The vestibular system is often called our balance sense. The system itself is located in the part of our inner ear called the vestibule, this is how it gets its name. The vestibule is attached to the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that helps with hearing. Inside the vestibule, there are two organs, the semi-circular canals, and the otoliths.
The vestibular system receives information when our head moves. Our head can move up and down (i.e. nodding yes), side to side (i.e. nodding no) and ear to shoulder ear. It also moves forward and backward, side to side, and up and down. These movements give information to our vestibular system, which helps our brain to know where we are in space and how we are moving. This is essential to support our:
How the vestibular system helps day to day
Balance is essential for all of our movement. Without balance we would not be able to roll over, sit up or walk. We rely heavily on the feedback from our inner ear to make sure we don’t fall over if the ground is uneven or when there are steps. We can also keep our bodies steady if the surface underneath us moves, for example on escalators. When we roll over in bed it is our vestibular system that makes sure we don’t roll out! All of the movements we make rely on good balance.
Muscle tone refers to the constant partial contraction our muscles are making when we are still. It allows our bodies to increase or decrease tension as required when moving. Our vestibular system supports this tension. Muscle tone can be affected by diseases that damage the brain, such as a stroke, head injury or cerebral palsy. In these cases, muscle tone might be very tight or very low and this makes movement much more difficult. Some children with Sensory Processing Disorder might have lower than average muscle tone and this can affect their postural control and stability.
Our postural control allows our bodies to move in different directions whilst remaining stable. For example, when we bend forward our back muscles and our stomach muscles work together to make sure we don’t go too slowly, or crash down too quickly, or fall over. When we throw a ball we can move our arm without our whole body going forward with it and without losing our footing.
Reaching across the table to get the salt, also requires good postural control. Without it, we might fall out of our chair into the person next to us or into our food. We can twist and turn and bend our bodies in any number of ways without falling over when our vestibular system is working well.
Spatial orientation lets our brain know where our body is in space. Are we lying down or standing up or sitting? Are we moving forward, backward or sideways? How fast are we moving? Are we high off the ground on a ladder or are our feet on the ground? Is there an incline or are we on the flat? Our vestibular system is constantly sending information to let our brains know where we are in space.
Alertness relates to our ability to pay attention. Surprisingly, our vestibular system plays a big role is our attention and focus. Typically, if you have been for a run or done some exercise you will be more alert and focussed. This is because of the extra vestibular input your brain has received from the movement. However, if you have spent the entire day seated, you are likely to feel a bit more sluggish.
Finally, our vestibular system controls our eye movements. It allows us to look in the direction we want to look. We can look up to the board or teacher and then back to our work. Or look over at the clock and then back to our TV, without getting dizzy or losing focus. When we walk, what we see doesn’t bounce up and down, it stays focused. Our brain is constantly processing the information about our head movements to adjust our eye movement to match.
What might it look like if the vestibular system isn’t working well?
When the vestibular system doesn’t process the information it receives very well, there are three typical responses. Some children and adults are sensitive to vestibular input, which means their brains respond to only a small amount of movement. Other children and adults are slower to respond to the input, which means they need more movement to understand the information their vestibular system receives. These children and adults could either respond by seeking out more movement or by just being slow to respond and a bit sluggish. There are also children or adults who might display a combination of the three responses.
Some typical traits seen for each type of response are listed below.
Sensitivity to vestibular sensory input:
Avoids playing on swings and slides (either now or when younger)
Seems afraid of riding in elevators or on escalators
Avoid having head tipped back (e.g. washing hair)
Becomes travel sick or dizzy easily
Seeking out vestibular sensory input:
Pursues movement to the point it interferes with daily routines
Rocks in their chair on the floor or while standing
Loves extreme fast moving input e.g. swings / slides / rollercoaster
Rarely get dizzy
Slow response to vestibular sensory input:
Bumps into things
Falls over objects
Loses balance unexpectedly
Poor muscle tone (appears more floppy than others)
Why is the vestibular system important for learning and work?
Alertness and focus
Learning firstly requires good attention and focus. You have just learned that the vestibular system helps with alertness and therefore a student’s ability to attend. Without good attention, it is very difficult to stay on task and also to listen to your teacher. If you can’t stay focused at work it will take a lot longer to get your work completed.
Balance and postural control
Balance and postural control are essential for all motor skills. Sitting at a desk requires good postural control. So does sitting on the carpet. Without it, you will likely start leaning into your peers. Using a pencil or a computer also require good postural control. Playtime and PE are also much more difficult without good balance and postural control.
Children and adults who are more sensitive to movement may avoid activities and reduce their opportunities for learning. Those who seek out extra input often are too quick and have poor control over their movements. They often get in trouble for constantly being on the go. Those with slower responses often have poor coordination and tire more easily as they need to use more effort to sustain positions than their peers.
Spatial awareness is firstly important to ensure you don’t bump into others and are successful in moving around. It is also important for subjects like math and essential for times tables. It plays a role in making sure you get your letters and numbers facing the right way and on the line. Visual processing is also important for these things, but the vestibular system helps to lays the foundation.
Good control over eye movements is, again, essential for most learning tasks. When reading, you need to be able to scan from left to right, then move your eyes back to the left without skipping lines. When attending to a presentation or looking at the teacher, you have to be able to look at the presenter or teacher then the board then your work, ideally with smooth transitions between each. To catch a ball you need to be able to track it and keep focused on it to allow your hands to be ready to catch. If you’re running you also need the image to stay steady rather than bounce up and down.
Overall the vestibular system is really essential for learning!
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