The Vestibular Sense

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basic functions of the vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic sensory systems

The Vestibular Sense, Proprioception, and Kinesthesia

The vestibular sense contributes to our ability to maintain balance and body posture. As Figure 1 shows, the major sensory organs (utricle, saccule, and the three semicircular canals) of this system are located next to the cochlea in the inner ear. The vestibular organs are fluid-filled and have hair cells, similar to the ones found in the auditory system, which respond to movement of the head and gravitational forces. When these hair cells are stimulated, they send signals to the brain via the vestibular nerve. Although we may not be consciously aware of our vestibular system’s sensory information under normal circumstances, its importance is apparent when we experience motion sickness and/or dizziness related to infections of the inner ear (Khan & Chang, 2013).

An illustration of the vestibular system shows the locations of the three canals (“posterior canal,” “horizontal canal,” and “superior canal”) and the locations of the “urticle,” “oval window,” “cochlea,” “basilar membrane and hair cells,” “saccule,” and “vestibule.”

Figure 1. The major sensory organs of the vestibular system are located next to the cochlea in the inner ear. These include the utricle, saccule, and the three semicircular canals (posterior, superior, and horizontal).

In addition to maintaining balance, the vestibular system collects information critical for controlling movement and the reflexes that move various parts of our bodies to compensate for changes in body position. Therefore, both proprioception (perception of body position) and kinesthesia (perception of the body’s movement through space) interact with information provided by the vestibular system.

These sensory systems also gather information from receptors that respond to stretch and tension in muscles, joints, skin, and tendons (Lackner & DiZio, 2005; Proske, 2006; Proske & Gandevia, 2012). Proprioceptive and kinesthetic information travels to the brain via the spinal column. Several cortical regions in addition to the cerebellum receive information from and send information to the sensory organs of the proprioceptive and kinesthetic systems.

Definition Application
Vestibular Sense Sensory system that contributes to balance and the sense of spatial orientation. You have an ear infection and frequently feel dizzy. Or if you were to experience vertigo, you might feel like your entire body was spinning in space and be unable to walk.
Propioception The sense of the position of parts of the body, relative to other neighboring parts of the body. Focuses on the  body’s cognitive awareness of movement. You step off a curb and know where to put your foot. You push an elevator button and control how hard you have to press down with your fingers.
Kinesthesia Awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body using sensory organs in joints and muscles. Kinesthesia is a key component in muscle memory and hand-eye coordination. It is more behavioral than propioception. You are aware of your arm movement while swinging a golf club. Focuses on the body’s movements and not on equilibrium or balance.

Watch It

Review the things you learned about the senses in the following CrashCourse video.

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Glossary

kinesthesia: perception of the body’s movement through space
proprioception: perception of body position
vestibular sense: contributes to our ability to maintain balance and body posture