Monday, October 22, 2012

Kinesthetic Confusion in Brooklyn

You're trudging your way up the subway stairs after a long day, thinking about what you're going to pick up on the way home for dinner as you . . . oops, trip on one of the steps. You regain your footing and continue up the stairs to the sidewalk without thinking twice. Has this ever been you? Hold that thought.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the concept of proprioception in a small group class that I teach. "Proprioception" is essentially akin to "kinesthesia" and is a sense. We're all familiar with sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, all relating to how we take in sensory input from outside of ourselves. Proprioception is how the body senses itself.
Here are two examples of proprioception that you can try right now.

Put your left hand behind your back. Do you know that it's still there? That's your proprioception at work.

Close your eyes. Can you touch your nose without looking? Again, your proprioception.

Proprioceptive nerves reside in your muscles and send signals to your brain explaining where you are in space, where the parts of your body are relative to one another, and how much effort you need to do things.

Write the words "heavy" on a big box and ask friend to lift it. If they swing the box up high very quickly and loose their balance, you will have tricked their proprioception.

The thing is though, is that most of us are constantly tricking our proprioception without really knowing it. We compress ourselves, tense, and strain and we may or may not be aware that something is awry. We may experience pain, but not know exactly why. We become helpless in the face our own habits because by habitually holding our bodies and moving in inefficient, straining ways, we've become kinesthetically "blind" to them. Studying the Alexander Technique is like putting glasses on your proprioceptive sense, but even better because the clarity that is gained is through awareness and change.

In my group class, we were looking at ways in which our proprioception might be "off", like a compass that isn't pointing north. For example, if you were to guess what part of your face the bottom of the back of your head (where your head meets your neck in the back) lines up with, what would you guess? Most people guess their chin. The bottom of the back of the head is actually much higher and lines up with the cheekbones, just below the eyes. F.M. Alexander called this phenomenon "debauched kinesthesia" at the turn of the 20th Century. I like to call it "kinesthetic confusion". 

What does it mean if you think that your head (meaning your skull) reaches all the way down to chin-level in the back? It means that you are likely tightening your neck. The area of the back of the neck that goes from your cheekbones to your chin is being "labeled" by your brain as part of your head. Because of this kinesthetic "mislabeling", you are probably locking your head and neck together, which starts a downward chain reaction of compression through the whole body all the way to your feet.

A funny example of my own kinesthetic confusion is that I used to tense and narrow my shoulders so much that I had no idea how broad they were and was constantly colliding into door frames. Ouch!

As we were going through a variety of examples of kinesthetic confusion in my class, one of my students mentioned a news report on a particular subway station in Brooklyn that has gain attention for its stairs and the tendency for people to trip on them. Check out the video above and see how many trips were captured over the period of one hour. According to the article accompanying the video, "one of the stairs leading to [the subway station] . . . is a 'fraction of an inch' taller than the others. This causes a great deal of stumbles, trips and falls."

You can probably figure out why someone would be likely to trip on a step that is slightly taller that the steps leading up to it. You'd become used to the height of the steps and without even thinking about it would expect to bend your knee and raise your foot the same amount to reach the next one. This is proprioception at work and a great example of how our proprioceptive/kinesthetic awareness is "on" all the time and goes on auto-pilot - a good thing, since we wouldn't want to have to be thinking about exactly how much to bend each knee and lift each food every time you took a step.

So, how can we avoid trips or at least trip more gracefully and not totally wipe out. If you're walking up the stairs and you are already in a state of kinesthetic confusion just in relation to how you are holding your own body, your ability to adjust gracefully to something unexpected (ie. an unusually high step on a flight of stairs or an unexpected step on what you thought was even ground) is impaired. Not only do people tend to tighten and compress their bodies habitually, but people tend to consciously disconnect from their bodies. This is often referred to as not being "in the moment". You might not be able to be aware of your feet on the ground, the stair in front of you, and your thoughts about what to pick up for dinner in a way that you can react quickly to the unexpectedly high stair. Kinesthetic confusion is a psycho-physical phenomenon (relating to mind and body).

The kinesthetically confusing subway station is 36th Street Station in Brooklyn, a station that I pass through nearly every day to change trains, so I'm not so familiar with the stairs that lead to the street!

Check out the video and feel free to leave comments about your own experiences of kinesthetic confusion.


  1. This is fantastic thanks for sharing this with everyone! The other thing I just noticed is how quite a lot of people actually speed up their movement up the steps after tripping. If steps on a staircase are uneven the last thing that's going to help is going faster up them and I reckon I've done this a few times myself afer tripping. You should check out the subway stations in London there are many with uneven steps.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about people speeding up after they trip. I've been guilty of that myself and my best explanation based why I think I do it is to "run away" from having tripped to avoid embarrassment. It's like the subtext is, "Hey it wasn't me who tripped. Look I'm all the way over here now. Must have been the guy behind me!"
      It would be interesting to see similar videos in different cities and see if the reactions to tripping are similar!