Does feeling back stiffness actually reflect having a stiff back? This research interrogates the long-held question of what informs our subjective experiences of bodily state. The authors propose a new hypothesis: feelings of back stiffness are a protective perceptual construct, rather than reflecting biomechanical properties of the back. This has far-reaching implications for treatment of pain/stiffness but also for our understanding of bodily feelings.
Over three experiements they challenge the prevailing view by showing that feeling stiff does not relate to objective spinal measures of stiffness and objective back stiffness does not differ between those who report feeling stiff and those who do not. Rather, those who report feeling stiff exhibit self-protective responses: they significantly overestimate force applied to their spine, yet are better at detecting changes in this force than those who do not report feeling stiff. This perceptual error can be manipulated: providing auditory input in synchrony to forces applied to the spine modulates prediction accuracy in both groups, without altering actual stiffness, demonstrating that feeling stiff is a multisensory perceptual inference consistent with protection.
Together, this presents a compelling argument against the prevailing view that feeling stiff is an isomorphic marker of the biomechanical characteristics of the back.