What exactly is proprioception? You could call it body sense or kinesthetic awareness, it is the brain’s ability to sense the relative positions and movements of the different body parts. Because of proprioception, you know exactly where your hand is in space as you move it around, even though your eyes are closed.

The scientific term for feel is proprioception. The special sense of proprioception is located in your middle ear. It gives us information on acceleration and deceleration, and balance. The general component of proprioception derives from pressure and tension receptors in your joints, muscles and tendons.

All coordinated movement depends on proprioception. It should be obvious that elite level movement in rowing requires an elite level of body sense. For example, there is no way you can row properly without knowing exactly what your body is doing at all times. Accurate body sense is also essential for feeling good in your body.

Improving your proprioception is an excellent goal for anyone who wants to improve sports performance. In fact, I would claim that any therapy or training method that can achieve either goal efficiently works primarly by improving proprioception. Following is a discussion of how proprioception works, why it matters, and how it can be changed for better or worse.

The brain maps the body

The key to understanding proprioception is the body maps. The body maps are parts of the brain that are organized in such a way as to represent the different body parts, just as lines on a map represent roads. Each part of the body has a separate area of the brain dedicated to moving and sensing that body part. So, we have hands, and we have virtual hands in the brain – parts of the brain that represent the size, shape and position of the hands.

Body parts communicate with their virtual counterparts in the following way. There are millions of microscopic organs called mechanoreceptors located throughout the body. When they are stimulated by a mechanical force, they send a signal through the nervous system to the part of the brain devoted to sensing that part of the body. The brain assembles all these signals from the innumerable different sources and determines exactly where everything is and what it is doing. In essence, the brain creates numerous maps of the body that it uses to decide what is going on and how to move.

Good movement requires good body maps

Because the brain uses the map to make decisions about how to move, it is obvious that the better and more detailed the map, the better and more precise the movement. By contrast, if the map is unclear or fuzzy, navigation of the different movement possibilities will be shaky.

These points are illustrated by the fact that body parts that have greater movements demands have bigger maps. For example, the hand is capable of extremely intricate and differentiated movements and sensations, and the brain devotes a large area to sensing and controlling it. By contrast, the brain devotes very little space to mapping areas of the body that do not have much movement or sensation capability, such as the middle of the back or the elbow.

Another indication that the maps are essential for coordination is that they actually grow bigger when placed under demand. For example, the part of a musician’s brain that senses and controls the fingers is actually observably larger than the counterpart of a person who does not use his or her hands as much.

Maps are built by movement

The maps are constantly being updated to reflect current demands. You can sense changes in your maps instantly by doing a simple experiment. Try to imagine or sense the exact shape and position of your ears. Now rub just the left ear for a few seconds and then compare your ability to sense the left ear and the right. You will note that it is much easier to sense the left. The simple reason is that touching the ear activated its mechanoreceptors, which sent a signal to the brain, which activated the map for that area. Of course, the additional clarity is only temporary.

In order to make long term or permanent changes in the maps, you need to place demands on that map consistently over a long period of time. Recall that musicians actually have larger finger maps than other people. When a certain body part or movement is used repeatedly in a coordinated and mindful fashion, there are actual physical and observable changes in the part of the brain that controls that body part or movement. This is part of the reason why you get better at what you practice.

Of course, not all movements are created equal in their ability to stimulate the body maps. Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the maps are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful.

Lack of movement will reverse this process. If you fail to move in a certain way for a period of time, you lose the ability to accurately sense and control that movement. This is called sensory motor amnesia. The brain’s body maps get fuzzier, less clear. If you tape three fingers together in a way that causes them to move as one unit for several days, the brain will start to represent the fingers as one unit, not as three separate parts that are capable of individual movements.

As you row on the water or on the Rowperfect3, whose dynamics virtually replicate those of a floating boat; your sense of proprioception is receiving almost exactly the same signals as would be the case in a boat without the extraneous information of wind, weather, and waves and so on. This allows you to truly concentrate on producing a perfect rhythm and technique, which is after all the perfect coordination of your muscles by your nerves. Doing it this way you are not confusing your body.

Thanks to todd Hargrove and Rowperfect3

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