About five months ago I had a sinus or inner ear infection that was routinely unpleasant. It was different, however, in that it left me with a minor but specific disruption in my sense of balance. At the onset, when I got up from a prone position it produced a fascinating, almost psychedelic effect that took over my consciousness, flashing colourfully as my mind cruised very near the edge of unconsciousness.
Dr. Google suggested it may be labyrinthitis. Not quite, though. I also looked through Wikipedia for “proprioception”. Interesting, but…
I assumed that the effect and its underlying cause would eventually repair itself. Well, the flashy colours are mostly gone, but my sense of balance is still affected in that specific manner. After I lie back on a pillow, then start to get up, the effect takes over for a few seconds.
It’s like a reverse mercury switch – the regular one consists of a small blob of mercury rolling about inside a glass capsule, and two contacts sticking through the glass wall form a bridge by the mercury only when the capsule is in a particular orientation. Instead, imagine a capsule woven with contacts everywhere – except for a specific location, where contact is on the edge of being lost.
Balance results from the integration by the brain of three inputs. One’s eyes produce, in effect, the cognitive feedback. In seeing one’s bodily orientation with respect to objects and a horizon, the brain gathers that the body is vertical or otherwise.
Somatic feedback comes from the muscles and joints. If seated, receptors will send their signals to indicate that fact. (“Flying by the seat of one’s pants” is famously what a pilot should not do, as those somatic receptors quickly become tired and stop signaling after a few minutes, allowing the pilot to feel that the plane is still level.)
The vestibular system is next to one’s inner ears. It is the “accelerometer” that reports movements of the head in the way that a cellphone’s accelerometer will signal the view on a phone screen to flip as you change its orientation.
I think the bug of five months ago affected either a small part of one of the semicircular canals of my vestibular system, or the route along which signals are sent to that part of the brain that is the accumulator of all the signals that comprise the sense of balance.
So, my question is: why should that small signal disruption have such a critical effect on consciousness?
If your cellphone’s accelerometer is turned off and the screen no longer flips, the rest of the phone’s functions continue happily blinking and beeping at you. If an injury leaves you with no feeling below your chest, your consciousness is not disrupted.
What is this connection between balance and consciousness? The combined wisdom of the internet is not helpful in answering that simple question. This could be important.
What do you think?