Vestibular Aspects of Spatial Orientation

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spatial disorientation

Defines our natural ability to maintain our body orientation and/or posture in relation to the surrounding environment (physical space) at rest and during motion. Genetically speaking, humans are designed to maintain spatial orientation on the ground. The three-dimensional environment of flight is unfamiliar to the human body, creating sensory conflicts and illusions that make spatial orientation difficult, and sometimes impossible to achieve. Statistics show that between 5 to 10% of all general aviation accidents can be attributed to spatial disorientation, 90% of which are fatal.

Spatial Orientation in Flight
Spatial orientation in flight is difficult to achieve because numerous sensory stimuli (visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive) vary in magnitude, direction, and frequency. Any differences or discrepancies between visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory inputs result in a sensory mismatch that can produce illusions and lead to spatial disorientation. Good spatial orientation relies on the effective perception, integration and interpretation of visual, vestibular (organs of equilibrium located in the inner ear) and proprioceptive (receptors located in the skin, muscles, tendons, and joints) sensory information.

Vestibular Aspects of Spatial Orientation
The inner ear contains the vestibular system, which is also known as the organ of equilibrium. About the size of an pencil eraser, the vestibular system contains two distinct structures: the semicircular canals, which detect changes in angular acceleration, and the otolith organs (the utricule and the saccule), which detect changes in linear acceleration and gravity. Both the semicircular canals and the otolith organs provide information to the brain regarding our body’s position and movement. A connection between the vestibular system and the eyes helps to maintain balance and keep the eyes focused on an object while the head is moving or while the body is rotating.

The Semicircular Canals
The semicircular canals are three half-circular, interconnected tubes located inside each ear that are the equivalent of three gyroscopes located in three planes perpendicular (at right angles) to each other. Each plane corresponds to the rolling, pitching, or yawing motions of an aircraft.

Each canal is filled with a fluid called endolymph and contains a motion sensor with little hairs whose ends are embedded in a gelatinous structure called the cupula. The cupula and the hairs move as the fluid moves inside the canal in response to an angular acceleration.



The movement of the hairs is similar to the movement of seaweed caused by ocean currents or that of wheat fields moved by wind gusts. When the head is still and the airplane is straight and level, the fluid in the canals does not move and the hairs stand straight up, indicating to the brain that there is no rotational acceleration (a turn).

If you turn either your aircraft or your head, the canal moves with your head, but the fluid inside does not move because of its inertia. As the canal moves, the hairs inside also move with it and are bent in the opposite direction of the acceleration by the stationary fluid (A). This hair movement sends a signal to the brain to indicate that the head has turned. The problem starts when you continue turning your aircraft at a constant rate (as in a coordinated turn) for more than 20 seconds. In this kind of turn, the fluid inside the canal starts moving initially, then friction causes it to catch up with the walls of the rotating canal (B). When this happens, the hairs inside the canal will return to their straight up position, sending an erroneous signal to the brain that the turn has stopped–when, in fact, the turn continues. If you then start rolling out of the turn to go back to level flight, the fluid inside the canal will continue to move (because of its inertia), and the hairs will now move in the opposite direction (C), sending an erroneous signal to the brain indicating that you are turning in the opposite direction, when in fact, you are actually slowing down from the original turn.

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