supposed to feel, us supposed to what needs to happen for it to feel like this; to get to the place where everything “clicks”, where the audience as well as we ourselves experience what is happening as “effortless”.

But what is the physiological reality behind the term “natural technique”?

Proprioception – Our unknown sense

Most of us are unaware of how many of our seemingly ordinary daily activities which really are similar miracles, both neurologically and physiologically. Our very ability to move at all is based on a complex cooperation between our brain, our nervous system and our muscles; a cooperation which enables us to do anything from tying our shoelaces to playing a piano concert, and of which most of us are totally oblivious to.

There are, however, some situations in which most people become aware of the degree of magic happening inside their body and it is usually, ironically, when things start to not work as they should.

Proprioception is the name of the sense which makes our brain aware of where each part of our body is located in space at any given time. This enables our brain to send coordinated signals in the form of motor programs to different parts of our body which then enables us to perform everyday movements. Some of these motor programs start to form from the moment we are born, such as when we learn how to crawl, turn over or walk.

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Photo by Hamza El-Falah on Unsplash

These programs are so embedded in us that we don’t pay them any attention, which is, from the brain’s perspective, the whole idea: if we needed to consciously be aware of every detail of a motor program we would spend far too much energy on performing it. Therefore it is almost impossible for us to recognize the amount of coordination happening behind the smallest of our activities.

The best way to understand how our proprioception actually functions is perhaps to show what life is like for someone who has to live without it.

The man who lost his body

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19-year-old Ian Waterman at first thought he had caught merely a common cold or virus infection. The sturdy young man was working as an apprentice in a butcher shop and was used to hard labour and physically demanding work. He had previously gotten a small cut in his finger and most likely the cut had developed into an infection. What started out as a common cold would prove to be something much worse. As the doctors in vain tried to understand what was happening Ian gradually lost control over his limbs and ended up lying in bed without conscious control over any part of his body from his neck down.

What confused his doctors and neurologists was that the condition didn’t read like a normal paralysis: Ian wasn’t paralysed, his muscles still worked and his brain was receiving signals from his body conveying sensations such as pain and differences in temperature. But the brain seemed to have lost the notion of where the different parts that it was supposed to move were located. The medical sentence was harsh: a life in a wheelchair.

Nerve issues

Ian’s condition is an efficient reminder of how complex and specialized our nervous system is. We often think of a nerve in the same way that we think of some sort of electric cable conveying a signal between body and brain. The reality is much more complex.

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If you cut through a nerve and look at the cross-section you will see that the nerve includes several smaller parts, nerve fascicle’s. Inside of these fascicle’s we find individual nerve fibres.

A nerve fibre can be either a sensory fibre or motor fibre. The motor fibres sends signals to our muscle fibres telling them to contract. The sensory fibres starts either in the skin or in the muscle and come in different sizes. The largest ones convey information concerning touch, muscle sensitivity or sense of movement, while the smallest ones convey information concerning muscle fatigue, temperature and certain forms of pain.

In Ian’s case the motor fibres were intact but the large sensory fibres (and with them also the access to very specific functions of the nervous system) were damaged, probably as a result of the infection. These nerve fibres were responsible for receiving all of the sensory information that had to do with the positioning of Ian’s joints and the activity in his muscles. They were also responsible for conveying all of this information onward to his brain.

The condition, which can occur in different degrees, were eventually given the name sensory neuropathy, damaged sensory nerves.

A body completely governed by willpower

Ian had one advantage in his extreme situation: he was still young when he became ill. After the initial shock and despair at the prospect of a life in a wheelchair the young Englishman decided that he would not settle for the doctor’s prognosis. Even though the original neurological connection between brain and body were severed, might it not be possible to build another one? Since the nerves which should have provided Ian’s brain with the information necessary to move his body were destroyed it was necessary to create a new connection between brain and body. The answer, at least half of it, lay in visualisation.Brain

Ian discovered, after a painful period of hard mental work, that if he had a very concrete picture in his mind of which movement to perform and then used his eyes as control and feedback channel to tell his brain where the parts it were supposed to move were located, he was able, after years of gruelling discipline and training, to slowly re-gain control over his body.

What Ian was actually doing is something that all of us has experienced partly each time we learn and train a new motor program. When we learn to move as children we first go through an initial phase of large, unrefined movements which then gradually become more and more refined and coordinated and then eventually transformed into automatic patterns -motor programs. In this way we don’t have to think of every little detail involved in the movement and can have our mind elsewhere while bicycling, walking, skiing or performing any other movement pattern.

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

But the fact that we are not aware of the coordination happening when buttoning a button doesn’t mean that our body isn’t executing it. One of the prerequisites for such motor programs to work is that your brain knows where the parts which are supposed to contribute in the coordination are located. It needs to have a point of reference from which to work. Without this knowledge the brain is in the dark so do speak: it’s not easy to move something when you can’t locate it.

In Ian’s case it was as if every motor program that he had ever learned were suddenly cancelled out; and every coordination from that moment on until his death had to be done 100% consciously.

Do you have a personal problem with gravity?

The automatic motor programs which most of us uses every day are also based on a subconscious understanding of certain physical laws, such as gravity and how it affects our bodies. We all make use of this subconscious understanding every day, for instance each time we are lifting something up. A short example: the size of your base, if you’re standing broad legged or with your feet together, decides whether you’re going to tip over or not when extending something heavy out from your body.

Here is a visual example of what happens if you don’t take this fact into account.

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Ian´s body, who is bereft of his automatic motor programs, and therefore also from this subconscious knowledge, needs to be constantly aware of these physical laws: each time he is picking something up he needs to calculate how much the weight of the object will affect the balance in the rest of his body and then consciously adjust the angle of his arms and legs and the degree of tension in the muscles of his arms and legs based on this knowledge. Picking up a mango or lifting a chair demands different degrees of tension.

Most of us are rarely aware of the physical laws surrounding and affecting us each day. It is no accident that “biomechanics” is still a relatively unfamiliar term for most people. The knowledge of how biological material (what your body is made of) is affected by physical laws (gravity for instance) is not something we go around and ponder. Yet we all live under these laws, we just happen to be so lucky as not to need to relate to them except on those occasions where our proprioception is a tad weaker than usual, for instance when we have been drinking or early in the morning when we have just got out of bed and seem to constantly bump into our doorframes.

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

For someone like Ian who is cut off from his proprioception the relationship with gravity becomes very close indeed. For one thing his ability to move is completely dependent on his eyes and his visual faculties: as long as he can use his eyes to give his brain feedback on where his body is located Ian is able to control his body in a way that (for now) is unique in all of the world. However, if this feedback channel disappears, for instance if the light is switched off in the room, he immediately loses every control of his body and collapses like a rag doll, – the result of the brain’s lack of ability to adjust the body according to gravity.

Brain in search of body

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Photo by Cengizhan Konuş on Unsplash

When we see small babies moving slowly and seemingly uncoordinated we are actually witnessing a meticulous training of coordination and motor patterns which will later on become the foundation for every movement during a long life. Although we might find such intense concentration when reaching for a toy as “cute” what is actually happening should rather trigger our admiration: brain scans of Ian’s brain when he is performing his conscious coordinated movements shows activity in parts of the brain that are usually used only in activities demanding the most sophisticated form of intense concentration, activities such as juggling with multiple balls.

It goes without saying that this activity demands much more energy than movements which have been transformed into automatic motor programs.

There is also another price Ian is constantly paying which those of us with an active proprioception don’t need to worry about. Our brain is dependent on its contact with the body. When this contact is missing or decreased the brain instinctively senses this as a threat. A consequence of Ian’s condition is therefore that his nervous system is in a constant state of tension, where the feedback that his eyes provide is the only thing staving off the panic.

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Just think about the sensation of missing a step when walking down the stair or stepping off a ledge that you didn’t expect was there, and where your body suddenly flops down. The sudden jolt we experience when the expected contact with the ground disappears for a second is actually your brain shouting for feedback from the body, – feedback which didn’t come as expected and which, in Ian’s case, will never come. Imaging having that shouting as a continuous companion in your life..

Embodied living

Ian’s example shows us how much of our life and our activities which are based on movement patterns. Most of us take these patterns for granted and are even mostly unaware of them happening at all. Only in situations when we are witnessing these patterns at their utmost, might it suddenly dawn on us the immense complexity and possibilities stored in our incredible bodies. For instance in a concert, when a performer makes something incredibly complex appear as effortless.

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Neurologically speaking, for something to be without effort does not mean that there is no effort involved but rather that we are witnessing something functioning at its utmost. And maybe that is exactly what holds our fascination: we are reminded of the endless possibilities and miracles residing inside these amazing structures which we choose to call our “bodies”.

Hopefully this experience might eventually make us treat our bodies with the attention and reverence they deserve, both during living and during playing, but more on that in a later blog.

If you want to know more check out the BBC Horizon documentary “The Man Who Lost His Body” which tells the whole story of Ian Waterman.