Neuroplasticity – your adaptive brain Part 2, Balance

 

Today I want to talk about balance. Don’t fret, I’m not talking about handstands and slacklining; just our ability to stay upright (most of the time) is an amazing feat of coordination.  

 

Balance is vitally important for maintaining an active lifestyle. It has even been shown that people who can stand on one leg for at least 30 seconds are likely to live on average 4 years longer than those who can’t! 

 

Inside your skull, in the bone behind your ear are three small C shaped tubes. These hollow tubes are arranged perpendicular to each other and are filled with tiny hairs bathed in fluid.  Each of these hairs is connected to a receptor that is connected to a neuron. As you move the viscous liquid flows over these hairs, moving them back and forth like seaweed in the waves. This movement stimulates the receptors and sends a barrage of electrical impulses deep into the brain. The message is one of movement; how fast you have moved and in what direction. 

 

This is just one of the pieces of information your nervous system needs in order for you to balance. To build a complete picture, we add input from our eyes, joints, muscles and connective tissues, all using the downward pull of gravity as the reference point.  Our nervous systems are perpetually sampling, communicating and coordinating in order to build a complete picture of where we are in space.  

 

Another important thing to understand about our nervous systems is that they are not just benign receivers of information. The nervous system octopus is not static, the tentacles and receptors are able to move through space. The nervous system is able to coordinate complex actions, such as dancing, fighting, throwing and communicating. Understanding how we initiate movement will complete the other half of the puzzle. The electrical symphony traveling from the receptors to the spine, from the spine to the brain, from the brain back to the spine, from the spine to the muscles, and from the muscles out into the environment. This completes the cycle that connects sensing to action. 

 

As an example of this interconnectivity, recall the last time you felt dizzy, perhaps you were spinning on an office chair, or a roundabout, or looking down at the shaft of a broomstick. I am sure you are familiar with the sensation, but did you notice the disruption to your vision?   

 

When we spin around, especially if looking downwards while we do so, you create movement in the fluid inside the horizontal tube of the vestibular apparatus. When you stop suddenly it takes some time for the fluid to slow down and return to its normal resting state. As a result, the hairs are still swaying in the liquid, and your nervous system still perceives that you are moving. In an attempt to catch up, your eyes move rapidly back and forth, attempting to adjust to the movement in your inner ear. 

 

Let’s come back to standing still. You may not be aware of it but standing still is remarkably difficult! The brain is constantly combining all the inputs above, but gathering information is not enough to stay erect. Eventually, something has to move. This is where the muscles come in, but muscles without instructions are useless and it is the role of the nervous system to tell them what to do.  

 

If you’re standing on top of a hill and a strong breeze blows you forwards, your receptors pick up the change in position. This stimulates your brain to contract the muscles in your calves to help to push you back. Then the breeze stops, and you’re moving backward! Again, the same process is followed – the change in position is detected and passed to the brain. It shouts to the muscles, which bring you forwards again, and the cycle repeats. So what we think of as ‘still’ is actually a constant ebb and flow of activity.  

 

So how does balance improve your life expectancy? It is because it greatly reduces your risk of falling and fracturing a bone.  So, if you want to maximize your lifespan, make sure you practice standing on one leg!  

 

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