When we come into the world as newborn baby girls we have flat feet and a completely straight spine. Only by running, jumping, hopscotching and cartwheeling through childhood do pronounced arches appear in both our feet and our spine. These curvatures are extraordinarily important for many reasons, not the least of which is our ability to balance ourselves while breathing and moving under the forces of gravity. Physical balance is not something we are born with, as any mother watching her wobbly toddler understands. However, balance is far more than a learned skill. Indeed, it is how the brain and body mature into an agile being capable of moving through space with grace and agility.
As this month’s News from Science column illustrates, a high level of balance is a deeply human trait, which has evolved and devolved through time and various hominid species. Only Homo sapien sapiens remain on earth as agile creatures whose whole physical and mental structure was created around the foundational element of balance.
The fully developed longitudinal arch of the foot is a unique human structure that acts in concert with lumbar lordosis to provide shock absorption and storage of elastic energy for locomotion. Evolution of the foot arch in the hominid lineage is a contentious subject amongst anthropologists, owing in part to a lack of early hominid foot bones in the fossil record. Yet, the little evidence that does exist suggests human foot arches evolved in conjunction with curvature of the lower back. Homo erectus had a significant longitudinal arch, while Neanderthal was relatively flat-footed.
Fetal and early child development closely mimic evolution in many ways, and this is true for the arches of the foot as well. Humans do not have a structural arch at birth, but rather the arches become apparent in most children by 3 to 6 years of age.1 This is the same time frame in which lumbar lordosis develops, suggesting the two curvatures are tightly coupled and interdependent.
Pronounced arches of the feet and curvature of the lumbar spine provide the human species with a high degree of agility. The central element in human agility is balance, to which the foot arches and lumbar curvature contribute most significantly. Another set of arcs, the semi-circular canals within the vestibular system of the inner ear provide the actual sense of balance. There is a high correlation across species between the size of these canals and degree of agility.2
Throughout hominid evolution the canals have increased in size as agility has increased in species. Neanderthals, however, have smaller canals than both humans and earlier hominid ancestors. This suggests that not only were Neanderthals less agile than humans, but that a higher order of the sensory organ for balance itself is also coupled with arching of the lower back and feet.
How might loss of our sense of balance affect other areas of functionality? Humans are endowed with a left and right brain, each of which performs different tasks. Yet, both sides communicate as a whole. The left brain processes logical data and most spoken and written language, while the right brain interprets images, non-verbal cues and intuitive feeling. Much as the left and right eyes combine to form depth perception, the two lobes of the brain work together to produce whole impressions, whole thinking and whole hearing.
Clairaudient hearing and vibrant, delicate sensing have long been believed to enter the sensory system through the vestibular organ of the inner ear. Scientists have confirmed the existence of this “sixth sense” in humans, which is none other than our sense of balance. Martin Lenhardt of the University of Virginia discovered in 1991 that humans can hear ultrasonic sound when it is transmitted through the skin, bones, and liquids of the body by using the vestibular system as a hearing organ. As described in aboriginal stories from around the world, human ancestors may well have been able to “hear” through a well-developed vestibular pathway and thereby communicate with whales, dolphins and other animals that use ultrasonic frequencies. Modern technologies that develop this pathway are thought to expand consciousness by balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Maintaining a high level of balance may have far-reaching affects beyond the practical advantages of health and fitness.
Almost every woman who comes into my studio for the first time has a significantly underdeveloped ability to balance. Most women have lost much of their lumbar curvature from postural habits such as slumping into soft furniture and chronically pulling their belly in. However, the human spine cannot be straightened out and when we lose one major curvature, the spine always compensates elsewhere. In men, greater kyphosis, or thoracic curvature, replaces normal lumbar lordosis. Women who have lost lumbar curvature develop a large hump at the base of their neck. Even young, fit women often have trouble with balance because the curvatures that support balance – the arches of the feet and the lumbar curve – are often diminished.
The following video contains a short program of exercises that develop and strengthen the arches of the feet, the musculature of the hips, and the spinal shape that allows for optimum human balance.
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1 DeSilva J Throckmorton Z Lucy’s flat feet: the relationship between the ankle and rearfoot arching in early hominins. PLoS ONE 5(12):2010
2 Silcox M Bloch J Boyer D Godinot M Ryan T Spoor F Walker A. The semicircular canal system in early primates. Journal of Human Evolution 56: 315-327 2009.