York professor seeks cues to ‘up’ and ‘down’

Things aren’t always what they seem, and for the astronauts working in the boundless depths of outer space, nothing could be more true. York University psychology Professor Laurence Harris and a team of researchers from York’s Centre for Vision Research (CVR) are studying ways to combat the disorientation often experienced by astronauts in zero-gravity environments – both inside and outside space craft.

Right: Astronauts are often plagued with feelings of disorientation

While tethered to their vessels and floating in outer space, astronauts are often plagued by the sensation that they are falling, and this is the direct result of how the human brain perceives what is up and what is down. “In order to distinguish up from down, the brain takes cues from vision, the inner ear, and internal representations of the body,” Harris says. “When in outer space, astronauts become confused by the unusual combination of sensory information, and can only rely on visual cues for information. We’re looking at ways we can enhance these cues.”

An inventive tool used by CVR researchers to develop solutions is a room that is completely sideways. This “sideways room” is versatile in that subjects can either stand vertically or lie down, in which case the room appears to be visually normal. People rely on three cues to determine which way is up. These include vision, gravity and the direction their body is pointing, the room is designed to separate each of these influences so that researchers can determine how each element contributes to perception of up and down.

Right: CVR researcher Richard Dyde in the “sideways room” at York University

The room affords Harris the unique opportunity to study movements of the eye in relation to spatial orientation, via use of video-oculography. Subjects don a helmet with reflectors arranged so that tiny video cameras can record the position of the eyes as the subject moves – all the while remaining invisible to the wearer. “By analyzing this datum, we’re able to figure out what the brain thinks is going on,” Harris says.

Solutions could include something as simple as a television screen displaying video footage of a waterfall which would serve to unobtrusively orient those inside a space craft or space station. Harris’ solution could incorporate the projection of spatially-orienting imagery onto the inside of an astronaut’s visor, or the use of markings on the outside of spacecraft.

His research, being done in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also has potential applications for those with damage to the inner ear. The four-year project is sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), a division of NASA.