Car Sick: Your Brain Thinks It’s Being Poisoned

April 20, 2019

Nothing spoils a nice drive like the creeping feeling of car sickness, but don’t get too mad – this queasiness could actually be an indication that your brain is working as it should be… sort of.

Research has found that car sickness could be the result of your brain responding to what it thinks is a sudden bout of poisoning.

No, the guy in the passenger seat didn’t put something in your coffee – scientists have suggested that when you’re in a car, your brain is getting conflicting messages about your immediate environment, similar to when you’ve been poisoned. And we all know that throwing up is the easiest way to flush any neurotoxins or poisons out of your system.

So what’s going on here, and why are our brains so confused?

Experts think that car sickness (or any kind of similar motion sickness) is brought on because humans have only recently started travelling in things like cars, buses, and boats, and our brains haven’t fully adapted yet.

Despite the fact that we’re travelling in a moving car, bus, or boat, the majority of our senses are still telling us that our bodies are stationery – and of course, your body is technically stationary when you’re sitting in the back seat of a car.

At the same time, your brain also knows you’re moving forward at a certain speed because of the balance sensors – little tubes of fluid – in your inner ear.

The liquid in these tubes is sloshing around, indicating that you’re moving, but in reality you’re sitting still. Your brain’s getting some seriously mixed messages.

It’s the job of the thalamus to piece together this info and figure out what’s truly going on, but it often comes to the conclusion that poisons are to blame, which is why you’ll sometimes have to stop at the side of the road to puke.

“As soon as the brain gets confused by anything like that, it says, oh, I don’t know what to do, so just be sick, just in case,” neuroscientist Dean Burnett from Cardiff University in the UK explained to Melissa Dahl at Science of Us. “And as a result, we get motion sickness because the brain’s constantly worried about being poisoned.”

Staring out of the window can actually help, because it reassures the brain that you are in fact moving and all is well. Reading a book or a map often makes matters worse, because it convinces the brain that you really are stationary and not speeding through space.

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