The Vortex Tunnel and Outer Space

Have you ever considered how much time goes into training to be an astronaut or pilot? Not only do you need incredible amounts of knowledge, but when pushing your body to extremes you are not even able to trust your own senses to give you accurate information!


While flying, if a pilot makes a long turn and then levels out, they sometimes feel like they are turning in the opposite direction. This happens because they were turning for so long that their senses have ‘recalibrated’ and now think that the turn is normal, so going straight now feels like a turn in the opposite direction. For novices this may cause them to turn in the wrong direction or even send the craft into a spin – unless they rely on the instruments in the cockpit to tell them the direction they are flying in.

Astronauts, during their first few days in space, sometimes experience space fog – short term problems with memory or attention. It used to be believed that these problems are due to all of the stress the astronaut is under in their first few days in space. However, new researchers suggests it might actually be the changes to zero gravity that causes space fog – the senses needing time to adjust before they can give reliable information.

What do both of these have to do with The Vortex at Camera Obscura?

To fly, experience zero gravity, and to walk through The Vortex Tunnel all affect the vestibular system. This system controls balance and your understanding of where your body is.

By asking participants to do a few laps of The Vortex Tunnel, Meaghan is testing to see if the rotation of the tunnel and the feeling of being off-balance that it produces is affecting their memory. This can tell us more about how visual illusions work, the strength of the vestibular system, and how these interact with memory.

mtb world cup

Camera Obscura’s Vortex Tunnel


The good news is that there are two weeks worth of trials left here at Camera Obscura!  So, please contact Meaghan if you would like to take part: . You must be over 18, and have no sight, hearing or balance difficulties. The trials are taking place after closing hours at Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, Castlehill, Edinburgh.

What do the participants think?

Georg – My description of participating in Meaghan’s experiment would be one of wonder and fun. The vortex tunnel is a truly remarkable and gripping illusion and to research its effect on visual working memory a great opportunity at the Camera Obscura. Pity it was only a few minutes long.

Want to do a quick test at home?

  1. Stand up straight, with your arms stretched out wide, and close your eyes.
  2. Now, touch the index finger of your right hand to your nose. Stretch your arms out again.
  3. Repeat with your left hand.
  4. Do this quickly, until each hand has touched your nose 5 times.

You should be pretty accurate, this is your Vestibular System balancing you and your sense of Proporeception telling your hands and nose know how to find each other even with your eyes closed.

To spice up the trial….

Warning: involves spinning- only do this if you feel it is safe to do so!

  1. Make sure you have plenty of space first.
  2. Stand up straight with your arms stretched wide, now spin on the spot, as fast as you can, for about 15 seconds.
  3. Stand straight again and try to repeat the nose touching trial (be careful or you are likely to poke yourself in the eye!).

You should be far less accurate, your senses and Vestibular system have begun to adjust to the spinning, recalibrating so that it feels normal, and making everything else you do seem a little bit off-to-the-side.

Grown-Ups Only:

You can also try repeating this trial (minus the spinning!) before and after consuming alcohol. This is a different effect due to the drug slowing your responses but should achieve the same result – much less accuracy after a drink or two!

“A psychological study by Meaghan, Masters student at the Univerysity of Edinburgh’s Psychology Department”


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