Hidden Senses: How Our Vestibular System Affects Everyday Activities
Kimberly Lindgren, OTR/L - May 18, 2020
Our vestibular system is one of the hidden sensory systems. It helps us relate to gravity and understand where or how our head is positioned in space. This supports us in skills such as balance and coordination. Since the vestibular system has a huge neural connection throughout the brain, it’s impact on skills extends well beyond balance and coordination.
What skills and functions does it impact?
- Playing sports or successfully running around a playground
- Navigating through a crowded classroom without stumbling
Bilateral coordination, or using both sides of the body at the same time.
- Using scissors where one hand stabilizes and controls, while the other manipulates the tool
- Running, skipping, galloping
Language: Both auditory and vestibular inputs are initially processed by receptors in the inner ear, making them highly intertwined and impact one another.
- Auditory processing--interpreting and filtering sounds accurately
- Distinguishing your name being called in the lunchroom, noisy playground, or in the classroom.
Emotional regulation: Vestibular processing impacts emotions because of its connection with the limbic system.
- Smoothly transitioning between a calm state and aroused (hyper) state, according to the situation we are in (e.g. playing outside versus sitting for a meal)
- Staying alert while seated and listening to a teacher’s lesson
- Increasing arousal (energy, excitement, etc.) during recess with friends
- Achieving calmness and maintaining this state during dinner and bedtime.
Vestibular input activates the limbic system, which includes deep structures in the brain. The limbic system is responsible for aiding memory, controlling emotions and modulating basic functions such as breath, blood pressure, digestion, hunger, and rest. These basic functions impact our emotions. Are we in a state of flight/fright/fear? Or are we calm, relaxed, and re-energizing?
Muscle tone, not to be confused with muscle strength. Muscle tone is genetic--you are born somewhere along the spectrum of low to ‘normal’ to high tone. It is also operated on an unconscious level.
- Sustaining a seated, upright position at your desk
- While standing on a train, staying upright and responding to the train
accelerating or braking by engaging and stabilizing your core.
- ***OT Note: When a child has low tone, we work on increasing muscle strength to compensate for the lack of tone (since we cannot change muscle tone).
“Gaze Control” or coordinating head and eye movements
- Copying letters/words from the whiteboard to your own piece of paper, by intermittently moving your head and eyes up and down.
- Watching and focusing on your teacher as they move across the classroom.
- Reading smoothly from left to right
We hope you now have a better understanding of why the vestibular system is so important--it impacts almost everything that we do! For kids, a vestibular system that processes efficiently is especially important for play, which is how they learn and grow. Learn more about the vestibular system in my next blogs which describe what OT’s do to support this system and vestibular activities you can do at home.
Rajagopalan, A., Jinu, K. V., Sailesh, K. S., Mishra, S., Reddy, U. K., & Mukkadan, J. K. (2017). Understanding the links between vestibular and limbic systems regulating emotions. Journal of natural science, biology, and medicine, 8(1), 11–15. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-9668.198350