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The eyes play a critical role in maintaining balance. They are directly connected to other organs of equilibrium, most important of which is the inner ear. Paired structures called the semicircular canals deep in the skull behind the ears sense motion and relay that information to balance control centers in the brain. The eyes send visual information to the same centers. A third set of sensors consists of nerve endings all over the body, particularly in joints, that detect position. All this information is integrated to allow the body to navigate in space and gravity.

It is possible to fool this system or to overload it with information so that it malfunctions. A spinning ride at the amusement park is a good way to overload it with information. The system has adapted to the spinning, expects it to go on forever, and carries that momentum for some time after it is over. Nystagmus is the lingering adjustment of the eyes to tracking the world as it revolves around them.

Nystagmus can be classified depending upon the type of motion of the eyes. In pendular nystagmus the speed of motion of the eyes is the same in both directions. In jerk nystagmus there is a slow and fast phase. The eyes move slowly in one direction and then seem to jerk back in the other direction.

Nystagmus can be present at birth (congenital) or acquired later on in life. A certain type of acquired nystagmus, called spasmus nutans, includes a head tilt and head bobbing and generally occurs between four to 12 months of age. It may last a few months to a few years, but generally goes away by itself.

Railway nystagmus is a physiological type of nystagmus. It happens when someone is on a moving train (thus the term railway) and is watching a stationary object which appears to be going by. The eyes slowly follow the object and then quickly jerk back to start over. Railway nystagmus (also called optokinetic nystagmus) is a type of jerk nystagmus. This phenomenon can be used to check vision in infants. Nystagmus can also be induced by fooling the semicircular canals. Caloric stimulation refers to a medical method of testing their connections to the brain, and therefore to the eyes. Cold or warm water flushed into the ear canal will generate motion signals from the inner ear. The eyes will respond to this signal with nystagmus if the pathways are intact.

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