We have all been taught at school that we have 5 senses; taste, touch, vision, heating and smell. The often named sixth sense is proprioception which is simply your joints sense system that helps with movement. What few people know about is the seventh sense which involves a network of nerves in the brain that guide your personal space.
Researchers have identified a set of specific nerves that they call peripersonal space neurons that create a small buffer zone around the body. These handy little sensors stop us from bumping into things and also help us to navigate the use of tools. It was previously thought that we used our eyes to guide us in these circumstances, however various experiments in different lighting conditions have shown that this system is still operational without input of the visual system.
This sense is thought to have a protective mechanism as it is particularly responsive to threats. Early experiments on monkeys showed that the nerve cells were extremely active when presented with a rubber snake when compared to an apple. Problems with this sensory system often results in what is commonly observed to be “clumsy” or “uncoordinated” behaviour. As well as bumping into other people and objects, people who are lacking in the “seventh sense” are usually the same people who have minimal regard for other people’s personal space.
Interestingly, the highest activity of these peripersonal space neurons occurs when we use tools. Whenever we hold something and move it through space, these nerves go into overdrive as they now have to manage the space around a much larger object and over a bigger area. Interventions aimed at improving this sense in people with obvious impairments involve the use of tools.
What better way to improve these sensors than through exercise? Exercise very often involves holding a weight or a piece of equipment in one or both hands, and then moving them through a larger area. By repeating these motions and challenging the body’s receptors these senses become more tuned. This is yet another unexpected benefit of exercise on how the body functions.