Balance: A Dizzying Journey Through the Science of Our Most Delicate Sense

Balance: A Dizzying Journey Through the Science of Our Most Delicate Sense

by Carol Svec


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Some low-frequency sounds—such as noise from storms or truck engines—can make you feel dizzy and nauseated. An index finger’s light touch can stop people from losing balance. You are more prone to trip when you think someone is watching you. A breakthrough in improving balance as we age might just come through the study of the Achilles tendon. A person gets “falling down drunk” due to a tiny structure in the inner ear that floats when it becomes soaked in alcohol.
These and other surprising and useful nuggets of information can be found in this lively, 360-degree exploration of our body’s most intricate, overlooked sense—balance. Readers follow award-winning science and health writer Carol Svec through various facilities as she talks with leading scientists doing state-of-the-art balance research. Svec translates their most fascinating findings for the layperson in a way that is highly entertaining and broadly accessible. She showcases the coolest gadgets used by researchers as she grills an egg in a virtual kitchen, has her senses fooled by a mannequin named Hans in a Tumbling Room, survives “the Vominator” without losing her lunch, and experiences drunken dizziness inside a police muster room. Along the way she cites case studies of people whose lives are affected by balance dysfunction; explains how balance research is being applied today to help those who are ill, elderly, disabled, or simply prone to motion sickness; and provides a glimpse at what ingenious, potentially life-changing advances may be coming down the road.

Whether you have a balance disorder or care about someone who does, are an athlete or performer whose livelihood depends on balance, or just love accessible, page-turning popular science, you’ll be enlightened and entertained by this appreciation of our complex super-sense.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613734827
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 597,444
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Carol Svec has a master’s degree in physiological psychology. She writes for health and wellness websites, is a regular contributing writer and editor for Bottom Line/Health newsletter, blogs for, and has been a columnist for Endurance and Brain Injury Journey magazines. A member of the National Association of Science Writers, she is the coauthor of five health and wellness books and sole author of After Any Diagnosis, which was named one of the Best Consumer Health Books of 2001 by Library Journal. She lives outside Raleigh, North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt


A Dizzying Journey Through the Science of Our Most Delicate Sense

By Carol Svec

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2017 Carol Svec
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-485-8


Hurling for Science

Motion Sickness

SINCE THE 1960s, when there were no ethics boards to review the designs of university studies using human subjects, research psychologists have battled the suspicion that they are mad scientists searching for the secrets of mind control. As professor Andrea Bubka leads me down into her motion sickness laboratory, it strikes me that she isn't doing her profession any favors. Well, not Dr. Bubka herself — she has an open, cheerful face that I trust at first sight. She's trim, petite, and with blonde hair ideal for an academic — neither too long nor too short, neither too severe nor too mussed, neither styled nor sloppy. Goldilocks hair: everything just right. Plus she's wearing pearls. How can you not trust someone in pearls?

Rather, it is her lab that evokes fears of psychological sadism. Apart from the bright lighting, it looks like something out of a high-tech horror movie. It's a long bunker, with a gray concrete floor, cinderblock walls, and industrial fluorescent lighting. Off in the corner of the room is a wood and metal structure dangling a cylinder five feet tall and five feet in diameter. In the motion sickness research community, this device is infamous: the Vominator.

"Not everyone is happy with that nickname," Dr. Bubka explains. "Sounds too much like a carnival ride, not a serious piece of equipment."

I think it's kind of perfect.

The Vominator is officially known as an optokinetic drum. It is, indeed, a serious piece of equipment, although the one in front of me was homemade by Dr. Bubka and her research partner and significant other, Dr. Frederick Bonato. Their research line was inspired in the early 1990s after seeing what looked like a kind of rotating vinyl shower curtain at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. They first pieced together the Vominator in 2000 in an empty office, the creative sparks already flying. It turned out to be the key to a whole new area of research, and that's when they moved to the dungeon — uh, I mean basement.

They devoted the next fifteen years to bringing people to the brink of tossing their cookies. (That seems like a touch of "mad scientist," doesn't it?) The Vominator has made Drs. Bubka and Bonato famous in the field of motion sickness.

That's right — motion sickness, the most common balance disorder. You see, balance is about more than simply remaining upright; it's about predictability and steadiness in three main balance systems: the vestibular system (located in the inner ear); vision; and proprioception, or information from sensory nerves of the body. And few things shake up our equilibrium more reliably than a ride on a choppy sea, a spin on an amusement park ride, or the Vominator.

I'm excited to see how it works, especially since I'm sure I'm going to be able to beat the device. I'm a tad competitive that way — I love technology, but I want to be able to control it. Machines should not (cannot!) control me. At the time I visited the lab, here's what I knew about motion sickness:

1. Some people are more susceptible than others.

2. I am highly susceptible, with a long and messy history of motion sickness. I get seasick standing on a dock, and if I go to an amusement park, I'm the one who waits on the side holding hats, handbags, and sunglasses while everyone else gets on a ride. A trip to Disney World is torture, mainly because I can't predict which of the ingenious rides will trigger my need to hurl.

3. Part of one's susceptibility to motion sickness is psychological. It is possible to make yourself sick just by believing it will happen. One bad experience on a roller coaster can trick your brain into thinking that all roller coasters will make you sick, and you're stuck on the sidelines forever. I offer myself as Exhibit One: When I was a young girl, my family had a speedboat that we enjoyed every weekend, all weekend. Then I turned fifteen and got a serious boyfriend. I wanted to spend my weekends with him, and I resented being dragged onto the boat for family fun. (I know, poor baby, right? What can I say, I was a teenager.) I developed very real seasickness that summer — I didn't just claim it; I experienced every nauseating minute of it. Eventually, I was allowed to stay home while my family sped away across the bay. It was a convenient excuse for me then, but I've been unable to step on a boat ever since. On the other hand, women are more sensitive to motion than men, a difference thought to be linked to hormones and physical development. So, whether my personal experience with seasickness was due to a desire to escape the boat or was the result of a more physiological process, I think we can all agree that my hormones were to blame.

4. If our psychology can create motion sickness, then maybe it can prevent it, too. Ergo, if I can convince myself I won't get sick, I'll overcome the queasiness and defy the Vominator.

That was my plan. I spent ten days visualizing myself feeling calm and centered. I looked at scientific research papers, YouTube videos, and even IMAX movies with ocean scenes (which usually make me feel slightly ill) to train my mind for the optokinetic drum. After all that preparation and positive thinking, it was with great confidence that I ventured into Dr. Bubka's lab to ask for a test run.

Inside the drum, I sit in a small chair. In front of me is a chin cup and forehead rest to keep my head steady, very much like the apparatus that holds your head during an eye exam. The entire inner surface of the cylinder from top to floor is a pattern of staggered black and white stripes:

I am instructed to keep my head still and watch the stripes in front of me as the drum starts to turn slowly to the right. After just a few seconds, I see the drum stop moving and feel my chair — which is planted on the concrete floor — start to turn to the left. It's a vection illusion, a trick of the mind and the eye, but it's sopowerful and so real that I grip the seat of my chair for balance and laugh out loud.

Outside the cylinder, I hear Dr. Bubka say, "Ah, the chair just started moving, right? Let me know if you start to feel nauseated or uncomfortable."

Here's what I now know about motion sickness that I didn't know then: Almost everybody will eventually feel sick in the Vominator. Some within seconds, some within ten minutes. In my case, I went from feeling optimistic and assured to slightly green in less than three minutes — not a record but certainly on the sensitive side.

The lesson is that when motion sickness strikes, there's no fighting it. Biology wins every time.

How We Get Motion Sick, or Why You Should Be Happy You're Not a Frog

If you have ever experienced motion sickness, the memory of those tortured hours are probably still quite vivid, no matter how long ago it happened. As the saying goes, "First you think you're going to die. Then you're afraid you won't." It starts with a general feeling of being unwell, perhaps a little agitation. Next comes any combination of dizziness, headache, confusion, drowsiness, and fatigue. Eventually your skin turns pale and may even take on a greenish hue. Finally, the coup de grâce: cold sweats, accelerated heart rate, increased salivation, and incapacitation from nausea and vomiting. Beyond the physical discomfort, you actually can't think straight — concentration, reasoning, and reaction times suffer as much as your stomach.

What most people don't realize is that motion sickness doesn't necessarily stop when the motion does. Once you get off the boat or plane (or out of the Vominator), normal, garden-variety motion sickness symptoms can linger for up to three days. You won't necessarily be nauseated, but you may continue to feel dizzy, foggy, tired, sleepy, or irritable. People who are particularly wrecked after air travel may actually suffer from a combination of jet lag and protracted motion sickness.

Some folks — like me — have a general, probably genetic susceptibility, but those who believe they don't get motion sick simply haven't been sufficiently tested. Research and real-time observations show that about 60 percent of military pilots get sick during their first flight, and up to 80 percent of astronauts are sick in the first three days in space. Sickness rates reach 100 percent for people in an ocean lifeboat and for those who go into an optokinetic drum. That's what makes it such an ideal scientific tool. Inside that checkered cylinder, it's nausea on demand.

Even those who are heavily trained can succumb if the conditions are right. Veteran sailors will get sick if the waves have a certain height and frequency. And on D-day, the paratrooper crew of the 101st Airborne Division was disabled with vomiting when the planes had to dip and dive to dodge enemy attacks. In one plane, it started in the back with Cpl. Denver "Bull" Randleman, who vomited into his helmet. The next guy in line saw what happened and used his helmet as a barf bag, too. This began a chain reaction that continued throughout the plane. According to history books, the floor was awash in vomit, and some men forgot to empty their helmets before preparing to make the jump.

It is also possible to have a kind of sneaky motion sickness known as sopite syndrome. About 60 percent of us do. With sopite syndrome, you don't even know you're sick because there's no nausea or vomiting. Instead, on a long drive or trip, you find yourself becoming listless, fatigued, distracted, and very drowsy. Scientists believe that when an otherwise healthy and well-rested person falls asleep while driving, it's probably due to sopite syndrome. After a very long while, you may even feel depressed and apathetic — typically enthusiastic and outgoing people become sullen, uncooperative, and withdrawn. For most of us, this is a minor inconvenience. But sopite syndrome is a significant problem for all branches of the military, which need troops to be alert and dependable at all times. As with regular motion sickness, these symptoms can last two or three days after finishing a journey. Only very astute medical professionals — and now you — can correctly diagnose this condition because it can seem like the sufferer is simply "in a mood" or coming down with a mild bug. (Don't worry; give it three days and your loved one will be back to normal.)

The only people who seem totally immune to motion sickness are those without a functioning vestibular system — which can be a result of bilateral damage to the inner ears — and babies. Until age two, children do not experience motion sickness. The common reasoning is that until they learn to be steady on their feet, they need to be able to tolerate unexpected motion as they are carried, rocked, flipped over for changings, or dangled in a swing. If children felt symptoms whenever they stood, crawled, rolled, or fell, motion sickness would halt their development.

Humans aren't unique in their susceptibility — nearly all animals with a backbone (i.e., vertebrates) experience motion sickness, although they express their discomfort differently. Instead of vomiting (although many do that, too), animals may drool, pace, yawn, whine, become either agitated or lethargic, or develop diarrhea. Dogs are very close to humans in their response to motion, both in terms of sensitivity and reactions. Squirrel monkeys experience motion sickness so similarly to people that they are now the preferred test animal for scientists looking for a cure. Cats express their sickness by yowling. Horses do well traveling in a trailer but can become sick on a ship (although they can't throw up). Motion sickness has also been documented in seals, gerbils, pigs, sheep, cows, and birds. Even fish seem to experience motion sickness; when transported by plane, they appear disoriented and swim in circles — surrounded by bits of fish vomit.

The most heroic of motion-sick animals has to be the frog, more specifically, the adorable, bright green Japanese tree frog, which was the focus of the Frogs in Space program. Seriously, that's what it was officially called. In 1990 six frogs were taken to the Mir space station for eight days. When allowed to float in the cabin, the frogs took up a "parachuting" posture, with all four limbs outstretched, as if they were flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree. When perched, they sometimes appeared to retch, and they actually walked backward — something not typically seen in nature. In other words, their brains got pretty scrambled.

The Queasy Side of Balance

To the nonscientist, motion sickness seems straightforward: bumpy rides make for queasy stomachs. Simple, right? The reality is much more complex and multidimensional. The truth is that even after centuries of study, researchers can't say for certain why motion sickness happens or what its physiologic mechanisms are. Why does motion — or even the illusion of motion, which is what's going on in the Vominator — cause us to become dizzy, confused, and nauseated? The downstream expert explanations have huge, rather important gaps. It's like watching an episode of Seinfeld: the body senses motion, relays signals to the brain, then yadda-yadda-yadda the next thing you know you're feeling sick. But what happens during the yadda-yadda-yadda? That's the question that keeps motion sickness researchers up at night.

For answers, I turned to Dr. Robert S. Kennedy, one of the pioneers of modern motion sickness research, a master of his field. He spent twenty-two years in active duty in the navy as a human factors psychologist, doing research on how to prevent and treat motion sickness in a military environment. Thanks, in part, to Dr. Kennedy, we know about the unique problems of balance in divers, the best ways to land safely on a carrier at night, and how extended use of electronic visual displays — computers, iPads, video games — can distort our equilibrium (more about cybersickness in chapter 9). Dr. Kennedy was one of the inventors of the famous rotating room and is now an international human factors consultant. He has worked with such heavyweight clients as NASA, the US Navy, Martin Marietta, and Disney (those rides are a rich field for the study of motion sickness). He literally wrote the manual on how military personnel can avoid motion sickness when training in a simulator.

I had been warned that Dr. Kennedy never joked and wasn't too friendly to people he didn't know. "Just don't ask stupid questions," Dr. Bubka said, "and you'll be OK." Well, that's absolutely the quickest way to make a journalist feel self-conscious. I mean, stupid questions are kind of my thing — they often elicit surprising answers, so I like to sprinkle a few into any interview. I sweated over my list of questions for two days before I had a chance to speak with Dr. Kennedy on the phone, but I relaxed when I pulled up his photo online. He looks like Santa Claus in a well-tailored business suit.

It was true — Dr. Kennedy never once joked or chuckled at anything I said during our hour-long conversation, and believe me, I tried. But I understand it; he's a busy guy. Dr. Kennedy has published more than six hundred scientific articles in the past thirty years. That's one or two articles every month for the life of his career to date. It's not humorlessness but focus. I learned more in that one call than I had in weeks of researching on my own. I began with stupid question number one: Why do we get motion sick?

"We don't really know." Dr. Kennedy said. "When we study a phenomenon like motion sickness, we want it to be a single thing, caused by a single thing. But motion sickness has multiple expressions and multiple causes. Theories are simply a means to advancing understanding. All current models offer something valuable." His deep, resonant voice gave everything he said a weight of importance. He could make a good living doing "In a world ..." narrations for movie previews. I want him to read me Edgar Allan Poe stories out loud.

He explained that of the top three theories of motion sickness, the overstimulation theory is the oldest. Before there were cars, trains, subways, airplanes, and spacecraft, there were boats, and where there are boats, there is seasickness. Now there is also amusement park ride sickness. Oh, and motion sickness is also common among novice riders of elephants or camels. (Dr. Kennedy — who has logged more than three thousand hours in flight simulators, including the zero-gravity "Vomit Comet" simulator — tells me that the sickest he has ever been was while riding a camel. "If you ever have the opportunity," he says, "skip it.")

The common denominators for all those varied modes of transportation are undulation and sway. If you are sitting in a chair, you are still except for motions you choose to make. On a boat, camel, or other sick-making way to travel, your body is subjected to lurching, tilting, bouncing, shaking, and wobbling. The overstimulation theory suggests that all the unpredictable, uncontrollable movements make the nerves in the inner ear, stomach, and other body organs fire like crazy. This overload is a signal to reduce attention to unnecessary functions (such as thinking clearly, apparently), while essentially allowing the stomach to freak out.


Excerpted from Balance by Carol Svec. Copyright © 2017 Carol Svec. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 Hurling for Science 1

Motion Sickness

2 Loops and Rocks in Your Head 21

The Vestibular System

3 The Eyes Are the Windows to the Ears 39


4 Do You Know Where Your Body Is? 57


5 Self-Orientation 69

The Gravity of Up

6 Life-Changer 89

Persistent Postural-Perceptual Dizziness

7 Sound 103

Infra and Otherwise

8 Altered States 125


9 Of Helicopters, 3-D, and Queasy Cam 147


10 Beyond Gravity 161

Virtual Reality

11 Think Not, Do 181

Psychology in Kinesiology

12 Building a Better Gait 199

Mechanics in Kinesiology

13 With Luck, We All Get Old 219

Fall Prevention

14 Balance Cycles Around 239

Coming Full Circle

Acknowledgements 249

Selected References 253

Index 267

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