Explainer: Why figure skaters don’t get dizzy

Figure skating is one of the more popular sports for Canadians to watch during the Olympics. The artistic maneuvers mesmerize viewers and then leave us with a few lingering questions such as ‘How on earth can figure skaters spin round at speeds that would make anyone else dizzy enough to run for the bathroom?’

The short answer is that figure skaters are used to it. But we turn to science to explain why this is the case.

For the average person, our sense of location is controlled by liquid in our inner ears. When the liquid moves, tiny hairs inside our ears tell our brain about its new location. However, when we spin too fast, the fluid moves slower than our head, and the hairs send messages about the liquid’s location instead of our head’s real location. The mixed signals cause dizziness. Even when our head stops spinning, it takes a moment for the fluid to settle. This is why we often remain dizzy after we have stopped spinning. Once it settles, the fluid gets back into sync with the head.

For figure skaters, the brain works differently. Researchers at Imperial College London found that ballet dancers avoid feeling dizzy because they use a different part of the brain. After years of practice, the brain learns to disregard messages about fluid’s location. Instead, it relies on pre-programmed movements, which we call a routine. The more a routine is practiced, the more quickly and flawlessly the brain can perform it.

Figure skaters also minimize head movement to keep the ears’ liquid more still with a technique called spotting. We can perform spotting by rotating our body at a constant speed while keeping our head still, until we whip it around, ahead of the body. As the rest of our body catches up to the head, the liquid has a moment to settle, helping our brain stay oriented. We can also set our eyes on a fixed location each time we spin around so that the brain recognizes where we are and doesn’t get lost.

Using these strategies, figure skaters can keep us is awe while keeping themselves on their skates.

So the next time you watch figure skating, remember, it’s all in their heads – literally.