In short this is your body’s position sense – the nerves that tell your brain where your body is in the world.
However, these handy little nerves do a lot more than that. Its this part of the nervous system that prevents us from tripping, stumbling, staggering and generally coming a cropper. They give us a multitude of information about the environment that we are in all the time.
Imagine, for instance, that you are taking your morning walk along that path you know well. It’s a bright autumn day and the sun is shining. You are very familiar with the surface of the path, its level, mainly gravel, with a few fallen leaves. You aren’t thinking about the surface that you are walking on, its exactly as expected (but this is subconscious because your proprioceptive nervous system has not raised any alarms). You are mulling over your agenda for the day when you are dragged out of your reverie by a familiar feeling (proprioception) – your left foot placement didn’t feel quite right, its soft instead of firm. You don’t even need to look at the sole of your shoe to know what you have trodden in, its not nice and your olfactory nervous system (sense of smell) will pick it up very soon.
What happened here is your proprioceptive nerves changed the frequency and pattern of information that it is constantly sending up to your brain. This is enough for the processing to go from subconscious and safe to conscious and worthy of attention in order to be catagorised as safe, unsafe or, in this case, unpleasant.
As our entire nervous system is hard wired to keep us safe it really doesn’t take much of a change in our environment to trigger the alarm system. Its then up to the brain to decide what to do about it. We modulate that response through experience – negative past experience will tend to elicit a stronger response.
How would you respond to the proprioception example that I have given?