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There's a sense so essential to our everyday functioning, it is almost impossible to describe beyond... simply being. Or existing, physically. Called proprioception, and sometimes referred to as the sixth sense, it is the sense that the body uses to detect itself. Radio Lab talks to one man and his doctor who have an interesting vantage point for explaining this sense. Ian Waterman (picture at right, seated, during a research trial) can describe this sense so accurately because he is one of the few people in the world to have lost it. Ian and his doctor, Jonathan Cole, pressed themselved into the world's smallest BBC recording booth to talk to us about what Ian doesn't feel.

Comments [19]

Loma Pommerening

I have experienced this condition myself. It was induced by a large dose of ketamine, i lost all communication with my body. It felt like I was a small pilot existing just in my head, I was operating my body with site alone. In order to walk I had to visually verify proper foot placement and contact with the ground. Luckily these effects wore off after about 6 hores.

Mar. 24 2018 08:04 PM
liz from NYC

Thank you for keeping alive the delightful sound of Oliver Sacks. Also, IMHO, the best line in the show is: "That's just applying heat." Thanks to Robert Krulwich's wife, I laughed out loud. You cover a range of goriness and mind bending ideas, as well as joy and spiritual topics. Thanks for an informative and entertaining show.

Aug. 09 2016 10:03 PM
Mark from Seattle

I heard this story today 8/7/2016. I really expected the story to end with how Ian's unique understanding of movement and locomotion has benefited the study of robotics. If they haven't contacted him yet they better get on the ball. I'm thinking this piece was made 2 or more years ago so maybe somethings happened since.

Aug. 07 2016 07:50 PM
JoDee Cole from Wyoming

Ever hear of Guillaine Barre Syndrome? Ian pretty much describes what I am going through. Thanks for his story because it pretty much resembles mine.

Dec. 07 2014 08:06 PM
Eve W from Richmond, CA

Siri says the music is 'Building a Strange Child' by Dosh.

Dec. 07 2014 04:13 PM
Rachelle from Texas

Ian's description of his symptoms sounds very much like the issues I started experiencing over the summer. I'd been dealing with severe, incessant vertigo for almost a year, and began having problems with motor skills for hours at a time after enjoying a caffeinated beverage, to the point of having to break down the most basic movements into mini-steps. I soon realized any amount of coffee/tea/soda was triggering these reactions and have been problem-free since I eliminated my intake. The vertigo left as suddenly and mysteriously as it started a couple of months later and I'm grateful for every day since, because without it I'm otherwise a fit, healthy 34yo female.

It's also reassuring to hear Ian's condition being called a handicap – I remember telling my husband I felt I'd been dealt a disability and had to constantly figure out how to cope with the most mundane daily tasks. Here's hoping that publicizing proprioception issues will help these conditions receive more serious attention from the medical community because my (and, from reading forums/comments on the web, thousands [or more?] of others') experience with various doctors was overall not positive. As an *afterthought* at the end of my consultation, one neurologist suggested I try taking magnesium supplements, and that actually helped take the worst of it away. When I told my GP that the supplements made a difference, she brushed it off and suggested putting me on a brand of Prozac marketed to women. Luckily, I started feeling better a week after that visit and pray that the vertigo and motor skills problems never return.

Dec. 07 2014 02:33 PM
Ben from United States

I am a sensory psychologist doing work related to the sense of spatial orientation, which is maintained by the visual, somatosensory (tactile/kinesthetic), and vestibular (inner ear equilibrium) senses.

I wanted to try to answer two questions that came up in the comments:

One person asked if Ian would be able to talk if he could not hear himself talk. I think he would, b/c if I remember Dr. Cole's book correctly, he has some somatosensory sensation preserved ABOVE the neck.

Hypothetically, if a person could not here or feel the vibrations and throat/tongue movements associated w/ speaking, I think it affect their speech, but that is not my area. My guess is that the affect might be less in an adult who already has a lifetime of speaking practice.

The second question that was asked is how he would feel the attraction to the young lady. First, much sexual attraction is occurring in the brain rather than "lower" down. Also, I think much of what he was referring to was an emotional reaction to the pretty lady rather than a physical sensation of lust. Finally, there is simply a cognitive distraction caused whenever he stops thinking about walking, which could be caused by non-sexual stimuli. I think the latter was the main point he and Dr. Cole were making, actually.

Just conjectures, but I hope this helps.

Dec. 06 2014 09:32 PM
Barbara from Maine

7 years ago, on a dark and stormy night, I was in a car accident in which I crashed into a logging truck that was blocking both lanes of traffic. I am incredibly lucky to be alive but most of the bones in both feet and ankles were seriously broken and there was nerve damage. I now walk with crutches, but in order to do so I constantly think about how my feet are moving, where my crutches are, what the surface I am walking on is like, what the surface ahead is like...and on and on. My occupational therapist told me that my proprioception had been compromised, and my surgeon likened it to having graph paper on the bottom of your feet with nerve endings in each square that constantly feed information back to the brain. It seems that my graph paper got crumpled and so the messages are disrupted and confused. Hearing Ian discuss his how he gets about sounded very familiar to how I "mobilitate." It was quite heartening to hear about someone who has to do the same thing as I, but to such a greater degree. What he didn't mention was that being that conscious all or most of the time can be really tiring. Thanks!

Dec. 06 2014 02:55 PM
Penny Bamford from Bellingham WA

some 40+ years ago I knew a research student who said that he had no proprioception in his legs and had to see and think about every step. I heard several years later that he had been run over and killed while crossing the road. I assumed that he had not been able to cope with avoiding the oncoming vehicle as well as walking. I fear for your patient driving.
I too would like to know how your patient is talking. Is it a case of the block being below the speech motor nerves but above the neck and arm?

Dec. 06 2014 02:12 PM
Stan Alluisi from Durant, Oklahoma, United States

Question: If Mr. Waterman needs to see his limbs and external references in order to move and orient himself how does he speak? Is the sound of his own voice enough to complete the feedback loop? What if you placed headphones on him with loud white white noise - could he still speak without the feedback?

Thanks for the very informative and enjoyable program,


Dec. 06 2014 10:44 AM
Richard from Sydney, Australia

WOW... Listening to this segment in 2014 for the first time and I couldn't believe my ears!!!

When I was about 9 years old I was playing outside at school when I felt "weird" and kinda just fell to the ground. Everyone came over to help me (they thought I had fainted, although I was completely conscious) and I got back up and brushed myself off and that was that...until later that afternoon while walking, my entire right side of my body got sort of tingly with pins and needles and just shut down. Because I was walking when it happened and my right leg couldn't support weight I just collapsed.

I went to hospital and had all sorts of tests and MRIs (this was 1991) and they never worked out what it was. I never had the "shut down" of my body again but ever since that day I continued to get it where about once a month half my eyesight (on the right side) would just "pixelate" followed by the most EXTREME migraine imaginable. I continued to get them for about 10 years. Now, I don't get them at all.

If there's a doctor reading this, I'd be very interested to hear if they think it could be this proprioception stuff, seeing no one ever gave me an explanation.

One more on this topic: when I can't sleep, the one trick that seems to work every time... (it's sort of weird to explain but bare with me):

When I'm lying there I can consciously "shut off" the feeling to my the point where it feels like they don't exist and they kinda go tingly. I'm talking about about 1 second here. Oddly... the next morning when I wake up, the last memory I have is of doing that thing with my legs.

May. 05 2014 06:33 AM
Elrich from South africa

Good day

I was diagnosed with severe sensory neuronopathy two years and can relate to Ians frustrations and his endurance.I currently walk with little assitance but we have to think daily to control movements of daily life,lack of preprioception.I currently work in a office to support my family but the sheer mountain of mental concentraion trying to move my fingers and limbs is a marathon on its own,I currently await disability insurance outcome.I wish to become an advisor like Ian in helping all like use to cope.God bless

Dec. 10 2013 02:41 AM
Hugh from Rathgar, Ireland

Hi, Great show ( as per usual ). Like Sean and Adam, I would also really love to know what that audio track was between the butcher segment and the pilot segment. In general, if the people/person managing this site added the track listing in the show notes for each episode as they are published it would certainly scratch my itchy phantom limb of unsatisfied musical curiosity. Thanks Radiolab!

Nov. 25 2013 12:10 AM

Because they're talking about physical feeling, not emotional.

Mar. 09 2011 07:02 PM
Erica Baron

So, here's my question. In the first segment, it was posited that if your brain lost the feedback from your body, you wouldn't be able to feel as much. But when the person in the story was walking, he was distracted by erotic attraction to a woman and stumbled. So, how did he feel attraction if he wasn't getting feedback from his body? Just curioius.

Nov. 08 2010 12:14 PM
GG from NYC

I was recently diagnosed with a rare disease, Transverse Myelitis, after being healthy my entire life (I am only 21). This disease has caused paralysis, lack of sensation, and many other things, including a lack of proprioception from the chest down. I can relate in many ways, but he lacks any other physical issues, so this was obviously very different than what I have experienced. I may never regain proprioception, but regain motion, so I feel like I may use his strategies if it comes to that.

His last quote about being dealt a hand is something I, and many others, can relate to. Thanks for sharing this interesting and inspiring story.

Jul. 27 2010 12:40 PM
Adam from new york

yes, the music at the end of the butcher segment! what is it?

amazing show. thanks.

Mar. 06 2010 04:18 PM
Adam from new york

yes, the music after the butcher segment. what is it?

amazing show.

Mar. 06 2010 04:18 PM
Sean Hennessey from Lancaster, PA USA

Hey, first and foremost, I love your show! I sync at work with friends to listen to the show. I was wondering where you get your music, or if there is a way I could know what artists you use? like towards the end of this segment , the ambient music?

Thanks so much,

- Sean

Aug. 06 2007 10:57 AM

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