Vertigo is often loosely defined as ‘dizziness’, which can have various meanings including simply feeling lightheaded. From a more medical standpoint vertigo refers to a disorientating false sensation of either the visual world moving or the person physically moving. Intense and sustained vertigo may eventually elicit further symptoms such as nausea and sweating and, in a transport environment, is often termed ‘motion sickness’. Environments vary enormously in their potential to provoke vertigo. Sitting quietly in a chair has little vertigo potential whereas riding on an extreme rollercoaster has much greater vertigo potential. However, individuals vary enormously in their sensitivity to such environments.
Vertigo is the product of the interaction between the degree of vertigo potential of the environment and individual susceptibility to vertigo. This becomes most obvious if we examine extreme groups of people. In some patient groups who are suffering vestibular (balance system) disorders, lying down in bed may provoke intense vertigo. Similarly, in Meniere’s disease, an intense attack of vertigo may occur suddenly in the absence of any obviously provocative environment. At the other end of this susceptibility dimension, ice dancers, trained fighter pilots, and astronauts can tolerate motion environments that many would find very vertiginous, and only succumb to the most extremely provocative environments.
This dichotomy can be summarised as the ‘Healthy Person in a Sick Environment versus Sick Person in a Healthy Environment’. In the city, some environments which have little effect on most people are vertiginous for very susceptible individuals and limit their quality of life. Riding a rollercoaster is a choice for personal entertainment. But access to public parts of the city including some escalator systems, glass elevators, moving advertisements and so on, are not so easy to avoid. To what extent should planners take into account the vertigo sensitivity of some groups of the population when designing such aspects of new buildings or urban transportation or the street scene?
John Golding is Professor of Applied Psychology at University of Westminster, London. He originally trained as a biochemist at Oxford, but became interested in psychology, gaining another first degree in psychology before completing his DPhil there on the physiological and psychological effects of smoking. John went on to research psychoactive drugs and pain relief in the Pharmacology Department of Newcastle Medical School before an extended period in government service. During this time, he conducted wide ranging applied research at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine and the DERA Center for Human Sciences, investigating motion sickness, cognitive performance in divers, desensitisation of pilots, and military selection and training. John holds an honorary Professorship in Psychology at Guys & St Thomas's Hospital, Kings College, London, and is Visiting Professor at Imperial College, London. His current research projects focus on motion sickness, spatial disorientation and health psychology. John is the author of the Motion Sickness Susceptibility Questionnaire Short Form (MSSQ-Short).