If you have been following the Tokyo Olympics this Summer, you have likely heard about American gymnast Simone Biles suffering from a case of what she calls “the twisties,” causing her to withdraw from several Olympic events. But what exactly are “the twisties” and what does that have to do with ears? Gymnasts describe it as losing control of their body mid-trick and losing sense of where they are in the air. The sensation is not only disorienting, it’s dangerous and can lead to serious injury.
The human brain uses three sensory systems to stay upright: the vestibular (or inner ear) system, the visual system, and the somatosensory (or proprioception) system. While in motion, like when a gymnast is performing a skill, the brain receives input from these three systems and compares them to an “internal model” of what the move should feel like based on past experiences. Essentially, gymnasts and other athletes tirelessly train so that they can perform complicated movements easily and with “muscle memory”. However, in certain situations, such as the Olympics, athletes may try to compensate for increased psychological stress by trying to consciously control movements that were previously automatic. The brain then loses the ability to initiate learned motor sequencies, resulting in what we now know as “the twisties.”
As it turns out. “the twisties” is fairly common in the sport of gymnastics, as more and more current and former athletes are speaking out about their experiences with this condition. More information on the science behind “the twisties” and Simone Biles performance at the Olympics can be found online in the coming weeks.