Balance is a very important part of life. We require balance when making decisions and a balanced mind when thinking, as well as that other type of balance (physical) so that we can perform daily activities. Each day of our lives, balance is necessary for one of the most common activities of mankind – walking!
Walking probably holds the second spot on the list of ‘the most taken for granted activities of humans’, right behind ‘breathing’. It usually seems so easy to walk around, even in our youngest years, without realizing how much our brain and legs are working together to make us perform such a seemingly simple activity.
If walking on a flat surface requires a moderate amount of help from the brain, what would it take when a person is walking on a very narrow surface, such as a rope or a railway track?
Focus, My Friend!
When a person walks along a regular surface, his/her brain doesn’t have to focus too much on the process of walking and can therefore multi-task easily. That is why you can talk on the phone, eat a burger, and walk at the same time. However, when the walking surface becomes a bit thinner, it is essential that the brain shut out all the other functions that it’s performing (barring the vital ones, like breathing) and concentrate on walking to ensure that you don’t fall over.
The brain has to direct all of its focus to the process of walking when there are less than comfortable or potentially dangerous conditions to handle.
How Does It Work?
Have you ever noticed that when you try walking on a narrow surface, you need to focus on a single point somewhere, or on a stationary object, to help you walk without falling over or losing your balance?
If you’ve never noticed this, then next time you go wandering on a trek somewhere and come across a railway track (without a train on it, obviously), try walking on the tracks while looking around at random objects or swiveling your head to look down at the ground. I’m pretty sure that you won’t be able to manage more than 10 steps before tumbling off. If you do manage to stay on the tracks, strolling along as though nothing is wrong, then congratulations! You must have some superpowers or something – or a future career as a tightrope walker!
In order to maintain balance, your body needs to establish a consistent position in space. To determine that, it combines three signals from the outside: head position from the inner ear, information about the positions of the muscles and joints that are helping you move, and a reference point from your eyes.
The inner ear system is responsible for coordinating the functions of these three factors. The inner ear system is a slightly mysterious aspect of our anatomy, and possesses three fluid-filled canals taking information from all three and detecting movements in different directions. When you are walking on a regular surface, there is little need for a precise or a static reference point from the eye, but in narrow or uncertain positions, this reference point is essential.
When it comes to a narrow surface, things inside our bodies begin to change. We want to remain balanced, and our body kicks into high gear. The system requires a particular reference point from the outside to mark the position of the body in space. Therefore, while balancing, focusing on a particular spot or object gives your brain a static reference point, allowing adjustments to be made accordingly and helping walk upright without falling.
Once you master this reference point skill, you’ll be well on your way to strolling along curbs and railroad tracks – or preparing for your career in the circus!