Proprioception of Thought

Selected quotes by David Bohm on proprioception of thought:


We could say that practically all the problems of the human race are due to the fact that thought is not proprioceptive.


But in fact you can get evidence that thoughts and feelings move as a processes on their own; they are not being run by “me.” They are not being produced by the me, and they are not being experienced by the me.

There is, however, some self-reference built into this whole system. There is what is called proprioception, or “self-perception”. Physically, a person is aware immediately that he has moved a part of his body. If some outside force suddenly moved your arm, you could tell that that is different from having moved it yourself. The nerves are built so as to be able to know that … So there is proprioception in the body – the distinction between actions which originate in the body, and those which originate outside, is perceived as a functional difference. In this light, the notion that there is a self as a kind of centre, in the body as a centre of activity, is natural. Animals obviously have it too, and they can make that distinction. We can therefore say that this notion of “I” cannot be entirely wrong, or it probably would never have arisen.

The question is: how does this natural, useful distinction turn into the contradictions of the ego? Something that was correct and useful has somehow developed in way which has gone wrong. Thought lacks proprioception, and we have got to learn, somehow, to observe thought. In the case of observing the body, you can tell that observation is somehow taking place – even when there is no sense of a distinct observer.

Is it possible for thought similarly to observe itself, to see what it is doing, perhaps by awakening some other sense of what thought is, possibly through attention? In that way, thought may become proprioceptive. It will know what it is doing and it will not create a mess.


We need a quality, which I call proprioception, really self-perception. In the body this seems to be built in. If you move your hand, you know that you’re moving it. Your intention or impulse to move is aware simultaneously with the movement. You can tell the difference between moving your hand and letting it drop using gravity to move it. If you couldn’t tell that difference you wouldn’t survive.

There was a case of a woman, I think Oliver Sacks reported her, who lost proprioception and suddenly woke up without it. You need proprioception just to be able to sit up. She was totally incapacitated, but gradually learned to replace proprioception with vision so that by watching carefully she was able finally to get along. There was also the case of a woman we know who apparently had a stroke in the middle of the night. When the light was turned on she was seen hitting herself and then she stopped. What happened was that her sensory nerves were destroyed but her motor nerves worked. She moved her hand and didn’t know she was moving it. It hit her forehead and the assumption of the brain was that somebody else was doing it so she fought that person. The more she fought the more it hit.

But as soon as the light was turned on proprioception was re-established. So there are two things, one is that the body has built-in proprioception, and two, that even if it doesn’t work, it could be replaced by some other sense. That’s the possibility.

Thought apparently doesn’t have this proprioception. We do things and all sorts of things occur, emotions occur and we don’t see that our thinking has produced them. Nations are built. All of society is produced. Endless consequences are produced and the next thought abstracts them as independent. That’s an inappropriate abstraction. Then later it makes the wrong abstraction of the unity in order to compensate. It goes on and on.

The question is, why shouldn’t thought be proprioceptive? It’s part of the body process too. It’s a more subtle set of reflexes. There was no reason why it should have developed propriocetively. It was not built into our genetic structure, the way we think. This was open to culture. In fact, thought, as we know it would hardly be possible without culture.


I’m suggesting that if we’re more attentive and become aware of the act of thinking, of thought itself, first on purpose by finding the words which express your thought, not for the sake of thinking them but just for the sake of getting the thing moving, by treating this as a machine and moving slowly.

I think once the adults do it the children will find it very easy because they don’t have this tremendous conditioning. The whole way we use thought is against this because it implicitly tells you not to worry about the thought process, that thought does nothing except give you information therefore, it doesn’t have to be looked at. It’s an elementary form of free play. Gradually you hone in on learning the right movement. At that stage it gradually becomes learned, it becomes a set of reflexes, then you’re able to shave yourself without having to think very much or observe very much. That’s a very simple case of this element of free play and learning. Your mind has to be exploring this way and that and being aware of the impulse or intent to move and the result. The purpose of the operation is not to get a desired result but to learn, that’s the difference. It’s not idle play as it were.

Proprioception depends on an attitude of learning, of being aware of the impulse to move and the results reflected back at the same time, without having to think about it. In proprioception you’re not aware of a separate observer who’s observing. The awareness is there without thinking there’s a self who’s observing. Once you begin to think of a self who is learning you have introduced a division. You have introduced this confusion between the result of thought and the process of thought. Therefore, you’re not able to learn because you can’t keep straight what is independent reality and what is not.

If you think of learning to use the mirror, you need an element of free play to get started. I think that’s the kind of thing that would be in the learning situation of the child. If you have a free play you can’t learn anything from it unless you are aware that play has originated in you, in your intention or in your impulse. That enables you to establish a feedback in which you can learn. Learning beyond rote or beyond programming or beyond conditioning must always involve that.


Egotism, in the extended sense of identification with the concept of "me" or "mine", is a consequence of a failure to be aware of what is going on inside the brain. Something is missing in awareness and this is the reason the brain usually goes in a kind of runaway loop even under normal living conditions. Without proprioception, the brain does not know what it is doing. As a result it can not maintain an harmonious order between the emotional and the intellectual levels of the brain. This leads us to say that the brain is in some sense incomplete. This missing facility in awareness is called proprioception.

The word proprioception is used in biology and medicine and means essentially the same as self-perception or self-awareness.

It is more or less the same as what technical people call "feed-back". In a psychological sense, proprioception amounts to a kind of awakening of awareness to itself i.e. awareness becoming aware of awareness. Proprioception means that awareness now also considers its own operations as something to be taken into account. Apparently there are not many people who have an awareness that includes awareness as being something to be aware of.

The reason that proprioception is so important is because it enables awareness to see the effect that "facts" have on the emotions and vice versa. In a way, it senses the movements (or activities) of the thoughts and the emotions. Awareness develops a sensitivity of what is going on inside the brain. It begins to discern relationships and differences to which is has been blind before. The 'unconscious' drives and urges that have been hidden so far will then be raised into consciousness. They can no longer have such strong control over the intellect because this supervision sees why thought becomes irrational and why it engages in self-deception. Seeing how this comes about changes the operations of the brain because it can not consciously be unconscious.

If we had proprioception, the brain would recognize the effect of what it has done. Intelligence could operate and as a result, it could now entertain the idea of passion. The notion of passion is explained in detail in this book but for the time being we would just like to point out that passion is just the opposite of action, like passive is the opposite of active. The word "passion" is from Latin origin and has the root "pass", which means "let". So, passion means to let it be, or to let it happen or to let it go. Instead of passion and action we could equally well speak of do and let. Proprioception would show us when it is appropriate to do something or when it is appropriate to let it be.

Passion is required for when the time comes when we have to make a decision that runs contrary to our self-interest. Without passion, the brain cannot think straight when our self-esteem or our self-interest is in danger. We would be compelled to defend ourself or do something, which is action.

Proprioception, together with passion frees the mind from the intellectual-emotional disorder and therefore "heals" it from irrationality and self-deception. The intellect becomes orderly, rational and clear and, therefore, will become intelligent as well. The emotions also will begin to express a more subtle response to true and meaningful feelings, such as love. As a result the human mind will be creative rather than destructive. This amounts to a transformation of human consciousness on a deep level.


Thought may know about the emotions but it doesn't generally realize that it has a profound effect on them. Thought lacks proprioception just as the emotions lacks proprioception of their effect on thought. The emotions don't even know about thought. There is a lack of awareness of how these things are working. Therefore, the relationship breaks down even though the bundle of nerves between the cortex and the deeper emotional centers are intact. Even when there is no physical brain damage, there is still distortion on both sides. You're going to get false and self-deceptive thoughts which are aimed at producing nice feelings or at suppressing unpleasant feelings. The thoughts are false and the emotions are therefore inappropriate. Irrationality and self-deception is clearly the result of this disturbance and it's going on all over the world.


The word proprioception means a kind of self-perception. The word is derived from 'proprio' and 'ception'. Proprio comes from Latin 'proprius', meaning 'one's own'. So proprioception means an awareness or perception of oneself. In the case of the body proprioception means the awareness of one's own body. But we will also use it in a psychological sense to mean the awareness of one's own thoughts and the awareness of one's own felts.

Proprioception is to be aware of every movement. Not only physical movements of the body but also the movements of thought. Emotions are movements as well. So, there could be proprioception of emotions also.

According to the dictionary, the word movement is derived from 'move', which means 'to change position', 'to prompt' and 'to stir'. So, the word movement suggests much more than just a physical displacement. The word 'prompt' means to inspire, to suggest or to incite. The word 'stir' means to set in motion, to agitate or to excite. Here, we want to use the notion of movement to include all that. In connection with the body we emph¬asize the aspect of physical displacement. In connection with thought we emphasize the aspect of prompting, which means to incite. In connection with the emotions we emphasize the aspect of stirring, which means to excite. If we think of thought as incitation (inward motion) and emotion as excitation (outward motion), then we can also think of the combination and call it solicitation (entire motion). The word solicitation comes from sollus (entire) and cite (set in motion).

The body is somehow directly aware of the relation between the intention to move and the movement that carries out the intention. It knows immediately, without having to think about it, that you have moved your own hand intentionally and that it was not moved by something else. If something else had moved it you know immediately that you didn't do it yourself. There is a kind of feedback within the sensory-motor system. The motor nerves can move the arm and the sensory nerves can sense the movement. The sensory nerves will feed back information about the movement to the brain. There got to be a feed back otherwise there is no proprioception.

If proprioception fails, the body is not viable. There is a case is of a women who woke up in the middle of the night apparently being attacked by someone. When someone came and turned on the light, she saw that she was hitting herself. What happened was, she had suffered a stroke and the sensory nerves had been partly damaged. She was able to move her arms because the motor nerves were still working but she could not feel the movement because the sensory nerves in her arms were dead.

So, while asleep, she had touched her face and the brain assumed that somebody else was touching her. The more she defended herself, the more she was being attacked. When the light was turned on, she could see what was going on and it stopped. Through vision she could have another kind of feedback and re-establish proprioception that way.

We know of another case. A woman woke up in the morning feeling her body was not there, it didn't feel like her own. somehow proprioception had gone and it never came back. She could hardly do anything. She solved the problem by watching her body all the time and somehow she was able to get along. She also had re-established proprioception through vision.

We normally have proprioception directly. In order for a complex organism, such as ours, to exist we need proprioception, which tells us immediately, that the movement or any action originated in our intention and not somewhere else. If you suddenly jerk because of a reflect, you know that is was not your intention to move. Similarly, if somebody pushes your leg or arm, you know it happened that way and not through your in-tention. Knowing the relation between intention and the action is crucial for survival or to do anything. The body has this proprioception naturally. It is inbuilt but it can be improved to some extent through training, which is what people like athletes and dancers do. You don't have to train a child to be proprioceptive of it's movements. You can improve it by training but you don't need to train it. It's there anyway. All this is so obvious that we do not normally think about it as anything of importance.

When you move your body you have proprioception of it. You know immediately that you have moved it. The connection between your intention to move and the actual movement is felt immediately. With thought we don't have it but in some sense, thought is also a movement with an intention (to think) and therefore proprioception of thought should be possible. There should be an immediate awareness or feeling for what is going on in the brain.

What we mean by movement is not just the physical displacement of the body, or part of the body, from here to there. It also includes our intention to do it. If somebody moved your hand we could say, that was a movement but it is not the kind of movement we're talking about because that did not come from your own intention. With the kind of movement we are talking about there is a connection between the mind and the body. The intention is considered part of the movement. This makes movement more like a complex process rather than a simple linear displacement. With a movement of the body the physical dis-placement takes a dominate role and the intention, which makes us do it, remains relatively stable. With a movement of thought it's the other way round. The intention moves around, usually reflecting outwardly and inwardly, while the physical action re-mains suspended.

We can observe this kind of movement very well in the extreme case of a conflict when we can't decide what to do. In a state of conflict our intentions make us want to do one thing but the next moment we want to do the other thing. The intentions oscillate inwardly between the two and the result is that nothing is being done, outwardly. We could say that in such a case the movement of thought has got itself caught in a loop.

We don't normally look at thought as being a kind of movement but rather as something spiritual. That makes it hard to consider proprioception. But if you see thought as being a movement then you can also see that it should be possible to have proprioception of thought. It's the same sort of process as we have in any physical movement of the body where we do have proprioception, which is the awareness of the connection between the intention to act and the action.

First there is the intention to move the body but when the movement is held back for some reason then the action is suspended and reflected back, it now becomes an intention to find a solution to the problem. The question is, are you aware of the intention to think, to search for a solution? You'll find it is very hard to be aware of the intention to think. You'll find you're just thinking but not aware of the intention to think. Sometimes you move and you're not aware that you have the intention to move. But if that were common you'll find that would cause a lot of trouble because you produce unintended consequences most of which you don't want. Most of which are irrelevant, inappropriate, undesirable or even destructive.

Thought is a neurochemical process which can be sensed. When thought takes place, felts occur, tensions arise and the whole body can be effected by the chemistry stirred up by the thoughts. These felts and tensions and the like that are going on inside the brain and the body can be sensed just as well as anything else. These sensations can provide the feedback, which is required for proprioception.

So, the idea of thought-proprioception is not so strange as it may sound at first. Thoughts and felts are movements and therefore we suppose that it must be possible to have proprioception of them. Since the body has the ability to sense it's own movements, which is proprioception in a physical sense, we should also be able to extent this ability in the psychological realm. It is only a natural extension of body-proprioception. In fact, it's very strange that we haven't developed it very much, not enough anyway.

When the brain first evolved, it did not seem to have built-in proprioception for the movements of thoughts and felts. If it is there it is very weak, it is easily upset by any powerful emotion. It didn't need proprioception because in the early days human beings didn't do a lot of thinking, just the bare minimum, perhaps. In any case, it wasn't so complex and powerful as it is today. Therefore, proprioception of thought was not so necessary. But once civilization developed we began to need it. Without noticing it we built up thoughts and felts and we still didn't have proprioception. Civilization can not be maintained without proprioception. The more technology and civilization developed, the more the need for it.

Proprioception is an intrinsic potential that has never been fully realized. We have to find out what is blocking it. Perhaps we can improve proprioception to some extent but the primary thing is to release the potential. We really do have the potential but it is being blocked by the mistake we fell into, which fills the brain. Human beings didn't notice what they were falling into as they built civilization. Little by little they got into it, but they didn't know what was happening.

If you do not realize that your actions follow from you intentions, i.e. if you assume they're from some other cause, then you're going to be very confused. You won't be able to survive if you attribute your own actions to something else, which is what is going on in society all the time. Our own actions pro¬duce all this chaos but we say these problems are already there and we just want to stop it or do something about it. That is clearly a conflict because we both want to keep it going and we want to stop it. Proprioception is lacking and the question is how are we ever going to bring it about.

Thought without proprioception is in the long run just as dangerous as when the body is without proprioception. Because when you think about something, you may produce results without realizing that they are due to thought. By means of another thought you then try to counter the effects of the first thought.

If the intellect were proprioceptive, it would see that it is better to just stop the first thought rather than fighting it with a second one.

Most of our social problems have been produced by thoughts. But people are treating it as if they have originated in some other way. Suppose we say we got violence, we got pollution, we got destruction of forest, we lack money, industry is not going sufficiently. These are considered to be problems, objectively existent, but they are all the result of the way we think. They can only be changed fundamentally by changing our way of thinking. But people are acting as if changing something else is going to solve these problems. We could say, we can produce all sorts of objects that we want. Similarly we are going to affect society in the same way by actions taken on something as if external.

We do not see, that these problems are ourselves. We see them as external problems. We do not see that the effect of thought on the emotions and on the body is going on. If we could see it, we would stop it right away. Because it is so obviously absurd that you couldn't go on with it. The moment you actually see something as absurd, not just told about it, then you can't do it. What we are doing is really quite absurd, but we don't actually see it as absurd. We may have been told by someone that it is absurd, but that only adds to the problem because, in that case, thought will try to do something about it and thereby make it worse. Therefore, it is crucial to actually see it, or sense it proprioceptively, and not just understand it.

Being aware is beginning to establish proprioception of the process of thoughts and felts. I am beginning to see that what is going on is a result of intention and not just going on by itself. My intention either to think or to change my felts or something or to get even with somebody, to get justice, whatever. All of that may be important, but this is much more important. Staying with that in spite of the constant pressure to escape it produces an intense conflict. Staying with that, it sorts of moves around in ways that goes beyond the level what can be described in words. But still somehow it is being aware or following an awareness. That is like finding the true source of the pollution, or like finding the place where pollution is going in. And then it can change.

If nobody is going to get this thing straight, what is going to happen? Even if it's just me that can't get it straight, I am going to be stuck with it all my live. So, let's look at it. It really is something very worthwhile. Keeping your energy on this, you will begin to get a sense of how this thought/felt machine is running. You'll begin to feel and sense that this is really going on. But there is something even more interesting. I not only get a felt of being hurt but you can watch that the one who is hurt is also a felt.

This process of thought/felt can take hold unless it is proprioceptive. If you were not proprioceptive in the body you'd be in real trouble very quickly. But the same thing can happen in the mind.

Let's take anger as an example. Now anger can be thought of as follows: Anger is actually a physical sensation, which I am interpreting as anger. That interpretation is just a thought, not the real anger. The real anger is just a bunch of physical sensations. Why am I interpreting that as anger? Because the society has always done it, we have all learned it and we just do it. But the moment I think that, then the energy of that, the sensations change to something else. It's one of the results of observation. That is exactly the sort of thing I (Bohm) is talking about to say; if you begin to notice it's just sensations basically and than say let me sustain those sensations, to suspend it and begin to get an awareness, a sensitivity to how they are all going on. Then something else happens.

There is a well known technique to get rid of headache, which is to describe the headache, experience it very thoroughly and after a while it disappears. This is much the same thing as what we are saying, which is to experience those body sensations simply and wholly and on the same principle they would disappear. That is because there is no good reason for it, really.

This can be called a kind of meditation if you like or self-examination, or knowing yourself. Let's call it 'knowing yourself for the moment. So, how can we get to know ourself? Suppose I say, I want to know myself. So, I look inwardly, introspectively. But I introduce the observer who is looking at the observed. What I am looking at is just an image; the division is not there. It is produced by thought-felt. To begin to know oneself is to begin to see this process to which one is identified. There is more about the process of identification in the article called "identity".

You can begin to look at this thing individually or you can try to do it when you are talking to other people. When you get into a quarrel with somebody else, for instance, you'll find that proprioception may build up to a certain level where you loose it again. But still you can come back to it. You can come back to it by remembering and using the words that caused the quarrel. Some people may object to this method and say that is not the same as a real situation But we say, it's the same thing. The problem is always thought-felts and even if you just call it up it's still the same old thing. It's not a genuin new thing that is happening when you burst out in anger or fear.

We are already conditioned to respond automatically very deeply. We have to look at that conditioning. To sense it by suspending it, in the way that has been described. In that way one can begin to understand it. By understanding it, it will come to an end.