The Kinesthetic Sense

The Kinesthetic Sense

Apr 18, 2024

We’re taught at a young age about the five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. But what about the sixth sense? And no, we’re not talking about the sixth sense that people refer to as their “intuition” or “insight” which are not sensory modalities. We’re talking about Kinesthetic Sense: the sense of the body's position in space, movement, and coordination. Let’s jump to a quick exercise on experiencing the kinesthetic sense from the opening chapter to Thomas Mark’s book “What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body.”

“Suppose you and I each hold one hand above our head. I can see your hand but not my own. I cannot touch, see, smell, hear or taste the hand I am holding above my head, yet I know, by feeling, whether it is in the same position as yours. That is, we can know things about our bodies without deriving the information from any of the traditionally named senses.”

The kinesthetic sense works through sensory receptors found in muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments all over the body. These receptors are constantly sending signals to the cerebellum and primary somatosensory cortex part of the brain and we unconsciously use this sense throughout the body in a variety of ways throughout the day. We use it when riding a bike, lifting heavy objects, or anything else that requires motor skill or physical/spatial awareness. It gives you information on how much muscles are stretching, how tense they are, where joints are positioned, how much movement is happening. We can combine this information with what we see and feel about our balance to give us a full understanding of our body’s position as we move. But in the same way that we can make it habitual to tend to the kinesthetic sense for some activities, we can also make it habitual not to attend to it for activities we don’t commonly associate with movement, and that’s where we can run into trouble. 

Say for instance you work a desk job or any other job that requires you to sit for many hours at a time. You’ve may have experienced moderate levels of pain at some point, right? Perhaps in your neck, back, or legs? Most people will either ignore this low level of pain or simply chalk it up to “just having a bad back.” But if you’ve been medically cleared of any significant injury, then we could consider what you may unconsciously be doing in this sitting position.

When working in these positions we tend to have awareness only in our eyes, hands, and feet thus shutting off sensory perception in most of the body. One can become so engrossed in their work that they unconsciously ignore whether or not the head is constantly off balance of the spine and tightening the neck muscles (among many other muscles as a result!). We’re not actively aware if the thoracic region of the spine is habitually pushed over our lumbar region. We’re not actively aware if our knees are locked or if we’re habitually pushing our legs into the ground. Our kinesthetic sense is still in effect, but we are not tending to it.

The same goes for those who spend significant time sitting with the guitar.

As guitarists, we tend to limit sensory feedback to include only the eyes, hands and maybe even the feet. In tending to our kinesthetic sense, we need to include the entire body in our playing. Guitarists can get so fixated on the hands (the left hand in particular) being the star of the show that they’re much more likely to blame shortcomings on left hand ineptitude as opposed to tension in other areas of the body holding the hand back. This can happen for many reasons, but I want to highlight what I find to be the most common. 

Concentration: It is commonly emphasized that to master a task, deep concentration is essential. However, focusing solely on the hand during practice can lead to unintended consequences. Narrowing our attention exclusively to the hand may result in stiffness and a diminished sensory awareness of the body as a whole. This approach can give the impression that the musician is attempting to exert control over their hand through sheer mental focus, akin to employing telekinesis or sheer willpower.

Hand Exercises: This idea of concentration is only emphasized with common teaching practices. If you’ve taken a few guitar lessons, you’ve likely been taught left or right hand exercises, correct? That’s all fine and good, but where I take issue is how they’re taught. Often times students and teachers view the structure of the fretting hand to include only the proximal, intermediate, and distal phalanges - this is simply not a complete way of teaching this structure. To leave out the carpals and metacarpals (let alone the entire rest of the arm structure) from our sensory feedback will put the student in a disadvantageous position to correctly identify the root of their struggles. Perhaps through many hours of practice they’re able to finally play the passage they desire, but it’s unfortunately been learned under a constant state of tension with inefficient, stressful movement.

Interested in discovering how you can better tend to your kinesthetic sense? Book a lesson!

© Embodied Guitarist 2024

© Embodied Guitarist 2024