Updated: Aug 11, 2021
We think of ourselves as only having five senses: sight, taste, hearing, smell, touch. However, there are other, underlying ‘foundation senses’ which have a huge impact on our ability to navigate the world and to function well. These include our sense of balance (where we are in space), our sense of proprioception (knowing where our different body parts are in space) and interoception (sense of life). To be able to engage adequately and appropriately with the outer world we need to first have these senses well developed.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the Austrian philosopher, stated that there are actually twelve senses; the three mentioned above, plus the sense of touch. These form the foundational 'lower' senses that we must have in place so that we can later develop the 'higher' senses.
The human balance system
Life is about maintaining our equilibrium, physically, emotional and mentally. Our balance mechanism, the ‘vestibular system’, resides in our inner ears. This system allows us to detect our direction of travel and rate of travel, allowing us to orientate ourselves in the world. It allows us to differentiate up from, down, left from right and back from front. All incoming sensory input (with the exception of smell) passes via the vestibular system, where it is filtered, before being relayed to other areas of the brain to be processed.
The vestibular system functions as our ‘inner gyroscope’. When this does not function well, people can appear clumsy, become easily lost, find telling the time difficult and can even develop phobias (as these are often spatially based). It is a malfunctioning of the vestibular system that leads to symptoms of dyslexia, as the eyes are unable to track smoothly across a page, if there is no solid relationship with gravity.
Proprioception refers to our ability to tell where each part of our body is in space. This may sound simple, but with the eyes closed, not everyone is able to sense where different parts of their body is. For example, can you stand with your arms outstretched and keeping your eyes closed, touch only the tip of your nose four times with alternating hands? When this system is not working well, people tend to rely on visual cues and become overly-dependent on that sense. Such individuals tend to be poor at sports, as the coordination required relies on good proprioception.
Interoception refers to our ability to sense what is going on inside our bodies - detecting hot, cold, tiredness, hunger, satiation, thirst, the need to go to the toilet, pain, sickness etc. Interoception also helps us to manage the way we feel, by prompting us to take action. If this sense is not well tuned, as is the case for many children, then they are unable to read their internal signals and fail to take action early enough to avoid uncomfortable or embarrassing consequences.
Similarly, some individuals are hyper-sensitive to touch (keeping their distance) or hyposensitive, often having poor pain responses and craving stimulation.
These foundational senses are highly likely to be immature when the primitive reflexes are still active. When the reflexes are inhibited by carrying out neurodevelopmental exercises, the foundational senses will be allowed to further develop and mature. For many, this results in big improvements in balance, coordination, reading and writing skills and a reduction in anxiety and phobias.
For a further understanding of the other twelve senses, see here.