8 senses? – What are the lesser-known sensory systems?

In my previous post (see here), I introduced the reason why our sensory systems are an integral part of practicing Pilates. Today I want to go into more detail about the lesser-known sensory systems and explore how they each relate to Pilates.

What Is The Vestibular System?

Everybody has that friend who loves to go on the waltzers at the funfair? Going round and round? Versus the ones that get car sick if they even look at their phone screen? That’s a perfect example of how our vestibular systems can interpret sensory information completely differently.

Your vestibular system is the sensory system that makes sense of movement and enables balance and spatial awareness. It links very closely with the proprioceptive system (see section below) as our bodies navigate the space around us and carry out everyday movements.

There’s a school of thought that motion sickness occurs when the vestibular system’s feedback does not match that of the visual system. The mismatch confuses the brain and this can result in feeling nauseous. Bonus fact: did you know that dogs can get car sick as well?

One of my students reported exactly this feeling in a class recently. While lying with her foam roller behind her shoulders to do spine curls, she was moving her head back and forth over the roller too much, which resulted in her feeling sick. I gently corrected her to hold her head still and to move from her spine. The feeling went immediately. It’s important that we understand our sensory systems.

Pilates is all about movement. It’s rare to be still whilst doing any of our exercises. It’s one of the differences between Pilates and Yoga. Pilates is about the movement between the endpoints (poses). Whereas from a non-yoga person’s perspective, Yoga seems to be more about the poses

8 icons representing the 8 senses - an eye for sight, an ear for sound, a tongue for taste, a hand for touch, a nose for smell, a hand waving for propreception, a person balancing 3 spinning plates for vestibular and a stomach for interproception

What Is The Proprioceptive System?

If you put your hands behind your back and try to touch your index finger to the tip of your thumb, you would likely be able to do this without looking. Your sense of proprioception is what facilitates that. Your brain knows where your finger and thumb are and how to touch them together without needing to see.

It’s also what enables you to exert just the right pressure to crack an egg without squashing the shell or to drive a car without needing to think about every movement you need to make. That need to process everything makes learning to drive so tiring!

Proprioceptive input comes through the receptors in our muscles and joints, as well as drawing additional sensory information about motion and positioning from the inner ear. It provides us with the awareness of where we are in space. This often comes from resistance actions such as pushing, pulling, lifting and carrying.

Activities that involve resistance provide slow, deep and consistent pressure through the proprioceptive receptors. They can have a calming effect on our nervous system and are also fabulous for promoting flexibility and balance. All of these activities promote the release of happy chemicals (like dopamine) in our brain, whilst reducing the levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) that cause a fight or flight response.

Activities such as swinging along the monkey bars at the park (hanging means your body weight creates pressure through your shoulder girdle), wheelbarrow walking (weight-bearing pressure through the shoulders) or slowly chewing sticky toffee (pressure through your jaw muscles) are all brilliant activities that can help to calm our sensory systems.

Deep pressure work can also be great for promoting good mental health. Some people talk about how calming they find it when they bounce on a trampoline or go for a run. There’s a reason that weighted blankets are becoming increasingly popular amongst children and adults with anxiety, chronic pain or sleep issues.

How does this relate to Pilates? Sometimes in class we will hold weights in our hands or wrapped around our legs. This helps in two ways: firstly our brains register the additional weight and we get a better idea of where our limbs are and secondly, the added weight helps build bone density.

What Is The Interoceptive System?

You know that sense of urgency when you’ve been on a long car journey and you’ve had lots to drink? That’s your interceptive sense letting you know that it has something important for you to attend to!

Interoception describes the internal sensations we experience, including hunger, thirst, the need to go to the toilet and breathing. Interoception also helps our brains to interpret the intensity of our emotions, which we experience viscerally as well as cognitively.

We have nerve receptors all over our bodies, which send messages to our brains. This helps us to feel what is happening with our body, including our skin and internal organs.

In the case of emotional regulation, we need the interoceptive ability to recognise, process and make sense of what our body is telling us. For example, when you are walking home alone at night and you hear a noise behind you, you might find that your heart rate elevates, your palms become sweaty, your skin prickles and your stomach churns (thanks to increased cortisol production). This is your sympathetic nervous system kicking in with the flight, flight or freeze response. But how you interpret those internal feelings is down to your interoceptive ability.

Activities such as Pilates and meditation can help us to focus on and interpret our internal sensations, however some people find it incredibly difficult to make sense of what they are feeling on an emotional and physical level. It’s no surprise that our interoceptive sensory system is also fundamental to the development of skills such as problem-solving, self-regulation and social thinking (which in turn affects a person’s outward social skills).

In my Pilates classes, we spend time focusing on our breathing and paying attention to our bodies as we move them. As we move, we look for internal signs such as discomfort as we stretch a tight muscle, or for our heart rate to slow down as we relax into the movement. All of these sensations are interpreted through our interoceptive sensory system.

Our sensory systems are a vital part of Pilates classes as we learn new movements, push our bodies, help them to relax and stretch out tight muscles. And of course, tell us when it’s time to stop for one of our legendary pieces of cake! Check out the recipe posts on my blog for more details…

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