Hidden Senses: What is the Vestibular System?
Kimberly Lindgren, OTR/L - May 11, 2020
Our vestibular system is one of the lesser known sensory systems and likely the most mysterious and impactful of the 3 hidden senses*. Many of us don’t even realize that we are constantly influenced by vestibular sensory input. We soothe an infant by rocking them and activating the vestibular system; a child becomes extremely hyper after spinning on the merry-go-round; and some of us are so sensitive to vestibular input that our biggest nightmares are long car rides and roller coasters. Depending on your own unique system, you are able to tolerate different amounts of these movements and have different reactions to this sensory input.
What exactly is the vestibular system?
The vestibular system has a vast impact on the brain and affects many skills ranging from coordination to emotions. Broadly, it helps us with movement, but here are a few additional facts about the vestibular system:
- It is our ‘gravity sensor’ helping us understand where our head is in space and time.
- A strong vestibular system means we feel confident about where we are in space and moving through our environment.
- Contributes to coordination and balance.
- Impacts eye movements
- Has neural connections throughout the brain, impacting much more than just coordination and balance.
- Scientists are still learning about its far reaching effects on our daily functions and skills, such as language and emotions.
Where is it? And when does it develop?
Each of our sensory systems have structures that receive input from our environment, which is then processed and interpreted by our brain. Our eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, touch receptors for feeling, and so on. Our vestibular system’s main structure is located in our inner ear where there are tiny fluid-filled semicircular canals. The fluid’s motion, due to changing head positions, is the ‘detector’ of movement, which is then transferred and translated in the brain. This sensory system is the very first sensory system to develop--just a few weeks after conception! By the time we are born, the vestibular system is fully developed.
This is just a brief glimpse into the vestibular system! It has such a major influence on all of our daily functions (including our feelings!), which is why sensory occupational therapists devote a large part of our practice to understanding a child’s unique vestibular system. Learn more about the vestibular system’s impact in my upcoming blogs where I’ll explain the specific skills and daily functions it contributes to, what OT’s do to support vestibular processing, and vestibular activities you can do at home with your child.
*In addition to the typical 5 sensory systems (sight, sound, taste, feel, smell) we have 3 additional ‘hidden’ senses--vestibular, proprioception, and interoception.