Don’t Panic! The Neuroscience behind falling into Balance w/ Vivek Pandey Vimal

Signature:78379061d4d0474729cc9f2f2dbbf228ce23aaef9e376555fe5b76861c65ff0aAre balance and movement something that can be culturally shaped? Why aren’t female rats being used in drug studies? In this episode of This Anthropological Life we team up with Vivekanand Pandey Vimal to talk about his research that explores how people learn to balance when their sensory systems are taken away. We then relate studies on balance and movement to anthropology and discuss the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration. Show notes by Nina Oria-Loureiro.

Listen to this week’s podcast to learn more about

  • Vivek’s experiments
  • Rats
  • Collaboration
  • Balancing on skyscrapers

Who is Vivek?

Vivekanand Pandey Vimal is a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Brandeis University. He is part of the Deisortium that seeks to bring together multiple disciplines in order to create a collaborative space to discuss and formulate ideas. Vivek’s research focuses on the processes behind human balance. He conducts his research at the Ashton Graybiel  Spatial Orientation Lab with The Multiple Axes Rotation and Tilt Device (M.A.R.T) a.k.a. “the beast”. He is also the proud father of two rats, Her Royal Highness Princess Herpes the I and Her Royal Highness Princess Herpes III.

Helpful Vocab

Vestibular System:  is located in your inner ear and  provides your body with information about its movement (i.e. direction of movement, equilibrium, and gravitational vertical).

Otolith: are very fine hairs within the vestibular system that float in a gelatinous material and have crystalline structures attached to them. They are pulled by gravity, which gives you a reference point of how to move to be in equilibrium.

Experimenting: Let’s See How They Balance When They Can’t Sense Anything!

Everyone loses their balance at times, but not everyone is strapped into a forcefully tilting device. Vivek straps his participants into “the beast”, deprives them of their senses, and observes how they try to upright themselves when the machine tilts. The participants are instructed to use a joystick attached to “the beast” to upright themselves. His participants tend to panic and forcibly jerk the joystick, which causes the tilting to get more intense. Over time, the participants learn that it is the “deliberate and gentle” movement of the joystick that will bring them back in balance. Vivek observed that his panicked participants often came out of the experiment “in a meditative nirvana state”.

He wonders if the lessons from this experiment transfer to our experience of the world. That,

“Sometimes things will sway in the direction of right sometimes things will sway in the direction of the left and sometimes you just have to let the machine fall a little bit before you do a very deliberate gentle properly timed movement that will allow the system to restore back to the balance point.”

Listen to the podcast for more on Vivek’s experiments!

Try This At Home!

When becoming unbalanced you may find yourself flailing around for something to stabilize yourself. Often, all you need is to touch one finger to a stable object and you will find yourself perfectly balanced. However, your finger is not exhibiting enough force to hold your weight. Instead, it is getting sensory information so you can better understand how you are moving, and adjust without overcompensating. Placing your finger on a table or wall to stabilize yourself functions similarly to the way animals use their tails to understand their environments and their axis of balance.

Listen to the Podcast to learn more about cat tails!

Try This: Stand in a position that will definitely unbalance you (i.e. standing with one leg, squatting on one leg, etc.), but make sure you are near a table or something stable. When you lose your balance, place one finger on the table. How fast were you able to regain your balance? Were you exerting a lot of force on your finger?

Have you ever carried a box down the stairs and felt like you might fall? Well Vivek knows why! Your brain is constantly taking in information about your environment, so it is able to make predictions about how the environment is working, which allows you to walk down stairs without looking at your feet. You develop an internal representation of reality that is filled with your brain’s expectations as to what will happen, where things will be, and how forces will be acting on you.

The addition of a box that takes away your ability to look down makes you more likely to fall because you no longer are able to get the continuous feedback from your environment and your internal reality may be wrong.

So what happens when your reality is altered from what you expected it to be?

Experiments have been conducted in the rotating room at Ashton Graybiel  Spatial Orientation Lab  to better understand what happens when our internal representation of reality is wrong. The researchers would put people in the rotating room and have them reach forward towards a specific point, but they found that their arms would always end up deviating from the point they were trying to reach. After being asked to repeat this 20 or so times, the participants were able to adapt to this new environment and touch the point. Once the room stopped rotating, the participants could no longer reach successfully and had to relearn the movement outside of the rotating room. The participants learned to compensate in the rotating environment, but when they were taken out, their muscle memories were in a state of shock and they had to be reconditioned to work in their original environment.

Check Out These Videos for a Visual of the Coriolis Effect:

Coriolis Effect

Coriolis Effect:National Geographic

What about Culture You Ask?

Neuroscientists are not the only researchers interested in human bodies in motion.  Marcel Mauss was a sociologist known for his theories on reciprocity and the gift, but he was also interested in the ways culture shapes how people physically carry themselves. His article,“Techniques of the body”, focuses on how people carry themselves due to their learned environments. He takes into account both the social and physical environment in shaping how people move. For instance, using chairs will reflect a different type of movement than sitting on the ground. You would not be aware of the shaping processes behind how you were moving, you just move. However, if you were to travel to another culture, you would find practices and movements much different from your own. Just like in the rotating room, you would be shocked and would have to learn the new social and physical rules of the new culture.

Listen to the Podcast to learn more about Vivek’s experiences with culturally shaped movement

Anthropology can add to scientific experimentation. When thinking about Vivek’s experiments we should consider who are his participants. As Adam questions,

“What if you put Peruvian farmers in the machine? Would they operate differently? They live at 1200ft. Would they operate differently in terms of balance? Would we see similarities cross culturally?”

Why We Need Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Vivek had a lot to say about the need for multidisciplinary collaborations in science. His main concerns were surrounding the idea of a statistically average human who is supposed to represent all of humanity. In response to a more collaborative approach to his research, Vivek said,

“Typical scientists run 20 people or 100 mice, and get an average and a standard deviation, then bam! There’s your data, but within those 20 humans there is differences between each of the people and not enough emphasis goes into analyzing the differences between these people and how they manifest in these… you know… different tasks we are doing that are very controlled. This would be a beautiful collaboration if we bring people in who are less anxiety prone. People who have developed mechanisms.. Would they converge to the solution at being at peace with the machine…People who have this cultural/ philosophical background of peace and balancing who knows maybe they would converge at this solution faster?”

Through collaboration, we can get at more complex questions and develop solutions that better fit the uniqueness of people. The Toronto Star writes about the Air Force’s process for designing a new cockpit for their pilots. Their first strategy was to sample a bunch of pilots and make an average pilot from that data, then design a cockpit to best fit the average. This failed because looking at the average pilot neglects the unique characteristics of each individual pilot.  Thus, the average design would be uncomfortable in some way for each person. Instead, the Air Force designed cockpits to fit with the specific pilot they wanted in each aircraft thus taking the idea of the average statistical human out of the equation.

Multidisciplinary collaboration should also be utilized in the field of medicine. When Vivek’s grandmother was sick from taking psychoactive drugs, he began to think about the consequences of designing medicine for the average human.

“I start thinking about well  how are we doing medicine?  You have clinical trials that may have 10,000, 100,000 people on average that you give this drug to and you get some specific dosage. Maybe it is specific to gender. Half the time it is not because many animals models are all male because they don’t want to deal with the female hormonal cycles of the animals.”

The obvious problem with avoiding using the female rats is that female biology is not being considered in the creation of drugs. Therefore, the average already being applied is leaving out a majority of the population simply because females are not being included. In addition, this imagined average human patient will not take into consideration the unique traits of each person, which might cause them to be affected differently by the drug than the average statistical human.

Or as Vivek puts it,

“We need this personalization. This anthro approach.  If you are averaging across 100,000 people it’s not going to be optimal to anyone. You need to find ways to tailor this to each person and not just weight, age, and sometimes gender. “

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