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Vestibular sense: the eight senses: fact file

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Vestibular sense: the eight senses: fact file

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What is the vestibular sense?

The vestibular sense is one of the eight senses that is missed out of the classic list of five senses. Therefore, most of us have never heard of it and have no idea what it does.  The vestibular sense relates to balance, movement and spacial orientation. 

Regulation of our senses is one aspect of our basic human needs.


What is the vestibular sense sensing?

The vestibular sense senses movement and gravitational forces through tiny hairs in the inner ear.  These send signals to the brain about the movement and orientation of the body.  This means that we can feel that we are moving even if we have our eyes closed.

How do we use our vestibular sense?

The brain primarily sends information from the vestibular sense to the eyes. Our head is constantly moving, even if only very slightly. The eyes use the information about movement to keep things in focus. When we are looking at an object and turn our head to one side, our eye move the opposite way in order to maintain focus.  This is known as the vestibulo-occular reflex.

This adjustment of focus helps us to balance. We use visual reference points with vestibular information to help maintain balance, and use kinaesthesia to adjust our stance, and muscle tension to stay upright. Kinaesthesia is our awareness of aspects of our body. For example, the tension or laxity in our muscles, and therefore their potential to further tense or relax. Or, how our current posture has our joints positioned, and their range of potential movement.

The vestibular sense works with the proprioceptive sense, which senses the edges of our body and its location in space, and kinaesthesia, to coordinate our body’s movement. We combine input about our orientation and movement from the vestibular sense, and our proprioceptive awareness, our kinaesthetic understanding to move smoothly and with coordination.


Stimulating the vestibular sense

The vestibular sense picks up changing orientation and movement. Moving is one of the ways that we can stimulate this sense. Babies experience the parent’s movement in the womb. So, even after birth they usually find gentle motion calming and soothing. This continues into adulthood, and many adults find, for example, the motion of a train, lulls them to sleep.

 Roundabouts and swings, twisting and twirling, and turning upside down are just a few of the motions that are involved in lots of physical child’s play. They provide strong vestibular input. Children often find these motions stimulating and exciting. 

Everyone has their own comfort zone for vestibular input.  Some motions may be soothing, and others invigorating, but movements or input outside our comfort zone can be disregulating. 


Having fun with the vestibular sense

As adults we often make less use of our vestibular sense for play. Dance and sports, which are popular hobbies for some adults. do make use of the vestibular sense. However, we tend to do less twirling for the joy of it, or hanging upside down off the sofa. Some ways to play using the vesitbular sense include inversion postures in yoga. Dancing can get you moving and twirling. Playing with children, and having a go at moving your body as they do also stimulates the vestibular sense. 

Balance balls, birth balls or yoga balls can be used in a range of vestibular stimulating actvities and exercises. Sitting on one os these balls also offers you the opportunity to sit more actively, which can help people who need movement to aid concentration to increase their focus. 

vestibular input man sits on exercise ball working on laptop smiling

Stimming and sensory regulation

Stimming is short for stimulating. It is used to refer to self-stimulating sensory activities that help a person regulate. Stimming can relate to any sense, some people make a sound, or listen to music to stim, but movements are often the most noticeable and picked up on stims. For example, the repeated clicking of a pen, a child who swings on their chair in the classroom,  ‘fidgeting’, shifting from one foot to the other whilst standing, bobbing up and down whilst sitting. Many of these stims stimulate the vestibular sense. These are often seen by teachers as nuisance behaviours, because sometimes they can be distracting to other people. However, for the individual stimming supports regulation. It often increases an individual’s ability to concentrate or process information. 

Finding a way to support a person to stim without disrupting others can be helpful. This can be achieved by many means, such as using a balance cushion, or through use of a fidget toy that is quieter than clicking a pen. How does the stim stimulate the vestibular sense? How could you replicate that sensory input in a less disruptive way?


Are you a thrill seeker? Vestibular sensory profiles

Everyone has a sensory profile. It is a way of thinking about what kinds or levels of stimulation of the different senses results in us feeling regulated and comfortable. 

Some people are very sensitive to, or even averse to, certain vestibular sensations. They may get motion sickness, or avoid moving in certain ways, such as bending over. This is because vestibular hypersensitivity means that they find these orientations or movements disregulating. They feel even small movements very strongly.

At another extreme of the vestibular sensory spectrum you have thrill seekers. People who love fairgrounds and rollercoasters. Often these people require stronger vestibular input to feel it. They may also be less coordinated or seem clumsy, as smaller vestibular inputs do not register. They may experience vestibular hypo-sensitivity. 

What we enjoy, and seek out, or dislike and avoid tells us about our sensory preferences, but also about how strongly we experience different senses. 

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