Proprioceptive Maps

Young children are constantly moving. Movement is what develops the brain. For example, when a one-year-old learns to walk, the child practices over and over the necessary movements to ambulate in an upright position against gravity. This takes hard, concentrated work. At this age it is not automatic. But once practiced sufficiently, the motor pattern is downloaded into subconscious motor centers and becomes part of our life-long automatic memory of “how to walk.”

As we develop these motor patterns, we are also developing and refining unconscious proprioception. This is the sensory feedback system that lets us know where we are in space relative to gravity. There are two components of proprioception. The first is feedback from our vestibular or balance organs providing unconscious awareness of where our head is in space relative to gravity. The second is feedback from our muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, skin, etc. that lets us know where our body parts are in space relative to our head. Through trial and error and lots of practice as young children, we learn where our hands are without looking at them, where our feet are without looking down at them, and where every other body part is as well – indeed, where we are and what we are doing at every single moment. This awareness is stored in proprioceptive maps we build in our sensory cortex.

Learning any new physical skill (playing a musical instrument, improving a tennis serve, learning to juggle) requires learning a sequence of movements and then practicing them enough so they become automatic. Part of athletic “talent” is how quickly and easily we can learn new movements and then reliably reproduce them. Much of this depends upon how well we have been able to create accurate proprioceptive maps. If you don’t know precisely where one hand is relative to the other, it is difficult to learn to juggle. To execute the motor sequence required for a tennis serve, you must know in exquisite detail exactly where every body part is as you move through the whole range of the movement sequence.