the human

You say “I” and you are proud of this little word. But greater than your word is your body which does not say “I” but performs “I”.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Lack of a discursive framework

Telling a person to sit up straight for example, is not enough to convey all the information necessary to achieve that goal. There is an interpretive stage in all verbal commands dealing with the body mediated by proprioceptive sensation. For example, what is straight for one person might be arched too far back for another. Words often fail to convey all the information necessary for a bodily movement to occur. Even demonstration sometimes fails, as most dance teachers will attest. Showing how to make a move doesn’t mean that all students will be able to reproduce it exactly. Kinesthetic information is very hard to convey to others. Humans lack an unequivocal channel to communicate this kind of information. Some people need to reason the movement and understanding it first, others need to see it to understand it, yet others will not grasp it until they have mastered it in their own bodies. Kinesthetic information does not travel easily between humans by means of words alone.

Many of the studies on kinesthetic sensation I have come across during my research, have their origin in discussions pertaining to its function and dysfunction. Scientific knowledge of the body's kinesthetic sense is spread out in disciplines as disparate as medicine, air force pilot training and sports coaching. However a substantial percentage of this knowledge has palliative or preventive goals. That is to say, it originates from the will to alleviate the symptoms of disease or the effects of dysfunction. There is very little literature focusing on the experiential aspects of kinesthetic sensation per se in a way that is not merely functional and descriptive.

There is a significant lack of vocabulary to develop a critical discussion of kinesthetic sensation.

Thinking in motion

An exception to this finding is the remarkable case of F.M. Alexander. The discoverer of a universal principle of motor control and the inventor of what is known as the Alexander Technique. Mr. Alexander was a rare case of kinesthetic genius, a person that developed a very high sensitivity for human kinesthetic sensation and developed an intelligent understanding of the effects it plays in the whole organism. He had to develop a specific vocabulary to communicate his findings as he seems to also have encountered a lack of language to discuss kinesthetic sensation. This vocabulary is nowadays common parlance amongst practitioners of the technique, but it is not widely disseminated. Terms such as faulty sensory appreciation or debauched kinesthesia are unfortunately not in wide use.

The truth remains that humans hardly ever feel the need to discuss kinesthetic sensation until they feel that something is the matter with their bodies.

Debauched Kinesthesia

It is said that a person’s kinesthetic sense is debauched when the misuse of their body is such that they are no longer capable of telling which energy state their body is in. Whether they are using too much effort to hold themselves or too little, or if they are compensating for some kind of imbalance existing in their use. Their kinesthetic sense is therefore unreliable as it is no longer providing accurate feedback to the brain.

It is interesting to note that this is “learned”. Humans are born with a naturally balancing body, it is through education, or perhaps better said, lack of education, that the kinesthetic sense comes to be debauched.

The nature of kinesthetic sensation is to exist in the background, hardly ever surfacing into consciousness. To remain below conscious levels the human motor system has an ingrained capability to compensate for undue effects by changing the tension patterns across the entire body. For example, waking up with a stiff neck the body tries to cope with it. Undue tension appears on the shoulders and lower back, trying to compensate for a stiff neck, head position changes slightly with respect to our torso. The variation in the shoulders means our arms become slightly rotated inwards and greater tension in the lower back means our legs bear a greater burden. Humans hardly feel any of this, and even long after the stiff neck has worn off through the day the tensional pattern that compensated for it echoes through the body. For most humans all of this happens way below the line of consciousness.

Smell artist Sissel Tolaas once said that humans breath about 1200 times per day, every time inhaling scented molecules. Smell is there at all times, there are smells to be perceived at every moment of life. Yet humans are hardly ever conscious of this. She tells how, for seven years, she trained herself as a supernose, a person capable of distinguishing a great variety of smells even when present at very small concentrations. In the process, she describes, how her attention gradually shifted and was more and more taken by a world that seemed to be rich in smell wherever she went. Entering a room became an experience rich in aromas of all kinds, layering in different ways. It was no longer possible for her to ignore, she had become conscious of this sensual dimension. Her smell, no longer operating under the threshold of consciousness.

Kinesthetic sensation, in this sense, is not that different from smell, except that normally it is buried even deeper from our consciousness than smell is. It is possible to learn how to more accurately perceive kinesthetic sensation by bringing this sensation into consciousness.

Kinesthetic information

Every time a human jumps to fetch a frisbee, there is a huge amount of activity going on in the body. The calculation of the trajectory, which might be influenced by wind or many other factors. Planning the motion and tensional patterns required for the body to reach out for the catch, as well as coordinating and timing these movements accurately. This happens so fast that by the time the body is halfway through that motion, the conscious mind is already looking ahead at where to throw the frisbee next. The entire body collaborates in this feat of engineering and makes it appear effortless. From skin and hearing, humans get information about wind strength and direction. From joints, vestibular sensation and vision they obtain the relative position of body and limbs to the desired position, from ligaments and muscles they receive information about effort and strain. Vision, hearing and touch provide information about the direct physical environment as well as the brain’s mapping capabilities tell the human if there is a tree where she has to move next.

No system engineered by humans manages to resolve problems like this with quite such grace as organic bodies do. Examples of these phenomenal feats of engineering abound in the natural world and it’s not the purpose of this section to discuss them at any length. What is important to understand however, is that all these motions took place, for the most part, without surfacing to the conscious level. To consciously calculate all factors involved in catching a frisbee in an analytic and conscious way, would quickly overwhelm most humans. Yet a healthy person, in full command of their motor system can do this without thinking.

Most kinesthetic information that the body feeds the brain with, lives in a tumult of activity way below the buoyancy level of consciousness.

F.M. Alexander didn't just develop a rational understanding of kinesthetic sensation and a vocabulary to discuss it critically, he also developed a way to convey information through his teachings. However kinesthetic experience cannot be taught by means of words alone. He found that to convey kinesthetic information he had to use his hands to transmit more precise directions.

The anomaly of sitting still

The human body exists in a state of finely tuned dynamic balance. Its Upright Posture involves two distinct features: first, the rising up against gravity, which requires intense muscular effort; and then the substitution of this effort for a most delicate poise and balance, an equation of forces brought about by an interplay of the sensory and motor mechanisms. The Upright Posture, once attained is reliable and effortless as well as highly unstable. It is probably safe to assume that no human has ever lived that has never experienced a fall.

It is to the Upright Position that humans owe the liberation of their arms and hands, allowing for the development of fine manual dexterity, which arguably is one of the evolutionary drivers towards a larger brain.

The center of gravity of a human being is comparatively at the highest point amongst mammals, making the Upright Posture very unstable. Quadrupeds and other bipedal mammals have much lower balancing points than humans. Observing quadrupeds standing on their hind legs, like horses rearing or dogs begging, it is clear that they do so with great effort and never for too long a time. A high center of gravity gives the human body a greater store of potential energy, making a large range of movements possible with very little energetic expense.

Bipedal locomotion is in a way a fluid mechanism to prevent falling. To walk forward, a human leans forward slightly, bringing their center of gravity forward, effectively provoking a fall, which is then compensated by bringing one leg forward to reach again a state of balance. Walking is a flowing motion produced by continuously falling forward. It is a curious fact that even to walk backwards a human being must still lean slightly forward.

From a mechanical point of view it is clear that the dynamic balance of the Upright Posture is an advantage for continuous movement. The human body is much less satisfactorily adapted to keeping still.

A human body in stagnating stillness wants to collapse and fall, give into gravity, to avoid this it must find the support of something else, a wall, a chair perhaps, even the floor. Balance in the Upright Posture exists only while there is motion.