Feb 052019
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Imagine you are on an airplane, ten thousand meters up in the sky. Now, if you close your eyes you know exactly which way the airplane has started moving, whether it has begun to manoeuvre to the right or to descend. This ability we owe to our inner ear as a part the humans’ vestibular system.

The vestibular system is designed to send information about the position of the head to the brain’s movement control centre, that is the cerebellum. It is made up of three semi-circular canals and two pockets called the otolith organs (Fig. 1), which together provide constant feedback to the cerebellum about head movement. Each of the semi-circular canals is orthogonal to the two others so that they detect the variety of movements in three independent directions: rotation around the neck (horizontal canal), nodding (superior canal) and tilting to the sides (posterior canal). Movement of fluid inside these canals due to the head movement stimulates tiny hairs that send signals via the vestibular nerve to the cerebellum. The two otolith organs (called the saccule and utricle) signal to the brain about linear movements (backwards/forwards or upwards/downwards) and also about where the head is in relation to gravity. These organs contain small crystals that are displaced during linear movements and stimulate tiny hairs communicating via the vestibular, or balance nerve to the cerebellum.

So why is that, even equipped with such a tool, sometimes we get a feeling sitting on an airplane that it is falling down when in fact it is not? Why is that some people, particularly underwater divers, may lose direction and no longer know which way is up?[1] Surely, typical divers should still have the inner ear, unless a shark has bitten their heads off. Is it all caused by stress? Actually, there is much more to it!

Humans have evolved to maintain spatial orientation on the ground, whereas the three-dimensional environment of flight or underwater is unfamiliar to the human body, creating sensory conflicts and illusions that make spatial orientation difficult. Normally, changes in linear and angular accelerations and gravity, detected by the vestibular system, and the relative position of parts of our own bodies, provided by muscles and joints to the proprioceptive system, are compared in the brain with visual information. In unusual conditions, these sensory stimuli vary in magnitude, direction, and frequency. Any differences or discrepancies between visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory inputs result in a sensory mismatch that can produce illusions. Often the result of these various visual and nonvisual illusions is spatial disorientation.

For example, fighter pilots who turn and climb at the same time (they call it “bank and yank”), feel a strong sensation of heaviness. That feeling, caused by their acceleration, surpasses the pull of gravity. Now, if you asked them while blindfolded to tell which way was down using only their vestibular organ, they would point to the cues provided by the turn, not to the cues provided by the earth’s gravity. [2]

Furthermore, the vestibular system detects only changes in acceleration, thus a prolonged rotation of 15-20 seconds [3] results in a cessation of semi-circular output. As a result, the brain adjusts and does not feel the acceleration anymore which can even result in the perception of motion in the opposite direction. In other words, it is possible to gradually climb or descend without a noticeable change in pressure against the seat. Moreover, in some airplanes, it is even possible to execute a loop without exerting negative G-forces so that, without visual reference, the pilot could be upside down without being aware of it.

Another interesting example is the phenomenon of loopy walking. When lost in a desert or a thick forest terrain without landmarks people tend to walk in circles. Recent studies performed by researchers of Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Germany, revealed that blindfolded people show the same tendency. Lacking external reference points, they curve around in loops as tight as 20 meters in diameter while believing they are walking in straight lines. [4]

Seemingly the vestibular system is quite easy to trick by eliminating other sensory inputs. However, even when visual information is accessible, e.g. underwater, spatial disorientation can still occur [any scuba diving forum – for the reference]. The obvious fact that water changes visual and proprioceptive perception is crucial here: humans move slower, see differently and let’s not forget the Archimedes’ principle. It happened a lot, that a confused diver thought that the surface was down, especially when the bottom seemed brighter because of reflections. This can be a dangerous mirage in such an unusual gravity. On top of it, water can affect the vestibular system directly through the outer ear. When the cold water penetrates and reaches the vestibular system, it can cause thermal effects on the walls of the semi-circular canals, leading to slight movements of the fluid inside, which are enough to be detected by the brain.[5] Just like in the situations described before this causes the symptoms of spatial disorientation and dizziness.

Fig. 1. Schematic structure of a humans’ inner ear [6].

The vestibular system is indeed frightfully complicated. We can trick it for fun riding roller coasters in an adventure park, but when incorrect interpretation of the signals coming from the vestibular system occurs at the wrong moment this can lead to serious consequences. Luckily, nowadays the airplanes and even divers are equipped with precise instruments used to complement the awareness of the situation and thus avert dangerous situations.

P.S. If you are interested, try riding an elevator while seated on a bike.

— Mariia Filianina


  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2012). Spatial disorientation, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.,
  2. L. King, (2017). The science of psychology: An appreciative view. (4th. ed.) McGraw-Hill, New York.
  3. Previc, F. H., & Ercoline, W. R. (2004). Spatial disorientation in aviation. Reston, VA: American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics.
  4. J. L. Souman, I. Frissen, M. N. Sreenivasa and M. O. Ernst,Walking straight into circles, Current Biology 19, 1538 (2009).
  5. http://www.videodive.ru/diving/vizov5.shtml
  6. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/balance/balance_disorders.asp

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