Last week I shared three senses that have a major impact on your body schema. These include somatosensation, the vestibular sense and vision. Today, we’ll explore how integrating these senses helps us understand our physical surroundings and why this is important to us and our clients.

Integrating the senses helps us understand our physical surroundings

Sensory information from somatosensory, visual and vestibular systems must be integrated to interpret our complex sensory environments so that we can know—both consciously and otherwise—what goes on around us and within our bodies. Where one sense may give information on one part of a situation, another can pick up other necessary information.

In a well-lit environment with a firm base of support, healthy persons rely on somatosensory (70%), vestibular (20%), and vision (10%) information for optimal movement strategies. However, as we change our sensory environment (e.g moving from a well-lit to darkened room or keeping our balance on a crowded fast-moving bus), it changes how the brain relies on the different sensory channels of vision, vestibular and somatosensation. For example, when we stand on an unstable surface, our brain shifts to pay more attention first to vestibular information, then visual information and then finally somatosensory inputs for maintaining balance and core control.

Sensory information builds body maps (Body Schema)

Our sensory receptors act as information gatherers that report to higher brain centers through the nervous system. Sensory information engages wide and diverse areas of the brain such as the occipital lobe for visual processing, motor and premotor cortices for movement, frontal lobe for decision making, limbic system for assigning emotional responses, etc. One of the areas that receive a lot of sensory information is the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex.

The parietal lobe plays important roles in integrating sensory information from various parts of the body, attention, language, mathematics, and in the manipulation of objects. Damage to the parietal lobe can result in difficulty navigating spaces (even familiar ones) and an impaired inability to understand spoken and/or written language.

The parietal lobe is responsible for the creation of your body schema, an “organized model of ourselves”. The body schema is an internal representation of the orientation of body segments. Basically, it tells you how far apart your hip is from your knee joint, whether your ribcage is stacked well on top of your pelvis, how long your right arm is, and so on.

Your body schema is crucial for core control, efficient movement, maintaining upright posture, and balance. It serves as a reference map for perception and action with respect to the external world. Because of this, you can focus on what you want to do, without having to consciously think about how to make the body do it. It allows you to reach for your cup of coffee with accuracy without having to think about how far you need to lean forward or reposition your hand in relation to your elbow or shoulder.

Body schema changes with experience and is constantly updated during body movement. When a person maintains a position for a long period of time, he or she will often reposition themselves to regain somatosensory input and hence a new awareness of where his or her body parts are positioned.

Individuals who hold their head still due to neck pain are limiting the vestibular and somatosensory information coming from the cervical muscles and joints. Their body schema may not be entirely accurate because they do not have all the pieces of the puzzle. Therefore, generating efficient movement is difficult. There have been studies linking neck pain with poor balance.

Why are sensory integration & body schema important?

Our goal as movement specialists is to help clients to create functional, adaptive, automatic, smooth and efficient movement. To do this, we need to improve the efficiency with which the nervous system interprets and uses sensory information for function. You can achieve this is by keeping our clients moving and providing a “sensory-rich” environment that makes use all of the senses in different ways. This in turn, updates their body schema. Clients then have a new reference map from which to generate the next movement experience.

As clients learn about new sensations, the ability to respond to sensory experiences is refined and they become more confident about their motor skills. As these skills mature, vital pathways in the nervous system get refined and strengthened. When we achieve a successful response, it indicates that the central nervous system has been able to successfully organize incoming sensory information for more efficient movement.

Learn more!

Next week I’ll share 7 ways you can condition your body schema. These will be simple and easy-to-apply to any Pilates or exercise program!

If you’re interested in learning more about how we apply the nervous system like I’ve described above to our movement sessions at Body Harmonics, join me in Neurophysiology 101 on Apr 16 & 17.