I’m sure we all remember back when we were young spinning around and around until we were dizzy. Whether we did this by running in circles or by spinning a swing and then letting it unwind*, we all loved that feeling. But did you ever wonder just how this all works?
Our sense of balance (or ‘equilibrioception’ if you want to use the fancy scientific word) relies on information from several parts of our body, but mainly from our eyes and our vestibular system. You’ve never heard of your vestibular system? Really? Well, that’s fair enough. It’s a rather unasuming little section of our inner ear, make up of three semi-circular canals filled with liquid.
Each of these three canals is in a different alignment to detect different types of movement. One detects the sort of movement you do when nodding your head. Another detects thesort of movement you do when cartwheeling. The third one detects horizontal, rotational movement or, you guessed it, the sort of movement you do when spinning around.
While it’s this third canal that we’re particularly interested in, they all work in the same way. The canals have a small section lined with hairs that detect movement in the fluid. When we turn a little bit, the fluid moves slightly and the hairs register this movement and convert it into electrical signals that tell our muscles to adjust and keep us balanced. This can also automatically adjust our eyes to keep things in focus while we move. Neat, right?
But when we spin over and over again, the fluid gains momentum and even when we stop, the fluid keeps moving. Imagine stirring a cup of coffee for a while – even when you stop stirring, the coffee keeps swirling around in the mug. So while the fluid in our vestibular system keeps spinning, we keep on getting messages telling us we’re still turning around. Our eyes are trying to adjust for this movement but can’t, and are simultaneously noticing that actually, we’re standing (more or less) still.
All these confusing and conflicting messages cause our muscles to move us off balance and our vision to get very mixed up – the combination of which gives us the feeling we know as dizziness! Check out the video below of the effects of spinning on our feline friends.
Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment and ask any science questions you want me to answer!
*I prefer the swing method, though this did once result in a pot-plant collision and a trip to the emergency room – I still have the scar to prove it!