Posted by Joseph Anderson
In the 1920s the sky scraper construction boom in Manhattan was made possible in large part by the Mohawk Native Tribe of Quebec, Canada. Unlike other construction workers, the Mohawk showed no fear of heights and were known for preferring the most exposed and precarious jobs available, showing a sense of pride and accomplishment the more exposed they were. Ever since this time, the Mohawks and later other native tribes have been credited to building most of New York’s and Chicago’s skyline. Why is this? Why are most people unable to withstand this kind of exposure without some extreme discomfort or even debilitating effect while others such as the Mohawks are seemingly unaffected? How can one person scamper around at great heights as if they were a foot off of the ground while others at the same heights are reduced to overwhelming anxiety?
Vertigo was introduced into the English language in the early 16th century using the Latin root word vert (to turn). The original meaning of Vertigo being: a spinning, or whirling sensation or loss of balance. It was often used to describe an adverse reaction to heights. From the beginning Vertigo is the best description of what happens to people when they are “overwhelmed” by exposed heights. Your head starts to spin, you lose balance, and in extreme cases you experience nausea. Vertigo is what happens to you when your vestibular system is overwhelmed.
The current definition of Vertigo is: a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve. This area of the inner ear, part of the vestibular system, is command central for ones sense of balance and equilibrium. Branching out from your inner ear and into your brain is the Limbic System. This system is responsible for emotional processing of your body in space and is a primary player in emotion, behavior, motivation and long term memory. So for example, when overwhelmed with heights, the limbic system is activated and you feel fear. In extreme cases when your limbic system is overstimulated, your vestibular system becomes overwhelmed giving the sensation of spinning and loss of balance which we call Vertigo.
The limbic and vestibular system work together with the nervous system, muscles and joints as the proprioceptive system. Together, this system helps you understand the big picture relating to your body in space. When overwhelmed by for example sickness, alcohol or exposure to heights your compromised proprioceptive system causes one to lose balance, stumble or fall.
So it turns out that the Mohawks attribute their lack of fear and great balance to walking across thin logs over rivers from a young age. There abilities have most likely evolved from a time when there was great need to travel in heavily forested landscape with many rivers and creeks. The result is that within this emotionally supported environment they developed skills which resulted in strengthened limbic and vestibular systems.
During the late 19th century a new word was introduced into the English language derived from two ancient Greek roots, acrophobia (acron = heights, phobia = fear). In our culture today acrophobia (fear of heights) and the resulting vertigo are encouraged. Cliff sides have warnings of bright colors, railings, signs stating KEEP AWAY for example. The average American rarely has opportunities to encounter exposure without some level of over the top safety barrier that screams out DANGER therefore extinguishing opportunities to strengthen ones proprioceptive intelligence in relationship to exposure. Granted, any sort of sport or physical activity will strengthen these systems but our culture is committed to providing mental cues associating exposed heights with fear. When confronted with heights the default is set for emotional trauma in the limbic system and we are therefore left with a likely pathway to learned Vertigo.
Our ability to deal with heights is like a muscle. As a culture, the Mohawks entire proprioceptive intelligence was encouraged and strengthened at a young age. It could be that they adapted to this the same way that the Sherpas in Nepal are genetically adapted to the thinner air of the Himalayas. We however are left with dumbed down hardware for dealing with heights.
The good news is this internal hardware can be made stronger just like when you lift weights your muscles become stronger. It is increasingly clear that continued, controlled, and steadily increasing exposure to heights in a fashion that does not overload the system allowing the participant to remain in control rather than in “fight or flight” response will strengthen one’s proprioceptive intelligence and help to prevent Vertigo.
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Michelle Anderson LMHC