Sense of balance

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The sense of balance, functionally based on the vestibular system, is one of the twelve physical senses Rudolf Steiner spoke of in his theory of the senses. It enables us to perceive our posture and helps us to orientate ourselves in space. The central organs of the sense of balance are the vestibular system with its three semicircular canals in the inner ear and the centre of equilibrium in the cerebellum (vestibulocerebellum). Otoliths (from Greekὠτο- ōto- "ear" and λῐ́θος líthos, "stone"), little stones made of calcium carbonate in the saccule or utricle of the inner ear allow organisms, specifically vertebrates, including humans, to perceive linear acceleration, both horizontally and vertically (gravity). Other senses, namely visual perception, and reflexes also play a role for finding the right balance.

The three semicircular canals of the vestibular system are also of decisive importance for mathematical aptitude:

„Now, in man, mathematical talent depends preferably on the three canals in the middle ear which have something to do with equilibrium, and there is for man a kind of connection between this organ in the ear and between the whole nervous system constituting the spinal cord. For when man makes mathematical judgments, we can see that he is much more of a spectator than is usually believed. Mathematical judgements are much more self-made, and man is more a kind of automaton, especially in the field of mathematics. That is why it is one of the peculiarities of mathematics that one really has the urge to make the whole of mathematics into a kind of automaton. You only count to ten in our number system, then you count the tens and so on. In this way, all arithmetic is inwardly automated. There really is an inner regularity in the numbers that is bound to the Earth in a kind of mathematical automatism. In man this automatism does not have such a strong effect, because man is lifted out of this automatism and the power of judgement nevertheless steps in and holds down the whole mathematical automatism.“ (Lit.: Contributions 114-115, p. 66)

„We do not have just one sense in the ear, but basically two senses. When the canals are damaged and the arches become disordered, man gets vertigo; he cannot orient himself in the three dimensions of space. It is the sense of orientation, [gravitational sense]; this is even the older sense of the ear. Even in lower animals, organs are not lacking that are similar to the half-hump-shaped tubules; in them are small stones, they are called otoliths, which move when the animal changes its position. In very lower animals, where there is no question of hearing, we find these small stones - the sense of orientation. Even in plants we find cells, preferably in the root tip, which contain loosely lying small starch grains. These have a special task. Plants grow vertically out of the Earth, in the upward direction of gravity. How do they find their way? They have a sense of direction through the starch grains. The root is the head of the plant; when it turns around, the otoliths have formed. We don't find them in moon plants - like mistletoe, for example.

You see that the plant has one pole towards the Earth, the other pole goes towards the Sun. The leaves strive towards the Sun; as far as they can, they stand perpendicular to the Sun. The plant leaf is made up of cells; on the surface of green leaves there are cells which are slightly curved outwards and flat downwards. Each such cell is like a lens with the bright focal point in the middle. Only when the part is vertical does the focal point fall into the centre, otherwise it falls back; it is like the eyes of insects.

Thus the plant seeks the sun pole and the earth pole. This is the peculiarity of the light beings or plant beings. Every prana being has these two poles, one to the ground on which it grows, the other to the source which gives it the life forces. As long as man was a solar being, he was like that. Man has turned round, thereby transforming his old sense, the sense of gravitation, and now, on entering the mental, he adds the sense of hearing and develops the corresponding organ through which he becomes a creator. To hearing is added the larynx, a sense organ which becomes the organ of will. Both correspond to each other. The Earth produces gravitation, the ear perceives gravitation. Now the force is in the human being after he has torn himself away from the Earth. The turned gravitational force in the spirit, the word, he must now bring forth.“ (Lit.:GA 91, p. 181f)

The activity of the sense of equilibrium is essentially based on the fact that the etheric body is penetrated by the spirit self (manas) and thereby expands elastically. This also thins the astral body without being pressed out of the etheric body. As a result, the physical substance can also stretch and expand and form the three semicircular canals and the astral body can balance itself with the environment.

„We now come to a third element which can permeate the etheric body of man. This third element is also something which man today already possesses in part, but which he has brought into his consciousness only to the very smallest extent, namely Manas or Spirit Self. But because it is man's earthly task to develop this Manas, it is understandable that it has a different effect on the etheric body than the life-spirit or spirit-man, which are only to be developed in the distant future. It has an expansive effect on the etheric body, not a constrictive one, and the consequence of this is that the opposite of that which has been called the frosty in the sense of life occurs. One could compare the effect of Manas on the etheric body with the influx of warmth into a room. Something like a stream of heat pours into the etheric body when Manas enters and expands it elastically. The consequence of this is that the astral body is also diluted and can expand with it, but without being pressed out; it can remain within the expanding etheric body. Whereas the sensation of life is based on the astral body being pressed out, what has been called the static sense or sense of equilibrium arises from the etheric body being expanded and at the same time the astral body being given more room inwardly. The astral body becomes less dense, it becomes thinner. As a result of this thinning of the astral and etheric body, there is now also the possibility for the physical substance to somehow stretch and expand. Through the action of Atma the physical body was contracted, through the action of Budhi it was kept in equilibrium, but through the action of Manas the physical body is relieved, and as the etheric body also expands, it can push out its particles in certain places. Through such pushing out, those organs, the three small semicircular canals in the ear, which stand perpendicular to each other, corresponding to the three directions of space, have also come into being. They are, so to speak, extensions of the sensuous matter of the physical body. Such organs arise in the most varied ways as new formations, as marvellous structures, which do not come into being by being driven from within, but by the fact that the pressure from without ceases, that is to say, becomes less and relief comes. Through the fact that the astral body can expand further, it is able to enter into a relationship with the outer world. It must bring itself into balance with this outer world. If this does not happen, the human being stands crooked or even falls over. For the first two senses this was out of the question, but this sense has the task of balancing itself. If we strive into something, we must strive into it as far as we can; for example, we must strive into space in its three directions. Therefore, those three semicircular canals in the ear grow perpendicular to each other in the three directions of space. If these organs are injured, the static sense ceases to function and man suffers vertigo, fainting spells and the like. Where animals are concerned, the situation is such that the animals have descended too early into physical matter, so that in them the physical matter has hardened even more. Stone formations, the otoliths, appear. They are deposited in such a way that the equilibrium can be measured and felt by them.“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 37ff)

See also


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.