Losing an Overlooked Gift

A virus destroyed Ian Waterman’s kinesthetic and other mechano-cutaneous nerves when he was 19 years old. Lacking proprioception, the sense of knowing the relative position of various part of the body, Ian was bound to a wheelchair for a long time. Now, he relies on vision to know where his limbs are. If there is no light, he cannot tie his shoes, walk up or down stairs, or clap his hands. At one point in his life, he was stuck in an elevator, with the lights off. He was unable to remain standing and could only stand when the lights turned back on. Proprioception is one of many senses we take for granted, being able to know where your limbs are, even while closing your eyes. Here’s a less than scientific, but informative, video about Ian Waterman.

You can read more in Jonathon Cole’s book, Pride and a Daily Marathon.

About the author

Ian Park

Ian graduated from Wesleyan University in May 2011 with a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior. In that same year, he was Director of Photography of a senior documentary thesis film at Wesleyan, which won first place. He recently acted as Director of Photography on a Clinique commercial for a competition--it won honorable mentions. He is currently working as a producer/director/editor of video and other digital content in Soho, NY, as well as working on a soon-to-be-released web series, "Postponed."

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  • You can also get very detailed information about Waterman’s condition in “How the Body Shapes the Mind” by Shaun Gallagher, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences at University of Central Florida. Excellent review of this special disability. Interestingly Waterman is able to drive a car but can have difficulty walking down the street.

    • Mason, thanks for your comment. I didn’t know Waterman could drive a car, but perhaps it is not so surprising that he can drive a car. After all, when we drive, we are constantly using sensory feedback to know what our actions are doing. We see and feel our car turning left, slowing down, etc. But in Waterman’s case, he cannot use the implied perception of where his foot is and how hard it is pushing on the accelerator or brake, or how his hands are turning the wheel. So, he might just have a longer, lagging feedback loop while driving because he has to gauge the speed/acceleration from only vision and vestibular system, assuming his vestibular system is not damaged.

      What I find interesting is that, I imagine, Waterman’s experience of learning to walk is similar to our experience of learning to drive! Though, of course, the physics of walking is infinitely more complex than driving.

      • If I am not mistaken all the car controls are within sight as he still has to look at them to know what he is doing. It is strange, to most who are first introduced to Waterman, that he has full motor control of his body. The only thing he lacks is the propioceptive sense of knowing where his arms, hand, and legs are or what they are doing.

        Dr. Gallagher also goes into a chapter on Waterman’s gestures, which Waterman is not aware he is doing unless he sees his hands. Indicates several important aspacts about our innate linguistic origins. Gesturing is often, like breathing, not a part of our conscious processes. We just do it.

        • That’s very interesting about Waterman’s gesticulations. There’s a theory saying that gesticulations arise because the hand-section of the motor homunculus is right next to the lips-section, suggesting that there is signal overflow from the lips to the hands, activating gestures while speaking. In addition to this, some people suggest that this association is due to the idea that language actually originated as a form of hand-language, when our ancestors were instructing others how to make tools. When hand-language became spoken-language, it is proposed that this connection between the hand and the mouth was never broken, to this day. It seems that this lower-level connection has been preserved in Waterman, too.

          Thanks so much for your contribution to this discussion,

      • I should also add there are also cases similar to Ian Waterman’s where there is no proprioceptive sense from the nose of the face on down. Those rare cases are even more debilitating as the ability of the head to relate to the rest of the body is lost.

        I don’t know if those few cases are still wheelchair bound because they don’t have the discipline that Waterman has, which he is to be complimented on, or due to another reason. Dr. Gallagher suggests other reasons.

        Waterman is a hero for dealing so effectively with his disability.

        If people are fascinated by this case and are looking for a productive occupation, several universities are offereing degrees in Cognitive Sciences, which includes cases like this one in the topics studied. Dr. Gallagher is at University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fl, which has a join program with a university in England. There is also a cog-sci program at UC Merced, in California, that has just started up. UC Berkeley has a similar program in its Psychology Department. And UC San Diego has a similar program under the guidance of Drs. Churchland.

  • Fascinating documentary. I have a question for you. In the rehabilitation and fitness world the words proprioception and balance are often used interchangeably. For example, there are those that claim that performing balance exercises improves proprioception. What is your opinion on what is proprioception vs balance? Can proprioception improve and how if so? What is the connection between balance and loss thereof and proprioception?


    • Thanks for your questions. I will try to answer them to the best of my knowledge.

      Proprioception is certainly essential in attaining physical balance. Without the vestibular system, we would not know what is “up” and which way we were moving. And if we do not know where our limbs are, we could not use the vestibular system to send information to our muscles to counteract imbalance. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that proprioception equates balance, because I feel like proprioception is essential for balance but not its only purpose.

      I am not familiar with the literature regarding plasticity of proprioception. But I do know that there are physical actions such as walking that are in part genetic (babies show signs of bipedal maneuvering while standing, much before being able to walk). Also, babies eventually develop an idea of cause and effect, that their hands can topple over a stack of blocks, for example. This could suggest a learning of the world vs. us, which is important in proprioception. So, I imagine there is a part of proprioception that is simply innate in humans. But, as we all know, our brains are amazingly plastic and adaptable to different circumstances. A cursory glance of previous studies indicate that balance training is associated with cortical adaptation and changes. As a violinist has a greater sensitivity in his or her fingers than the lay-person, I would imagine a dancer (for example) would have a greater sense of proprioception, simply due to training and a necessary awareness of one’s own limbs. Whether this greater proprioception is due to reogranization of the parietal lobe or cerebellum, or recruiting of other cortical areas, I do not know.

      As for the connection between balance and loss thereof and proprioception, I would reiterate my answer to the first question, in that proprioception is essential for balance. However a loss of balance does not necessarily mean a deficit in proprioception simply due to the many factors that could contribute to imbalance. I would imagine a slew of behavioral tests would have to be conducted in order to pinpoint the cause(s) of severe imbalance.


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