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Spatial Disorientation is a big danger to pilots. In fact, when learning how to fly in low visibility, a big part of the training is learning how to ignore your vestibular system and trust your instruments. But even with that training, it's entirely possible for a pilot in a stressful situation to forget that and try to fly by feel. This is the root cause behind the Kobe Bryant crash, but it can also affect seasoned pilots, such as the Air France 447 crash.

There are several languages, such as Tzeltal and Guugu Yimithirr, that don't have words for relative directions such as left or right. Instead, every direction is described in terms of the cardinal directions North, South, East, and West. Thus, for instance, instead of saying "the salt is to your left", they would say "the salt is to your South" (assuming that you happen to be facing West at the time). To speak such a language, you would need to constantly keep track of which way the cardinal directions are. Such constant practice at maintaining their orientation gives them a fantastic sense of direction, to the point that blindfolding them and spinning them around doesn't disorient them.

Would it be possible, as an adult, to train yourself to keep track of your own orientation like that while flying? How would you even go about trying?

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    $\begingroup$ to the point that blindfolding them and spinning them around doesn't disorient them Citation needed? $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Jul 8, 2022 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, but I disbelieve the assertions in the 2nd paragraph, particularly the suggestion that by crippling one's language (no "left" or "right"... does that also mean no "port" nor "starboard" on ships???) you can instill an infallible INS into a person's head. Significant claims require significant proof, and this smells strongly of absolute nonsense to me. Down-voted. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 8, 2022 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ Ironically, a popular aviation YouTuber posted a video about this exact topic only hours before your question. The video shows the pilot undergoing Spatial Disorientation training in a specially designed simulator and includes links to the company where you can book such a training yourself. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2022 at 6:34
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it's based on a number of false premises, and makes no attempt to back up some very questionable statements. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Jul 8, 2022 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ Voting to keep this question open due to it being studied and trained, re the actual DISO training device. And getting pretty disgusted with some members and moderators of this community. $\endgroup$
    – Koyovis
    Jul 9, 2022 at 20:00

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The main problem that leads to spatial disorientation is sustained normal rate turns, and the direction of turn, or the direction at which you stop the turn, doesn't really come into it as far as that goes.

You roll into a turn, you sense the heading change in your inner ear, but over time the fluid in the horizontal cochlea catches up to the rotation and the turning sensation goes away. You roll out of the turn, and now the fluid in the horizontal cochlea keeps going. The resulting sensation of turning the opposite way, even though you're wings level, is quite intense, and what happens is, unless you catch yourself doing it, you will apply control input to roll back into the original turn (to get rid of the opposite turn sensation) without realizing it.

By the time you do catch yourself, and roll back to wings level, the wrong way sensation comes back and around you go again rolling back into the original turn, until you catch yourself again, and over and over, and you're getting a little bit dizzy, and then the final straw; you do something like look down and get the vertical cochlea fluid going, and yikes your head starts spinning every which way, and you're done. That's the kind of situation Kennedy found himself in.

I'm not sure any kind of directional awareness other than observing the compass would help with this, because the entire exercise involves completely ignoring your directional sense.

The disorientation trainer that @Koyovis describes in his answer isn't widely used as far as I know, but it would be installed at every instrument flight school in the world if I was King of The Flying World, because the ability to keep up a sustained rotation, whether fast or slow, is not a feature of IFR and Transport category flight simulators and it really should be.

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Yes indeed it is possible, and there are specific Disorientation trainers in use exactly for this purpose. The DISO above is one I have worked on, it is a simulator mounted on a 6-DoF motion platform, with a rotational system in between the cabin and the motion.

The subject would be flying, then would experience a spin, then would resume flying again while disoriented from the spin. Reason is that there have been accidents that occurred after a pilot recuperated successfully from a spin, but because of dizziness would then lose control a second time and not be able to recover.

The trainer has controls and instrumentation for flying fixed wing fast and slow aeroplanes, and helicopters. It has been in successful operation for over a decade.

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There is training to be more resilient to the effects of disorientation, but that is not the same as being resistant to the actual disorientation. Basically the training will allow a pilot to condition to the sensations and practice correct planned responses so there is not a combination of disorientation with confusion or panic. Basically practiced reactions and habits for more reliable recovery. The disorientation still exists but it is shorter and has less negative impact.

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As you may already know since you linked the wikipedia article about spatial disorientation, it's not really just about maintaining awareness about left/right, north/south etc. It is about one's orientation in 3d space, and in the specific case or being in an aircraft, which can be manuevered to create all kinds of false cues as to in which position one is, and what it the actual cause of accelerations felt, there is no way a human can maintain full spatial awareness without the aid of visual cues. There are good answers on that here, and research on the topic is clear:

https://aviation.stackexchange.com/a/84947/42636

https://aviation.stackexchange.com/a/84954/42636

https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/safety-spotlights/spatial-disorientation

Humans can only learn to act properly to mitigate the effects of spatial disorientation, but full "immunity" is not possible to achieve.

As to the claim that language would affect the ability to maintain spatial orientation, there is no proof that I know of, and if there was, we surely would know about that. The study you provided a link to did mention a case in which a person was spun 20 times in a darkened room blindfolded, and was still able to maintain sense of orientation. This was not, however a "study", but a "report", and as such carries very little, if any, scientific value. We do not know how the experiment was carried cout, it may have had serious flaws in it. The footnote about this report states:

Levinson (2003) also reported formal studies showing that speakers of languages that use geocentric systems (Tseltal and Hai||om) were more accurate than speakers of languages that use egocentric systems (English and Dutch) at pointing to distant landmarks. However, the testing situations (type of environment, distance travelled, how participants arrived there, relative familiarity with surrounding, etc.) varied between the comparison groups (e.g., Dutch vs. Hai||om), making comparisons difficult

So, to say the least, no proof whatsoever that a language can provide protection against spatial disorientation within the scope of aviation.

Indigineous people, one's that are not as disconnected from nature as us city dwellers, can read their surrounding quite well to determinen geocentric directions even if no sunlight is providing shadows. Most trees have more foliage on the southern side, erosion varies according to the amount of direct sunlight on rock formations (this varies greatly depending on type of rock), plants and animals prefer inclines of specific direction etc. People who rely on a geocentric system most likely have a constantly updating map in their minds about how objects are oriented. When they enter a building for example, the orientation of this building and its inner structure is locked into the map, and they can continue using the orientation of the geocentric system. If the building had no windows, and it was slowly rotating, the people inside would very quickly lose track of the geocentric coordinates, unless they had very acute magnetoperception, which humans do not have.

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