Rocks in your ears?

A couple of days ago, when I wrote the post about business and laziness, I mentioned that I had learned the word “otiose,” which means being at leisure, ineffective, or useless.

While I was in the dictionary looking for related words, I came across all the words beginning with the oto- prefix. You might be most familiar with this from the medical specialties otolaryngology (ear and throat) or otorhinolaryngology (including also the nose). I considered mentioning this prefix when I brought up “otiose,” but decided that a post with 2 or 3 words each in English and Spanish was already full enough. “I’ll save that for another day,” I thought to myself.

I didn’t know it would be so soon.

I’m currently reading Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach. She is the author of Spook, which examines the existing science on the afterlife; Stiff, which takes a thorough look at what happens to human cadavers; and Bonk, which gives the same freakishly detailed attention to sex. Anyone who can get her husband to have sex in an MRI tube, all in the pursuit of increased understanding of the beast with two backs, has my respect. She also has my interest when she puts a new book out. Packing for Mars was published in August, 2010.

Roach explores the characteristics that space agencies look for in astronauts, the psychology of being in space, the effects of weightlessness on the body, sex in space (you spend most of your time just trying to hold on), and food in space. But the place I stumbled on a new-to-me word with the oto- prefix was in the chapter “Throwing Up and Down: The Astronaut’s Secret Misery.” It turns out that zero gravity is very likely to induce motion sickness. The visual cues that an astronaut’s brain receives about which way is up or down are really scrambled, because there is no consistent up or down! The chapter says that it’s not uncommon for an astronaut to need to hurl after seeing a colleague who is oriented in the other direction. All this motion sickness is a normal human response, but it’s seen by many as a sign of weakness. As a result, NASA has always been full of closet pukers who refused to tell Houston that they were losing their squeeze-packet lunches.

Scientists have known for a long time now that balance and motion sickness are controlled by what’s going on in the inner ear, and that’s where today’s word comes in.

Otolith = oto-, “ear” + -lith, “stone.”

Otoliths are tiny pebbles contained in the inner ear. Their position relative to that chamber—what side they are lying on and touching—is what tells your brain which way is up. If your visual sensory data conflicts with the data from your otoliths, the brain gets confused. It turns out that the area of the brain that is right next to the balance part is the emetic brain, i.e. the vomiting center. The fact that you might toss your cookies on the deck of that yacht is just a vagary of cerebral evolution that put these two areas next to each other.

I have a tendency to get motion sick, and I picked up a tip in the book that might help me. I already knew to look at the horizon or out of the front of the vehicle, but I also now know that minimizing my head movements could reduce my reaction. Next time I’m on the bus, I will try to keep those otoliths still.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Retired private investigator and Spanish court interpreter. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, in New Mexico by choice. Lover of things purple. Passionate participant in the Librivox audiobook recording project. We record books that are in the public domain in the U.S. The recordings are then placed in the public domain themselves.
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