DIZZINESS — A Resource

Keeping our bodily balance is a continuous performance, including the effort to keep the erect posture against gravity. However, since this performance remains strictly subliminal we become aware of the state of equilibrium only in the event of disruption: in the very moment we loose our balance, stumble and fall, or more generally, when the relation between the body and the surrounding world is irritated, disturbed, or interrupted as it is characteristic in the state of vertigo.

Rebekka Ladewig
Spatial Confusion.
Episodes from the
Experimental History of Vertigo

Keeping our bodily balance is a continuous performance, including the effort to keep the erect posture against gravity. However, since this performance remains strictly subliminal we become aware of the state of equilibrium only in the event of disruption: in the very moment we loose our balance, stumble and fall, or more generally, when the relation between the body and the surrounding world is irritated, disturbed, or interrupted as it is characteristic in the state of vertigo. As the philosopher Mark Johnson put it:

“The experience of balance is so pervasive and so absolutely basic for our coherent experience of the world, and for our survival in it, that we are seldom ever aware of its presence. We almost never reflect on the nature and meaning of balance, and yet without it our physical reality would be utterly chaotic, like the wildly spinning world of a very intoxicated person. The structure of our balance is one of the key threads that holds our physical experience together as a relatively coherent and meaningful whole.” (Johnson 1987, 74)

It is not a coincidence that the vestibular system responsible for bodily equilibrium was discovered at a relatively late point in the history of physiology, and even less so that the history of its discovery was closely intertwined with the experimentation of vertigo. Only through rigorously scrutinizing, experimenting, measuring and calibrating the manifestations of vertigo over a period of at least 80 years, the organ responsible for the physiological workings of vertigo was discovered in the labyrinth of the inner ear. The French philosopher and epistemologist Georges Canguilhem once argued with regard to the intrinsic logic of physiological research that “one does not discover an organ’s function by asking what it is used for”, but on the contrary, “by following the various moments and aspects of a function does one find the organ or apparatus responsible for it” (Canguilhem 2008, 6 f.). This is even more evident with regard to an organ whose function had been linked to the sense of hearing since antiquity. In the physiology of the senses the fact that the ear was reserved for hearing and the auditory system was an “epistemological obstacle,” as Gaston Bachelard called it (Bachelard 2002, 24ff.) The following account on the early history of the experimentation of vertigo around 1800 could then be conceived of as the first steps on the physiological journey into the labyrinth of the inner ear and its functioning.


Erasmus Darwin: Seasickness and visual vertigo

One of the initial cornerstones to overcome this obstacle can be seen in the work of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In his study Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, a comprehensive textbook on the anatomy, pathology and physiology of animal life, the first volume of which was published in 1794, Darwin highlighted vertigo as a “natural expression of life”. Even though most of the conclusions he drew from his experiments were refuted by his fellow member in the Royal Society, William Charles Wells, a Scottish natural philosopher specialized in the field of optics, Darwin was the first to align vertigo with the laws of physiology and to conceive of it as a physiological phenomenon.

However, a closer look at the experiments Darwin conducted on vertigo reveals a highly accidental configuration of agents. To begin with, it was during a sea voyage that Darwin’s attention was drawn to dizziness. In the chapter Of Vertigo in the Zoonomia under the caption „Attention of the Mind Prevents Slight Sea-Sickness,“ Darwin writes:

“In an open boat passing from Leath to Kinghorn in Scottland, a sudden change of wind shook the undistended sail, and stopt our boat; from this unusual movement the passengers all vomited except myself. I observed, that the undulation of the ship, and the instability of all visible objects, inclined me strongly to be sick; and this continued or increased, when I closed my eyes, but as often as I bent my attention with energy on the management and mechanism of the ropes and sails, the sickness ceased; and recurred again, as often as I relaxed this attention.” (Darwin 1794, 333f.)

This description is noteworthy: In an everyday situation, yet from close observation, Darwin infers that fixing the gaze at one point is an effective means against seasickness, and against visual vertigo in the first place. The anecdotal account is all the more important as it contains the explanatory model Darwin would later apply to the causes of vertigo. For according to Darwin, the occurrence of irritations in visual perception and, subsequently dizziness originated in unfamiliar movement and motion sequences, i.e. in a lack of routine, practice, habit, or experience. This holds for all different kinds of motions, as Darwin writes,

“If first an European mounts an elephant sixteen feet high, and whose mode of motion he is not accustomed to, the objects seem to undulate, as he passes, and he frequently becomes sick and vertiginous […]. Any other unusual movement of our bodies has the same effect, as riding backwards in a coach, swinging on a rope, turning round swiftly on one leg, seating on the ice, and a thousand others.” (Darwin 1794, 331)

Accordingly he recommends, „[…] to prevent sea sickness it is probable, that the habit of swinging for a week or two before going on shipboard might be of service.“ (Darwin 1794, 365). Just like the experience of the train ride that has been highlighted by theoreticians such as Jonathan Crary, Wolfgang Schivelbusch as well as, much earlier, by Ernst Mach as the paradigmatic site of a new spatial experience in the 19th century – accelertation, panoramatic view, dissolution of visual perception –, the boat and the experience of the sea passage provide the paradigmatic site of vertigo in the course of the 18th century.


Jan Evangelista Purkinje: Self-experiments and the rules of vertigo

Situated in-between the romantic and idealistic tradition of physiology and its positivistic orientation, Jan Evangelista Purkinje’s studies on dizziness opened a new chapter in the history of physiology. In fact, Purkinje’s self-experiments and his method of introspection perfectly aligned with the methodological claims of the time. As the German physiologist Ignaz Döllinger remarked in his account on the methodological progress made in physiology since Haller: “If natural science has to wait for accidental events to provide for close observations, it will advance only very slowly. However, the level that the natural sciences have reached nowadays are thanks to forcefully causing the phenomena to be investigated, that is: thanks to the experiment.” (Döllinger 1824, 15)

Purkinje’s empirical method is paradigmatic for this new experimental program in the early days of physiology: In contrast to Darwin and also to William Charles Wells, both of whom repeatedly welcomed and capitalized on happy accidents in their studies on dizziness, Purkinje rigorously produced and systematically manipulated sensory perception to an extent that even turned Goethe into a fan of his experimental skills. Inspired by the studies of Erasmus Darwin, Purkinje adapted his earlier research on subjective vision to the related topic of vertigo. The systematic approach intrinsic to his self-experiments is best reflected in the manifold procedures to experimentally produce vertigo which added up to a veritable typology of vertigo. This typology includes vertigo produced by galvanic induction (a resonance to the self-experiments of the romantic era); by disruption of blood circulation, by narcotics, by exposing the body to extreme heights; and, eventually by active and passive movements of the body.

From this variety of dizziness-producing means and procedures, I will focus only on the latter, on active and passive movements of the body, in this case mainly rotation – for the simple reason that Purkinje derived his definition of vertigo from this type. In Purkinje’s understanding dizziness is an illusion with regard to both vision and motion that is projected from the subjective perception to the outside world. Dizziness, according to Purkinje, is a subjective disorientation that becomes ‘objectified’ in the perceptual process – meaning it is perceived as if it were an objective manifestation. In this perspective, vertigo revolves around a deception, that leads the senses to believe that the objects in the outside world move in an irregular manner while it is, in fact the involuntary movements of the eyes, that causes the objects to move –– as William Charles Wells had demonstrated some 30 years earlier.

However, it was Purkinje who distinguished not only between ‘true motion’ and ‘apparent motion but also between a ‘real space’ and an ‘ideal space’ (with the latter conceptualized as the perceptual space of the subject spinning inside the real space). At the same time Purkinje correlated the position of the head during and after bodily rotation to the direction of the apparent motion, implying that visual perception in vertigo is by no means chaotic but that it occurs regularly. As he states:

“In general the direction of the apparent motions differs according to the position of the head during rotation; moreover the direction changes, if the head is brought into a different position after the end of rotation. The rule in all of the phenomena is the following: the diameter of the head (as a globe), around which axes the first rotation took place, determines the movement of vertigo.” (Punkinje 1820, 18)

Threefold experience: Vertigo machines in physiological experiments, popular amusement and psychiatric treatment

In order to further improve and enhance his method, Purkinje introduced a mode of rotation where the body was no longer depending on self-motion but instead exposed to passive forms of rotation by mechanical devises. Already in the first report on his experiments, published in 1820, Purkinje had pointed to the field of popular arrangements of vertigo when he introduced his discussion of movements in circles: “I made various repeated experiments on a merry-go-round including precise introspection.” (Purkinje 1820, 17) Stressing the effects of horizontal rotation on the body, he observed:

“Initially the head feels light and blithe, however, what follows are chills and paleness of the face, accompanied by a tendency to passing out. The breath becomes short, the pulse slows down and soon one feels revulsions in the stomach.” (Purkinje 1820, 19f.)

A somewhat comparable, yet even more dramatic description stems from the seemingly harmless experience of swinging: “After a swinging for a period of 1 1/2 hours,” Purkinje concedes, “the revulsion as well as the nervous affection of the head had reached a degree almost unbearable.” (ibid., 20) Obviously, this scenario doesn’t have anything to do with experiences full of relish that we usually relate to swings, merry-go-rounds and other amusement of the kind. In fact, Purkinje’s application of these devises exhibits a clear image of the unprecedented effort and self-abandonment that Goethe ascribed to Purkinje’s method of self-experimentation and to the methodological claims of the time to forcibly produce experimental evidence of the object under investigation.

In contrast to this program, it was a more economic form of vertigo that was at work in the popular culture of the time: in the fairground attractions and amusement parks where Purkinje found devices to implement passive motion mechanically and to adjust it according to the needs of the experimental design. But also with regard to the swinging and rotating machines that populated the everyday world we do look, in fact, at an experimental setting: New forms of sensory and liminal experiences were part and parcel of the bourgeois self-image that was in the making around 1800. Roundabouts fueled by man- or horsepower, slides and boat-swings created new ecstatic states of the sensory system. Even though these apparatuses are hardly comparable to today’s rides – to extreme acceleration, loops, or free fall, aiming at a well-calculated, temporary sensory breakdown – also the early forms of carrousels provided an experiential space in which the coherent perception was turned upside down and the correlation between visual experience and senso-motoric coordination was disintegrated in a manner unseen and unfelt before. Jonathan Crary speaks of “controlled instances” with regard to what he describes as “a dynamo-genic sensation” in roller coaster rides (Crary 2001, 238), and even though he refers to popular amusement in the mid- and late 19th century, the sensational effects were the same with the regard to the physiological shock and awe the swinging and rotations machines caused in the years around 1800.

Schaukeln im Wiener Prater (Swings in the Viennese Prater),
Engraving by Georg Emanuel Opitz


Carousels were modeled after means of transportation – horses, boats or vessels – that reached quite impressive hights and highs. In the foreground of an engraving by Georg Emanuel Opitz, we see an unconscious woman and two man sprinkling water into her face. Did she faint by the mere sight of the eccentric swinging movements?

Haunted Swing Illusion, 1894


The Haunted Swing, a fairground attraction from the 1870ies when the physiological functions and working of the vestibular system had already been discovered, plays with the spatio-optical illusion experienced in vertigo and literally constructs a machine around this illusion: As the second image reveals, the swing no longer swings, at least not as high as in the engraving by Opitz, but it is the outside space, the room itself that turns around the swing, operationalizing the experience of deception and dizziness.

While the rotation- and swinging machines in the context of the formation of the modern self can be conceived of as ‘popular laboratories’ (Hagner 2001, Dierig 2006), the apparatuses Purkinje found and used in psychiatric institutions of the time point to a field where mechanical rotation was applied to a different end. Conceptualized as ‘moral and medical means’ in the discourse of reform psychiatry, rotational machines appeared in clinical settings throughout the 1820ies to treat mental illnesses of all sorts.

Surprisingly, it was Erasmus Darwin who first mentioned the idea of mechanically implementing rotation. An illustration of so-called ‘rotative couch’ by the James Watt, a close friend of Darwin, was integrated into the third edition of the Zoonomia in 1801.

A Movable Rotative Couch, construction drawing by James Watt, 1801


Darwin never realized his idea, Watt’s rotative couch never saw its third dimension. However, only a couple of years later, the Scottish physician Joseph Mason Cox described with rigorous precision the benefits of a swinging chair in frequent use at the Glenside Lunatic Asylum, a psychiatric institution outside Bristol run by Cox. It is the mechanically controllable intensity of vomiting that Cox introduced as a profound innovation and a critical advantage over more conventional evacuation remedies. As Cox put it:

“ Our mechanical apparatus is of the highest importance in such cases: indeed it often possesses superior advantages, as we can regulate the action on the stomach, producing either temporary or continued nausea, partial or full vomiting. […] As vomiting has been long esteemed among the most successful remedies in madness, if the swing produced only this effect, its properties would be valuable; but though it can be employed so as to occasion the mildest and most gentle effects, yet its action can be so regulated as to excite the most violent convulsions of the stomach, with the agitation and concussion of every part of the animal frame.” (Cox 1804, 158)

The use of the swinging chair quickly spread from England to Ireland where William S. Hallaran adapted the new method and added it to his catalogue of treatments at the Lunatic Asylum in Cork. His machine was modelled and designed after Cox’s descriptions and illustrated in Hallaran’s Practical Observations on the Causes and Cure of Insanity (1818).

Circulating Swing, used at the Lunatic Asylum, Cork.
William Saunders Hallaran, 1818


Especially noteworthy are the empirical and almost experimental clues to Hallaran’s description of the circulating swing, its practical use and functioning. As Hallaran suggested it was not the actual rotation, but the sudden changes in direction and velocity, in short: positive of negative acceleration that caused vertigo and subsequent vomiting. With this observation Hallaran anticipated the kinematic principle Ernst Mach would deduce from his rotation experiments and put on a mathematical basis some fifty years later (Mach 1875).

However, it was precisely the possibility to regulate and control the physiological effects of rotation that attracted Purkinje’s interest and probably made him look for similar machines in German psychiatric institutions. He eventually found them in the rotational devises used at Berlin’s Charité hospital.

Drehbett, Charité Berlin 1818


Drehtstuhl, Charité Berlin, 1818


Giddy with excitement Purkinje reported in his last experimental study in vertigo, published in 1827, that

“vertigo can vary in direction, if the position of the head is repeatedly changed during horizontal rotation of the body. A simple, if somewhat horrible empirical proof can be found in the rotational chair used to repress and tranquilize the insane. If one uses this chair without fixing head and neck in the vertical position, after some time the heads start to move in a funnel-shape manner and alternates falling down to the one shoulder and then to the other. It is impossible to articulate the confusion of the mind when the entire outside room moves in ever different directions from one second to the next.” (Purkinje 1827, 292)

Towards the end of the vertigo-episode of his life, Purkinje replaced the merry-go-rounds of contemporary fairground attractions with the more serious and powerful machines in use in the psychiatric context. But what exactly was the use of these devices in this field, where vertigo as such is mentioned only as an epiphenomenon and a transition and passage to vomiting and, eventually passing out? Two explanations shed light on this question. The first one resonates with older medical concepts, namely humorism, that related madness and insanity to an imbalance of the four humours or fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. This imbalance was conceptualized with regard to the (unhealthy) dominance of one of the according temperaments, the sanguinic, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic type. Rotation in this context would work as a centrifuge to reinstall balance, to free the body from of the unhealthy fluids and of the preponderance of one of the temperaments.

The second explanation is rather mechanical. Besides the tranquilizing effects of the rotational treatment (–– the simple fact that patients regularly would pass out) the idea was to mobilize physiological confusion against mental or psychic confusion. It is in this line that the French psychiatrist Jean Etiénne Esquirol recommended applying more effective cures to “fight convulsion with convulsion and stimulate psychic shock to destroy the haze between the patient and the outside world” (Esquirol 1838, 79). However, there was no consensus as to how the troubled relation and entanglements between inside and outside world could be stabilized. Benjamin Rush, an American psychiatrist and contemporary of Esquirol used the same image, yet his suggestion is directly opposed to Esquirol’s when he assumes that

“pleasant amusement should be contrived for this class of mad people (melancholic and depressed patients, R. L.). If they are unhappy, these amusements will suspend their misery. If they are in a torpid state, a transient sense of pleasure will be excited by them, which may serve to remind them the chain is still unbroken which united them with their fellow men.” (Rush 1812, 226)

Just as in Purkinje, the idea of an outside world superimposed by delusions resonates in Rush’s description, one of the very few, it should be added, that mentions the concept of amusements, or at least a sense of pleasure in the context of psychiatric cures.

Migrating machines, entangled knowledges

Starting from the accidental configuration of the sea voyage and the disintegration of visual and motion perception, three different fields revolving around the topic of dizziness can be discerned around 1800: Physiological experiments and self-experiments were concerned with aligning vertigo with the laws of physiology and established it as an object of rigorous and systematic experimental manipulation that eventually lead up to the discovery of the vestibular organ in the inner ear. In the making of the bourgeois self, vertigo turned into an object of a playful form of curiosity that allowed for liminal experiences that calibrated the borders between thrill and a loss of the self. Finally, in the psychiatric discourse of the time, vertigo was conceived of as a psychophysical state that was mobilized to cure mental confusion.

As Georges Canguilhem has remarked repeatedly, it is often the ‘‘spontaneous technique that creates for knowledge the conditions of its emergence, and thus precedes it’’ (Canguilhem 2002, 387). This holds true also for the swinging, rotating and centrifugal machines used to produce vertigo around 1800. Migrating between these fields, they often blur the clear lines between laboratory, clinical setting and everyday world. They can be conceived of as results of a continuous process of imitation, adaptation, and reconfiguration of objects as well as practices that originate in different fields.

Purkinje in this account is the figure who bridges these different fields of knowledge. His experimental talent was the result of repetitive effort, training and strict discipline and his senses were the actual site of a schizophrenic operation – exposed to the most violent and powerful impressions of vertigo, yet, at the same time they acted as the most delicate and precise measuring devises, as instruments to calibrate the various manifestations of vertigo.




Photo: Circulating Swing, used at the Lunatic Asylum, Cork. William Saunders Hallaran, 1818



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