What is the proprioceptive sense and why is it important for learning?

proprioceptive sense

What is the proprioceptive sense?

The proprioceptive sense tells us about our body position. It is stimulated every time we move. Each time we use our muscles or stretch and bend our joints. Receptors for this sense are all over our body, deep within our joints and muscles. Therefore, whenever we push, pull or lift heavy things we really stimulate this sense.

Therapists often call proprioception the ‘safe sense’. This is because activities which stimulate this sense have an organising effect on the brain.

“Proprioception from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own” and capio to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body.


Activities which stimulate the proprioceptive sense:

starfish pose

The proprioceptive sense & alertness

We can manage our own levels of alertness with proprioceptive rich activities (like those listed above). This is because proprioceptive input, along with deep pressure touch (including a massage, or a big hug!), is the most accepted and tolerated form of sensation by our body. 
Proprioceptive input can be: regulating, calming, soothing, organising and/or alerting, depending on the current state of our nervous system. For example, if your child is over-excited, finding it hard to concentrate, proprioceptive activities can help them to feel more grounded, enabling them to focus.
If however, your child is feeling drowsy, finding it hard to wake up and concentrate, proprioceptive activities can help them feel more alert, without being over stimulated.
Sensory rich activities are those which involve the steady stimulation of several senses, including the proprioceptive and vestibular senses. These will help your child to organise their senses. This sensory organisation is fundamental for enabling and supporting learning.
A hug


Optimum level of alertness for well-being and learning

Of course throughout the day, our levels of alertness will naturally alter. In the morning we should be gradually increasing our level of alertness to wake up. At night we should be lowering our state of alertness, so that we can sleep.
For optimal learning, our level of alertness should be somewhere in the middle. We should be ‘calmly alert’ (neither over excited nor drowsy). In this calm, alert state we can focus on what we are doing long enough so that we can truly understand it.

Optimal learning


Managing levels of alertness for learning

What is The Reticular Activating System & what does it do?

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a small area at the base of our brain with wide connections throughout our brain. All of our senses (except smell) follow nerve pathways which are connected to our RAS. 
The RAS has a major role in the regulation of alertness levels (among other functions).

The RAS enables us to focus our attention, acting like a filter to dampen down the effect of repeated stimuli. For example, as you are reading this, a fly may be buzzing across the room. At first you are distracted by the sound, but after a while, your RAS filters out this distant buzzing noise. Thus allowing you to keep your attention on the blog post.

Our RAS needs to be neither over nor under-excited for our body to be at the ‘just right’ level for learning. It keeps us in the calm alert state by steadily filtering out unwanted sensory information.
The RAS contributes to regulating our overall level of alertness, including our sleep/wake cycle. In the morning, our RAS system becomes more excitable. At this time we gradually become aware of incoming sensory information. This may include bird song outside, or our alarm clock. As a result, we become more alert. At night time, our RAS system should be less excitable. This means that our body becomes less responsive to the world around us. This less responsive state allows us to relax and sleep.


spacerHow proprioceptive sensory input can affect the RAS 

Light touch, auditory (hearing) and painful sensations follow pathways with close connections to our RAS. These sensations are often associated with danger. It is logical then that this kind of sensation will alarm the RAS.
To go back to the example of the fly; you may have been able to ignore the distant buzzing while your RAS effectively filtered it out. However, if the fly suddenly buzzed loudly in your ear and touched your face, your RAS would be instantly excited. You would become hyper-alert to the fly. Your attention would have moved away from the blog.

Using proprioceptive activities to improve focus & relieve anxiety

In contrast, it is thought that deep touch and proprioceptive sensations follow neural pathways which are not so closely connected with our RAS. Indeed, by processing of these types of sensations, we may actually help our RAS to become less excitable.

This may explain why activities which activate the proprioceptive sense help us to feel more grounded and less anxious.

TIP: Deep massage and a weighted blanket can also help relieve anxiety and especially help those children with sensory needs.

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about the proprioceptive sense, take a look at these links:

  • LemonLimeAdventures – the viewpoint of a teacher and mum to a child with sensory needs
  • The Scientist – why knowing where our bodies are in space is critical for the control of our movements and for our sense of self
  • Brain Balance – Proprioception explained

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