If you’re a parent, this is not news to you: Kids love the swings. So much, in fact, that little kids seem to be able to swing endlessly, for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes, without tiring of it a bit.
I observed this in my own children and, having liked the swings myself as a lad, decided to hop on one as a thirty-something dad.
Within seconds I made a startling discovery: Swings make geezers like me sick really, really fast. Just a minute or two into the fun, and I found I was dizzy, uncomfortable and sloshing toward outright nausea. That got me wondering, what has changed so profoundly between childhood and adulthood that makes this kind of motion go from exhilarating to intolerable?
First I did a reality check with other parents on the playground: What was it like when you tried out the swings as a grownup? “After I had a child it’s like, whoa, I can’t do these anymore.” “I do get a little dizzy.” “Suddenly the swings make you a lot more sick than they used to.”
Not everyone answered this way, but a majority did. I’m clearly not alone.
I wondered if something physiological changes as you age, something in your inner ear maybe that throws off your balance? I called neurologist Bernie Cohen of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, a widely respected expert on the vestibular system. He told me, first of all, that any change was more likely neurological or psychological rather than physical. And he told me that, basically, science doesn’t know the answer.
“If you look to see what the scientific basis for it is, it’s not there,” he said. “And I think that the reason may be that it’s very difficult to do those kinds of experiments with children. I mean parents don’t want to subject their kids to motion sickness.”
Never one to shrink from a challenge, I dragged my own four-year-old, Oliver, into the Balance and Dizziness Center at the University of Washington Medical Center, and subjected us both to some tests.
Balance Is A Complex Brew
Dr. James Phillips outfitted us, one at a time, to test-drive a contraption that administers computerized dynamic posturography. It looks a bit like a three-walled phone booth with a metal plate on the floor. A harness helpfully secures you to the ceiling so you don’t, you know, fall over. And then a series of tests measures how you respond as the plate moves, or the booth moves, or both – sometimes with your eyes open and sometimes closed.
Oliver and I both “passed,” insofar as we don’t have impaired vestibular systems.
But what the test illustrates is that balance doesn’t come only from our inner ears. As the brain processes information from our ears, it also receives data from our eyes and our ankles. All that information, along with an understanding of how things like gravity and matter work, forms the brew that is our sense of balance.
And in that department, kids tend to fall a little short.
Resilience And Plasticity
“We have lots of expectations about the nature of the world, and how that sensory information combines with information from our eyes and from our ankles, whereas kids don’t,” Phillips said.
He said while that means kids have less skill, in some sense, they are more resilient when information from those different sources conflicts, or when it doesn’t line up with how the world is “supposed” to behave – such as when it goes up and down and backwards and forwards on a playground swing.
“In some situations they can do better. The conflict that we sense, they're not as sensitive to,” Phillips said.
One ray of hope for us swing-impaired geriatrics: The vestibular system and this whole cluster of sensory pathways stay very flexible, even into adulthood. That means you can train yourself to tolerate a whole range of discomfiting motions. So with a regular training regimen of swinging – maybe with some monkey bars thrown in for good measure – I might be able to hang with Oliver by the time summer rolls around.
Editor's Note: This story originally ran on our program "Sound Effect," which airs Saturdays at 10 a.m.