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The Butcher's Assistant

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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 [9]

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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