A severe lack of balance in my life

I am famous in my family for not having a sense of balance. Well, I’m actually famous for not having much sense of any kind, but I’m particularly short on my sense of balance.

People used to beg me to go skiing with them. I was flattered until I learned that I was their source of comic relief for the day. My balance escapades were so outrageous that I even like to tell those stories myself.

They say, “You can be anything you want to be.” I don’t know who “they” are, but they obviously don’t know much about the otolith organs, the utricle and the saccule. These are two pouches located within the vestibule of the inner ear.

You’ve probably thought that a vestibule is only a chamber that opens into other rooms or spaces. Well, you’re right. It’s just that your ear also has a vestibule that opens into several other chambers, two being the utricle and saccule. 

These pouches are filled with fluid and partially lined with what are called “hair cells.” They aren’t hairs at all, but nerve cells that lead to the brain. The fluid is filled with tiny grains of calcium sand called otoliths. Because of their size, and fluid viscosity in the pouches, these otoliths are almost weightless.

However, if you remain in one position — say, standing up — the otoliths slowly sink to the bottom of the pouches and press on the hair cells. This sends a message to your brain that you are upright. Well, at least in posture. 

Personally, I prefer lying down. Luckily, when one lies down, the otoliths glide along the hair cells and settle in a different area with different cells.  That’s how you know you are lying down. I can always tell when I am lying down because, shortly thereafter, I fall asleep. 

Standing and lying down are such elemental sensations that most of us think that we sense what we’re doing based on other body senses like vision and body pressure. It is hard to imagine the otolith system in isolation. However, this system becomes extremely important in situations when normal cues as to the position of our bodies can’t be depended on. 

I think this is my problem. I can seldom depend on “normal cues” from any part of my nervous system. In the case of body position, I don’t know if I lack a proper number of hair cells or if there is a shortage of otoliths. Or maybe, my otoliths are super-weightless. Could that be my superpower?

Astronauts and scuba divers sometimes have difficulty with their otoliths. Under weightless conditions in outer space, or at certain depths in water, the otoliths remain suspended. If everyday kinds of information such as light and pressure are not available, or are contradictory, one can become severely disoriented. If information coming to the brain doesn’t match for all of our sensory systems, we become dizzy, nauseous or anxious.

Great! My superpower is dizziness and nausea? I suppose that could work if I were the carrier of those conditions. I don’t know if a person can develop more hair cells in their utricle or grow more otoliths. I only know that I can’t. I’ve humiliated myself for years trying. I have decided that when a man has to ask himself what is meant by balance, he proves that he isn’t a balanced man. A reasonably sensible man is satisfied with just thinking about balance.

In the end, this has all worked out for the best. My interest in balance led me to study “balancing work and pleasure.” I couldn’t make work and pleasure balance, so instead I tried to make work more pleasurable. That’s why I became a college professor. It’s a constant struggle, but I generally manage to err on the side of pleasure. I just can’t seem to stand up on skis.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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