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Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense

Scott McCredie

Little, Brown and Company; (June 12, 2007)

Although vital to our well-being and even to our success as a species, the physical sense of balance has never attained the same recognition as sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Now, with an epidemic of debilitating falls sweeping America's aging population, the time is ripe for a lively and illuminating tour of the human body's most exquisitely intricate and least understood faculty.

Balance

balance - in search of the lost sense

is the first book written for a general audience that examines the mysteries of the human balance system--the astonishingly complicated mechanisms that allow our bodies to counteract the force of gravity as we move through space. A scientific, historical, and practical exploration of how balance works, BALANCE also provides the keys to remaining upright for as long as humanly possible. From simple motion sickness to astronauts' "space stupids," and from fetal somersaults to the Flying Wallendas, McCredie guides readers on a delightful quest to elevate balance to its rightful place in the pantheon of the senses.

What Mark Kurlanksy did for salt in his popular nonfiction, "Salt: A World History," Scott McCredie does for balance. (Not "balance" in the psychological sense. Balance, as in how we don't go around falling down all the time.) It's a tough sell at first — nearly 300 meticulously cited pages on how the inner ear functions? Really? — but it's actually a fascinating read.read more

Haley EdwardsThe Seattle Times

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Editorial Reviews

Without a Net

In the early 1860s, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then a brash Harvard undergraduate, wrote an essay criticizing Plato, whose classifications of ideas he found “loose and unscientific.” Holmes sent a copy of the essay to Emerson, whose books, he later said, had “set me on fire.” He soon received in return a nugget of stern wisdom. “I have read your piece,” Emerson replied. “When you strike at a king you must kill him.”

I recalled this bit of advice recently while reading Scott McCredie’s spirited first book, “Balance,” which opens with the gutsy Holmesian salvo “Aristotle was wrong.” The error in question is Aristotle’s contention, advanced in his treatise “De Anima” in the fourth century B.C. and perpetuated ever since by kindergarten teachers around the world, that there are five, and only five, human senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. McCredie has made it his mission to crack this bit of dogma by elevating balance into the sensory canon, on the basis of its evolutionary antiquity (540 million years, give or take), its necessity for well-being and survival (it is likely impossible to live without), and its surprising relationship to human cognition. Balance, McCredie argues, “may prove to be the most primary — as in primordial, life-sustaining, essential — of all the senses.”

Broadly speaking, McCredie is right. Scientists now agree that the classical five senses are not the only avenues through which we gather information about the world around and, equally important, inside us. Aristotle failed to specify proprioception (the sense of how our body parts are positioned in space relative to one another), equilibrioception (the sense of linear acceleration and head position), thermoception (the sense of heat and cold) and nociception (the sense of pain). Some scientists include hunger and thirst on the list of senses, so that the matter of how many we have, while undoubtedly more than Aristotle suggested, remains unclear. read more

Daniel B. SmithThe New York Times

Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance

Scott McCredie is a Seattle-based health and science writer who says he “discovered” what he calls “the lost sense” of balance after he watched in horror as his 67-year-old father tumbled off a boulder and disappeared from sight during a hike in the Cascades.

Though his father hurt little more than his pride, Mr. McCredie became intrigued by what might have caused this experienced hiker, an athletic and graceful man, to lose his balance suddenly. His resulting science-and-history-based exploration led to a book, “Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense,” published last June by Little, Brown. Noting that each year one in three Americans 65 and older falls, and that falls and their sometimes disastrous medical consequences are becoming more common as the population ages, Mr. McCredie wonders why balance is not talked about in fitness circles as often as strength training, aerobics and stretching. He learned that the sense of balance begins to degrade in one’s 20s and that it is downhill — literally and figuratively — from there unless steps are taken to preserve or restore this delicate and critically important ability to maintain equilibrium. Vertigo, which can be caused by inner ear infections, low blood pressure, brain injuries, certain medications and some chronic diseases, is loss of balance in the extreme. Anyone who has experienced it — even if just from twirling in a circle — knows how disorienting and dangerous it can be. Really, without a sense of balance, just about everything else in life can become an insurmountable obstacle. read more

Jane E. BrodyThe New York Times

From Booklist

After the shock of seeing his fit father fall for no apparent reason, award-winning journalist McCredie became curious about the physiology of equilibrium. His extensive and creative research has led him to conclude that balance is the overlooked sixth sense and crucial to our survival. McCredie delineates his fascinating discoveries in a vividly informative and absorbing blend of medical history and case studies, marveling over the fact that it wasn't until the twentieth century that scientists gained any accurate understanding of the truly miraculous workings of the inner ear. Through studies of motion sickness and vertigo, it eventually became clear that the human balance system involves three sensory inputs: vision, proprioception (the body's ability to perceive its own motion), and the amazing vestibular functions. McCredie matches body mechanics with astonishing tales of acrobats, astronauts, and maverick researchers who discovered that simple exercises not only strengthen our sense of balance but also improve cognitive skills. McCredie offers practical advice for maintaining one's equilibrium and acuity and rekindles deep appreciation for life's incredible exactitude and grace.

Seaman, Donnaa division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Future Projects

Riding the Jet Stream

Near the base of the stratosphere, 35,000 to 40,000 ft. above the earth, the jet stream offers free west-east transportation to airplanes that can find it and stay in it. It is a hard trick to do, but last week a B-47 bomber stayed in the jet stream most of the way from March Air Force Base, Calif, to Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., and made the 2,700-mile trip in 3 hr. 47 min. at the average ground speed of 714 m.p.h.—setting an unofficial record. Major Mont Smith, commander of the B-47, gave...