Watching those mesmerizing tricks played by circus artists and the dazzling gravity defying moves by seasoned gymnasts makes us drop our jaws.
Of course, the wonders of kinesthetic are amusing.
But, there is an intricate science behind all this, a combination of majestic biological systems that allows us to sense and maintain balance.
Evolution has gifted us not just the ‘equipment’ to make sense of this world (like colored vision, intelligence, etc.), but also many complex internal mechanisms that we rarely ponder about.
If you have fallen to the ground as a playing child, tried to walk over a metal pipe to get to the other side, or gotten ‘tipsy’ enough after a party, you’d be well aware of the “sense” of Balance.
In this post, you will become more familiar with how your balance system works, how can you improve it, and how can you prevent falls.
Let us get going!
What is Balance?
The simplest definition of balance can be stated as ‘the ability to maintain the body’s center of mass over its base’ in different postures.
A more acceptable and scientific definition would be ‘the ability of a person to maintain the line-of-gravity through a base support with minimum sway or collapse.
But Why is Our Balance Crucial?
Simple, for normal everyday functioning, we require a precise sense of balance.
Walking straight, climbing upstairs, jumping, judging the angle of feet while you stand in the subway car, and even preventing a fall when our feet trips on a wire demands your balance system to be working perfectly.
Now that you know how important it is, let us see how it works. Let us dive into the mechanics of our internal balancing system!
Visual System (Depth, Velocity & Motion Perception)
Our brain requires information to process. So, when figuring out the correct positioning and posture of the body to maintain the balance, it requires the ‘input’ as to where and how the body is placed in the 3-D space.
Here is where the Visual Perception system kicks in. It sends your brain this important information and computations to arrive at the optimal balancing position:
- Position of the body in the 3-D space and relative to other objects
- The depth of the objects (their approximate size)
- Velocity and direction of movement (of the objects and the body itself)
Once our visual system intakes this information, the calculation for the optimal balance begins.
Somatosensory System (Proprioception and Exteroception System)
The Somatosensory System is another crucial system that provides the brain with two important measurable components required to maintain balance. This system can be divided into two parts- The Proprioception system and the Exteroception System.
Proprioception is the internal ‘awareness’ mechanism that tells our nervous system about the relative position of our body parts and organs in relation to the body. This system is powered by sensors called Proprioceptors.
The second part of information comes from Exteroception system.
It consists of exteroceptors which are essentially pressure sensors in our hands and feet.
They tell the brain about the nature, topography and relative movement of the ground or the support surface.
For example, your feet can sense the rigidity of concrete floor and softness of the sand.
Our sense of direction and head/body’s position with respect to the gravity is calculated by the Vestibular system that is located inside our ears.
Inside the ears lie 3 ear canals that contain the Cochlear fluid. This Cochlear fluid covers tiny ‘hair cells’ in the canals. It is through the relative movement of this fluid read by the cells that the brain calculates the correct line of gravity according to the angle, weight, and velocity of the body.
If you’ve ever been on a merry-go-around and felt dizzy after hopping off of, then that was due to the Cochlear fluid spinning inside your ears!