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Making sense: kinesthesia.

To know anything well involves knowing ourselves well in relation to whatever else we wish top understand. Where does such knowing begin? At the beginning, perhaps? Here, Leela Zion serves as an able guide to the early stages of a lifelong journey whose full dimensions await scientific and philosophical investigation.

- JK

We learned when young that there are only five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. And even today most of the textbooks that deal with the senses still express this "only five senses theory."

We have many other senses, from the proprioceptive sensory system with receptors in the semicircular canals of our inner ears that tell us when our head is in motion and in which directions and planes it is moving, to senses involving feeling pain, heat, cold, discomfort, vibration, and pleasure.

Today, we recognize that the senses are systems. A sense is not just a nose or an eye or an ear or two, but each is a very complex system involving several different kinds of sensory receptors and interpretations. When Van Gogh cut off his ear, he could still hear with that ear. All he cut off was the funnel that directs sound waves more easily into the various sensory receptors in the rest of the ear complex.

Hearing involves the onrushing and withdrawing of waves of air molecules that cause the ear drum to vibrate in various ways, and hence, the vibration of the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. These press fluid against the inner ear membranes with tiny nerve cells that send messages to the hearing center in the brain for translation. We can locate sounds in space and time, identify type, intensity, source, duration, and interpret these into song, talk, noise, laughter, or music.

Seeing involves neurons that pick up light, images, duration, and color. Neurons pinpoint objects in space and time, and enable the eye to focus. We measure light waves and judge them, compare them and revise our interpretation of them.

Through smell we can detect over 10,000 odorants, from minty, floral, ethereal, musky, resinous to foul and acrid. We have over 5,000 olfactory cells and 60 different sites of olfactory bulb surface resulting in spatial patterns or amplitude creating topographical mapping of odorants. Different olfactory neurons respond to different geometric shapes of molecules in the air and produce different olfactory responses and interpretations in the olfactory center. Smell can alert us to poison, or a prospective mate, or food. Smells can make us fearful or nostalgic.

Taste is our most intimate sense involving actual ingestion of the environment. Groups of 10,000 or more taste buds are variously distributed throughout the mouth, responding to sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Thousands of combinational interpretations are made in the gustatory center of the brain.

When we cut ourselves, we know where the spot is without having to look at it because of our sense of touch. We can feel wetness, pressure, "cold," "heat," "pain," "pleasure," and twinges. We have touch receptors in our hair follicles, between the dermis and epidermis, and in the deep tissues, responding to the slightest stimulation. We can feel the difference between a pat or a shove, a kiss or a bite, a feather or a thorn, a squeeze or a hug, a breeze or a gale. We can interpret heaviness, lightness, hardness, softness, roundness, textures, headaches, hunger pangs and thirst.

The miracle of our sensory systems is that each in its own way can convert energy from the external world into signals for the internal world ... from physical and mechanical qualities of light, sound, energy, gravity, force, and inertia into living interpretations such as seeing, hearing, and moving. The world we construct is based on the information that our senses are able to perceive and transmit. We can extend our senses through the use of telescopes and microscopes, CAT scans, robots, satellites, amplifiers, machines, and computers. But there is much information out there for which we have no receiving sets: noises in the ultrasonic range, magnetic fields, and most radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum.

All of our experiences are sensory experiences. Although many experiences are verbal, they nonetheless come to us through reading which involves the eyes and the movement of the eyes and head, or writing which involves the eyes, the touch of the fingers and the movement of the fingers and hand, or speaking which involves the ears, the touch of the tongue, lips, and mouth. The ways in which we organize these sensory experiences is called perception, and it is through perception that we learn to recognize balls, toys, sounds, touches, smells, movements and manipulations, and ideas that help us deal with the world. We learn to interact with the world by reaching, touching, grasping, sensing, experimenting, and letting go, and then we repeat these inter-actions thousands of times as our perceptions take on clarity and organization. We can combine all this wonderful information and organization to produce art, music, philosophy, even astrophysics.


Kinesthesia is a mystery sensory system that does not stand out like the nose on your face, or your eyes or ears or mouth or skin. Kinesthesia is nestled into the fibers of the muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. It is hidden from normal viewing. These millions of sensory neurons are stimulated every time you move and they send messages to your brain with information about compression and tension of muscles, contraction and relaxation, degrees of angulation of the joints of the body segments and the rate at which angulation changes. Kinesthesia was not clearly recognized as a sensory system until little over 100 years ago. And yet, one would think 100 years would be sufficient time for so many psychologists to have investigated kinesthesia and establish it as one of the basic senses.

Kinesthesia is a magnificent sensory system that makes movement of any kind possible and is the basis for understanding how the body operates. We are able to determine where our different body parts are in space/time and how they are moving in relation to each other and the environment. If we see something we want, we can translate visual space/time into kinesthetic space/time and stand up, walk across the room, and reach out with one hand and pour coffee into a cup held with the other hand and not spill a drop.

Kinesthesia is the sense that was first developed in the long distant past history of life (as in the movement of the amoeba) and it is the first sense to develop in the human embryo. Since the kinesthetic neural mechanisms develop first, future input from all the sensory systems is compared and contrasted with these initial patterns. Though the muscular system, which is not a sensory system, does the moving, it does so under the direction of the kinesthetic sensory system. We cannot survive without kinesthesia.

Control of Movement

When infants see a desired object, they must discover kinesthetically how to move an arm and hand in order to grasp it. They do so by selecting from the repertoire of movements and graspings they have thus far developed. Still later, it will become necessary to combine arm and leg movements into a plan to get where they want to go. Day after day, infants improve in their ability to reach, grasp, crawl, walk, and find their way in the world. Kinesthetic planning becomes more and more rapid and fluid as more and more movement subroutines become available at an automatic level. Kinesthetic planning at complex levels will become more analytical and sophisticated as experience becomes more varied.

We can try out various movement possibilities in the central nervous system (CNS) before selecting the best one for the circumstances. This can be accomplished in milliseconds. Kinesthetic planning is also the basis for thinking at more abstract levels, and involves considering and assessing concepts into different combinations in the central nervous system, leading to organization, logic, invention, creativity, and abstract thought.

As we discover more and more about our bodies, our movements, and our environment, we develop physically and mentally. Our world expands as we perceive more and more.

Many brain/mind models include an indirect feedback system which indicates the quality of our response after it has taken place. More recently, scientists are including a direct feedback loop of tactual and kinesthetic information indicating how we are moving, as we are moving. This explains how we are provided with continuous monitoring and control while movements are in progress. I know I am making a "misteak" while typing on this computer as I am making it, through my kinesthetic and tactual feedback systems. I don't have to wait to read my "misteaks" later.


When I am driving to San Francisco, several things are usually happening at once: my right ankle is extended with the sole of my foot on the gas pedal with varying amounts of pressure and relaxation as the speed needs to change, my eyes are watching the road ahead and behind, my left hand is on the steering wheel with varying degrees of movement as the road varies, my right hand is holding a hamburger, bringing it to and from my mouth while my mouth opens and closes, tastes, chews, swallows, and starts all over again. At the same time I am listening to the radio and to my friend, with varying changes in figure/ground. I am accomplishing all of these things while making appropriate adjustments for driving in rain, snow, or sleet, allowing for other crazy driver's idiosyncrasies, deer, and rocks. All this while computing the speed of the car, the curvature of the road, direction, wind, rate of decrease or increase of speed, how fast to turn the wheel, etc.

How can a person do all of this at once, and without apparent strain? All these movements are planned kinesthetically and carried out through movement patterns. The incoming data is processed through kinesthetic feedback immediately and continuously while various movement programs are started by the higher central nervous system levels and carried out via numerous automatic subroutines at several lower levels, especially by the cerebellum. As sensory input continues, the lower CNS levels continue to check for accuracy and correspondence of movements in relation to the goal through kinesthetic feedback.

Unless something does not match or operate correctly, it is kept at subcortical, automatic levels. As circumstances change, varying amounts of conscious attention may be directed toward these occurrences, but if all goes well and as predicted, the cerebral cortex is relatively free to pick and choose the focus of attention, like my drippy hamburger, or what my friend is saying. We tend to be aware of paying attention only when something unusual happens, like a deer crossing the road. The higher CNS levels are drawn into operation to interpret consciously the information available - swerve to the right and miss the deer, for example.


Initially, the individual can deal only with small pieces of information at one time. As we grow, we experience and reconstruct our worlds and we begin to deal with each thing in relation to other things, each event in relation to other events. Soon we find that everything is interrelated to everything else and our world becomes one of relationships and not of single events.

We begin to make maps of our bodies in our kinesthetic system. We learn to distinguish one side from the other. We learn the location of our mouth, and can move our whole hand to it and try to insert it into our mouth. We learn to stand up, so that our head is on top, followed by all the other parts, and we can feel the bottoms of our feet on the floor. We can scratch our left shoulder with our right hand without knowing the words right and left, or hand and shoulder, for that matter.

Later, we make maps of our world in our heads from our experiences, in much the same way that a map of California represents the interrelationships of the elements that make up the actual State of California. If you think about how you can get from where you are now, to your car, to the nearest grocery store, to where they keep the milk, to the checkout and home again, you are evoking one of the thousands of kinesthetic maps that are part of your universe. Our ability to write involves the mapping out of various shapes called letters into sequences called words that make sentences which convey meaning. In adults, the actual act of writing is mostly automatized, even though it involves the planning and mapping of the relationships. The conscious part of writing is usually directed at the relationships of meaning that we are trying to convey. We have similar maps for computing numbers in various combinations, for speaking French, for taking a shower and on and on endlessly.

Kinesthetic Awareness

Our intellect develops as we experiment by acting on objects, observing the effects of the action and incorporating new constructions of the world into our being. We experience our body as we experience our world. We learn where our body ends and the rest of the world begins. We learn how to move our arms and legs. We learn how long Or short we are and how powerful or weak. We learn how to curl our fingers around objects that excite us and carry them to our mouth or eyes for further investigation.

Body awareness goes hand in hand with awareness of others. As we learn the size and shape and capacities of our bodies, we learn the relationships of ourselves to everything and everyone else in our world. We know very little about our body unless we move it. We know very little about the world around us unless we move in it.

At first we learn simple ways of manipulating objects by pushing, pulling, twisting, dropping, smelling, tasting and looking at them. When we have opportunities to act on objects we can see how the objects react. With practice we will eventually vary our actions and notice what a difference it makes. Knowledge is constructed by each of us as we act on objects and people and try to make sense out of our experience. Our miraculous capacity for learning is in many ways unending. It is usually limited only by the quality of our environment.

In order to find out about the properties of many things, we must act on them. There is little to learn about a ball just by looking at it. We must pick it up, squeeze it, drop it, roll it on the floor, throw it in the air, bounce it up and down, throw it against a wall, drop it down a stairway, and even kick it in order to find out the properties of a ball. Through these kinesthetic manipulations of the things in our environment we find out much about them. And, we pay attention to our own experiencing in order to find out what we can do.

By the time we are two, we should have started developing internal constructs from kinesthetic and movement experiences that aid in the efficiency of moving, thinking, learning and reading. These include capacities to deal with gravity, balance, motion, leverage, force, space/time, mass/weight, inertia/energy. Even at this early age, we have the basic understandings of physics and biology.

No claims are made by kinesthesiologists that athletes are smarter than non-athletes. The specialized movement programs of athletes often omit or even limit many general movement qualities involved in learning/thinking.


As experience broadens, there are unconscious patterns that may be called into operation to execute the actions desired, stored in various areas of the brain. These automatic patterns only develop after many, many repetitions. They are directed by kinesthetic planning. When we first learn to walk we must use conscious effort to control what we are doing or we will fall down. With appropriate amounts of practice, we will develop patterns that will become unconscious and automatic. They allow the individual to think about other things instead of the movement itself. We can then think about where we are walking, not how to walk, what we are writing, not how to write, or what we are going to do tomorrow while we ride our bike to the store.

Spatial and Temporal Awareness

Most adults have developed sufficient space/time interactions to know if they can pass the car ahead of them before an oncoming car reaches them. They will be able to infer how fast or slow or soon or late they and the other car will be arriving at a particular spot. Most adults know how to pour water into a pot, turn on the stove, and boil water. They know how to dress themselves before they walk out of the house. "Space" and "time" are the dimensions within which we do our living, experiencing, and thinking. We must kinesthetically learn to plan the sequences of our movements so that the water is in the pot that is on the burner before we turn on the stove.


When we are infants and we grow and develop, the only space of interest is the immediate space around us. The space within reach of a hand or a toe or a mouth is the only space in our world. As we learn to creep and crawl, our space expands to the elements we can reach in our room, or the hall-way, or eventually the whole house. This very small world expands as does our perspective, concepts, and abilities. Walking makes even more space possible.

We can go out into the yard and investigate green crawly things, pet the dog, chase the butterfly. Ultimately we will find our way around the block, to the playground, the school, the grocery store. Someday we will go away from home, perhaps to another country. We will think about the possibilities of going to the Moon or Mars or some distant galaxy. As we become more and more capable, our universe becomes larger and larger.

Moving toward and away from objects involves specific kinesthetic feedback in the muscular exertion and relaxation that provides information about the location and distance of objects. Movement provides opportunities to view objects from different perspectives.


Time is more mysterious, although we know that one heartbeat follows another, that our breathing is a sequence of inhalations and exhalations. We know that one event takes place before or after another, or at least at some different time. We know that night and day alternate and seasons follow each other. When things happen simultaneously, we often have difficulty figuring them out. We know that timing is important.

Space/Time Relations

It is impossible to be in some place without regard to time, as it is impossible to be in some time without regard to location. Kinesthetically, we learn the relationships between sequencing, linearity, and motion through space/time. Space/time constructions are necessary in order to be efficient and effective in movement, learning, and thinking.

In order to drink a glass of milk, we must first reach our arm toward the glass, stretch out our fingers and curl them around the glass, then close our fingers around the glass. We must have the strength to hold the glass and know when we have exerted enough force to keep it from slipping out of our fingers. We must not exert so much force that we break the glass, or squeeze the plastic cup too much, but enough to hang onto it. Then we must move our hand toward our mouth letting our lips meet the rim smoothly. We must tip the glass upward somewhat, but not too much, and swallow the milk as it is poured into our mouths. All this kinesthetic sequencing is very precise and very important and must be done in the appropriate sequence and spacing, or the milk will land on us or on the floor.


Each of us is the center of our own universe. The direction of a thing is known in relation to the person looking at it. With all the senses, but especially the kinesthetic receptors in the muscles, tendons, joints, and the semicircular canals in the inner ear, we learn right from left, up from down, front from back, and any variations of these directions. The muscles, tendons, and joints have millions of receptors that indicate how much each muscle is contracting or relaxing, and in which directions. They tell us how our bodies are balanced at each joint and, in general, where each segment is in relation to every other segment. The kinesthetic sense is our main system for understanding relationships of all kinds.

External Directionality

At about the age of seven, as a result of the further development of the neurons, the social influences of school, and the increasing pressure to develop verbal thought, we learn to apply our internal directionality to the outside world. We learn what arrows mean, where our classroom is in relation to other classrooms, which chair in the room is ours, how to find our way home, and the relationships among things outside ourselves.

Now we are able to relinquish being the center of the universe and accept an outside center. We can tell that Suzy is standing to the left of John and behind Jane. To some extent, we can learn to walk in another's shoes. We can see our friend, Mikey, running down the street and know whether or not we can run fast enough to catch up to him. We can determine which shortcuts to take to intercept him. We can weigh the possibilities before we decide which action to take. External directionality makes reading and mathematics possible.


Reading for us starts at the top of the page, not the bottom, so we must be able to determine where the top is. Our reading proceeds from left to right. Words are clumps of letters, the order of which is important in deciphering their meaning.

SAW is not WAS, nor ZVM nor MVZ p is not q and b is not d

Understanding the difference between right and left and up and down, internally as well as externally, is essential to school success. We learn to apply this kinesthetic knowledge to a horizontal piece of paper on our desks as well as a vertical chalk board. Reading is a space/time accomplishment where the individual applies internal space/time constructs to the external world.


Mathematics is also a space/time accomplishment and involves relationships between objects and between details. When playing a simple game of tennis, each time we plan to return the ball, it becomes necessary to compute, unconsciously, at some level, the following: the speed of the ball, the angle of flight, the curvature of fall, direction, rate of progressive decrease of speed, windage, spin, effects of the ball's bounce, how fast and in what direction to move our own body, when to turn our side to the net, start the backswing, shift our weight, and start our forward swing in order for the strings of our racket to intercept the ball at the right space/time.

The same sort of complex visual/kinesthetic computations are necessary to some extent for every movement of the body. Of course, few of us could figure out these specific computations with a pencil and paper, or even a powerful computer. But, we do compute these specifics internally at an unconscious level. We are truly miraculous beings. Not all of us have had the opportunities to learn to do these things efficiently, yet such computations underlie everything we do.


Finally, we are able to take on many different perspectives of the world. Instead of just using right and left in giving directions, we can use north, south, east, west, and altitude, so that no matter where we are or from which angle one is approaching something, it can be understood with reference points that are understood by people from all different positions and locations. We can infer from road maps which direction to go to get to a new town or state. We can read someone else's directions and learn to program our VCR and use our computers. We can translate other peoples perceptions of space/time and directionality into our own universe and use them to our advantage.


We become scientists of our own bodies and minds and spontaneously experiment and experience over and over again. The process of discovery for the child is similar to the process of discovery for the scientist exploring the principles that rule the workings of one's own world. This means being in touch with our own experiences, being connected to our own feelings, and having attachments to our own environment. As we become better scientists we become more aware and observant of events in our lives and their consequences for ourselves and others.

These kinds of experiences help us to structure our world and find order in the chaos. The more rich and varied the experiences, the more accurately we will be able to construct our world. They are indispensable for the later construction of knowledge. Conclusions


Each of us is a system of systems involving the cross-correlation of multisensory experiences. All our moment-by-moment experiences that occur almost simultaneously involve seeing, hearing, feeling, and moving, coming together and changing together as the individual's environmental stimuli and actions change. As lighting, distance, size, shape, position, movement, sound reflections, and thousands of other variables are coordinated, our reactions and movements change accordingly. We are a system of systems as we actively construct the changing world from our multisensory inputs to our motor systems and back again, resulting in changing perceptions as our actions change.

We have been given magnificent equipment to act on our environment, think about consequences, and plan for the future. With thousands of stimuli infringing on us from moment to moment, we select what is important to our needs, analyze and synthesize the incoming information, consider the possibilities and probabilities, consider plans and alternatives, shape strategies for reaching our goals, and predict as many possibilities as we have experience and memory for. Finally we put our plans into action and measure and monitor our own actions as we observe everything unfold. We sometimes change forecasts to fit new incoming perceptions and continue or change the action cycle until we are successful. Ways of knowing are convertible into other forms of knowing and expression. We are a system of systems, an organization of organizations.

Kinesthesia is not our "sixth" sense. It is one of many senses that many psychologists continue to omit from much consideration about how we learn and think. These kinesthetic functions are vital to learning and thinking, although it is sometimes difficult for scientists and other abstract thinkers to consider the possibility that their great deep thoughts come from something as concrete and mundane as their experiences with movement.

How can the field of psychology so methodically ignore kinesthesia? What are the vested interests in keeping it quiet? Can it only be tradition?


Ackerman, Dianne. A Natural History of the Senses. NY: Vintage Books, 1990.

Calvin, William H. The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of Mind-Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Churchland, Paul. A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Ellerbrook, Wallace C. Hypothesis Toward A Unified Field Theory of Human Behavior. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 33, no. 2, June, 1976.

Loye, David. The Sphinx and the Rainbow. Boulder, CO: Shambala, 1983.

Meyers, Russell. The Proprioceptive Matrix of Abstractions Called Mass, Energy, Space and Time. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 33, no. 4, December, 1976.

Piaget, Jean. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International Universities Press, 1952.

Streri, Arlette. Seeing, Reaching, Touching: The Relations Between Vision and Touch in Infancy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Thelen, Esther, and Linda B. Smith. A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Zion, Leela C. The Physical Side of Learning. Byron, CA: Front Row Experience, 1994.

Leela C. Zion, Ed.D., is Professor Emerita, at Humboldt State University (Arcata, California). Among the subjects she taught were perceptual/motor development and analysis of movement patterns.
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Author:Zion, Leela C.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Previous Article:Some basic ideas of general semantics.
Next Article:Russell Joyner: in memoriam.

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