Proprioception of thought

In his book Dialog William Isaacs tells a strange story. A woman wakes in the night to find herself being strangled by an unseen foe. After struggling in the dark, she manages to flick on a light. To her astonishment, she discovers that she is strangling herself with her other arm.

She is the victim of a rare phenomenon, loss of proprioception. Proprioception is the way we can sense where the various bits of our bodies are without having to look at them. We rely on it constantly without even thinking about it. (For instance, when driving, you don’t need to look at your foot on the pedal to know how much acceleration you’re applying.)

Whilst we have ready access to physical proprieception, Isaacs suggests we have largely lost proprieception of our thinking. That is, we don’t notice we’re doing it or the impact it has. We take relatively small amounts of sensory input, make a big meaning and act on that meaning without much pause. In evolutionary terms, clearly a useful skill but it has its downsides.

So in meetings, we start feeling something akin to anxiety and start making a whole lot of assumptions about what others are thinking; we might be right but we can easily be wrong.

I’m increasingly drawn to processes that create a reflective space where our conversation and thinking might slow down enough to regain proprieception. I find it involves going through one or several waves of stress, discomfort and anxiety that I think go with having one of our senses restored. (I suppose it’s a little like walking in from the cold to a warm room – that’s when we shiver the most).

One of the interesting effects of such a shift is a different, I would say richer, sense of connection to those sharing the space with us. I contend it’s a connection that is always there but often goes unnoticed. When it goes unnoticed, we default to a more mechanical notion of how to influence each other and make stuff happen. When we become aware of it, we start to realise that maybe we’re not in such a position of control. That creates a few mental shivers of its own.

3 thoughts on “Proprioception of thought

  1. Nick Smith

    This is so true.

    I also think creating a space of non-judgement and trust is probably the best (maybe the only thing) we can do to help others become defenseless and roll with those waves you describe so well…. and I would imagine you are very good at doing this Johnnie.

  2. manchesterclimatemonthly

    brilliant post. Love it. Have you read Oliver Sacks’ essays on this sort of proprioceptive problem, from a neurological point of view?

    Best wishes

    Marc Hudson

    PS typo in first line of third paragraph – physcial


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