Our Balance Keeps Us Learning
Some years ago, I headed out for an early morning downhill ski, and one run later ended up with nausea and a headache that lasted for 24 hours.
It was one of those not-infrequent days when the mountain was covered in fog so thick that visibility was near zero. I got off the lift, skied a few feet in the gray winter light, and was hit with a familiar feeling: I had no clue where the snow ended and the fog began. My head spun and I looked around frantically for someone in bright-covered clothing so I could follow them down the mountain without falling over.
I made it down feeling dizzy and weird but figured it would pass. I love skiing and had stupidly subjected myself to the vertigo effects of our foggy mountain many times before. It always passed eventually.
This time it took more than a day, and that very week I reread a personal essay by travel and science writer Rachel Dickinson about her harrowing experience with long-term vertigo. Her vertigo came on suddenly, with no explanation, and refused to leave despite extensive and varied treatment. A year after the initial attack, she wrote that:
“Most of the time I look like I am walking straight but my head tells me something different. The self-consciousness of unsteadiness affects my every move and I often ask my family if I am lurching. Days are planned out in terms of how far I will have to walk. My fear of falling has skyrocketed. This winter, I stayed in the house for days, afraid to venture out in the snow and ice.”
Dickinson’s essay chilled me. What was I doing toying with vertigo just to go skiing for a couple hours?
Itturns out I was messing around with one of the senses we almost never think about: the tiny but vital little system that keeps us upright, allows us to walk, saves us from vertigo, and in fact plays a significant role in our ability to learn as we grow: the vestibular system.
The vestibular sits in our inner ears and is made up of two main parts: semicircular canals and otolith organs, which combine with fluid, hair cells, and tiny crystals to process our movements in all three spatial dimensions. The most common kind of vertigo, benign paroxysmal…