Proprioception, Interoception, Exteroception

After Harryette Mullen Sleeping with the Dictionary

From the Apple Dictionary (Version 2.3.0 (239.5))

proprioception | ˌprə(ʊ)prɪəˈsɛpʃn |
noun [mass noun] Physiology
perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body: exercises to improve balance and proprioception.

The adjective :

proprioceptive | ˌprəʊprɪə(ʊ)ˈsɛptɪv |
adjective Physiology
relating to stimuli that are produced and perceived within an organism, especially those connected with the position and movement of the body. Compare with exteroceptive and interoceptive.

This is the same advice (to see also) as Webster’s (The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language Canadian Edition (New York: Lexicon Publications, 1988) [Main dictionary section c. 1972 Libraire Larousse as The Larousse Illustrated International Dictionary, Revised and Updated 1988. ISBN 0-7172-4572-1])

This tour of the dictionary nets a model of the body organized along three major zones: viscera (interoception), muscles & tendons (proprioception), outside (exteroception). I am not here challenging that model. I am simply noting that the three zones communicate with each other in various modes of proximity. Reminded of Derrida on invagination, I think of viscera and the outside being along one continuous ribbon with medial zones (such as the mucous membranes as gateways between the inside fold and the outside). When contemplating the zones that connect muscle (proprioception) and skin (exteroception), one is tempted to produce a neologism : kinoception. However if modalities were to proliferate, the model would quickly become unwieldy (I do like the trinitarian structure for its mnemonic grace). The perception of movement and rhythm of course depends upon the intercourse of several senses in conjunction of the conductor that is memory.

Webster’s via Larousse does something interesting….

Exteroceptor is defined as a nerve ending or an organ which responds to impressions or stimuli outside the organism

Interoceptor is capable of receiving stimuli form within the organism.

Proprioceptor is capable of receiving stimuli from within the organism through muscles, tendons, joint.

I read the dictionary like a spread sheet or table:

Extero impressions stimuli
Intero ? stimuli
Proprio ? stimuli

I am invited by this reading to contemplate impressions as distinct from stimuli. The one would be the mark left on the organism by stimuli, a memory trace.

Anyone who has suffered from an ulcer, an abscess, a cutaneous irruption can attest that interoception also involves memory traces and impressions.

What of proprioception? Is it open to memory traces?

I take my cue here from Le Petit Robert. The 1968 edition does not contain the word “proprioception”. The 1989 edition informs us at an entry on the adjectival form that the term is not found before 1951:

Proprioceptif, ive adj. (av. 1951 ; de propre, et l’élément de réceptif, perceptif […] par opposition à la sensibilité tactile (dite extéroceptive et à la sensibilité viscérale (intéroceptive). [p. 1551]

In its apposite opposition to them, proprioception could mediate between interoception and exteroception? It would work as a meta-sensory fashion on the memory traces of the other senses… pure speculation but interesting nonetheless to think of one sense at some time or other serving as a meta-sense for the others…

I am pushing this interpretation because I have long taken on board that the sensory apparatus not only receives the impressions created by stimuli, it also communicates the status of its doing so. See


In re-evaluating the closer contact senses, especially their action under conditions of distress or extreme pleasure, one discovers that the sensorium not only is a receiver but also a dispatcher of information. The senses are not only receptors. The senses also transmit. By their operation the senses provide events for interpretation. The blinking of eyes, the cocking of an ear, the flicker of a tongue, all signal.

I would like here to add that the sensory apparatus couples with memory, it stores sensations and perceptions in memory and to be clear the memory of sensation is not always equivalent to the memory of a perception. Note how Le Petit Robert opens two semantic fields: reception (sensation) and perception (sensation plus [interplay with other senses?]).

What does this have to do with walking the dictionary?

I think we have a terminological gap at least in the lay space of general purpose dictionaries. There is no term to encompass both proprioception and interoception. Even without an umbrella term, it is possible to set the pair of inside senses in a triangle with exteroception. And to begin to think in terms of a sensoria that accounts for relations between guts, brawn, and the traditional 5 senses.

Cross-cultural explorations of course are de rigeur.

Why this matters is revealed by placing this little technical question on names for sensory modalities into the body of knowledge shaping up about cognitive embodiment. See Michael Kimmel, The Arc from the Body to Culture: How Affect, Proprioception, Kinesthesia, and Perceptual Imagery Shape Cultural Knowledge (and vice versa)

Waking with the Dictionary after Harryette Mullen

And so for day 2779

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