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The Surprising Reason You Get Nauseous On Car Trips

Your brain can’t handle two things at once

Source: Public Domain Images

In a perfect world, we’d make the most out of sitting in a car or bus for hours on end by plowing through the books we never seem to have time to read. Unfortunately for many of our brains, that’s out of the question. Carsickness is a nauseating, full-body experience most wouldn’t even wish on their worst enemy. And while you might be able to feel it from your toes to your fingertips, neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett says it’s really all in your head.


The author of Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To, Burnett appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air and explained to Terry Gross that the cause of motion sickness is a “sensory mismatch.” Physically, you’re stationary while riding in a car, but “little tiny little tubes full of fluid” are moving and telling your brain something different than what the rest of your body senses. “So what's happening there is the brain's getting mixed messages,” says Burnett, “It's getting signals from the muscles and the eyes saying we are still and signals from the balance sensors saying we're in motion. Both of these cannot be correct.”

So how does our brain respond to the confusing mix of signals? By communicating to your body that you’re being poisoned. That’s right. “In evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison,” Burnett explains, “When it's been poisoned, the first thing it does is get rid of the poison, aka throwing up.”

It can be disconcerting to realize our brains aren’t as savvy as we’d like to imagine them, but you can cut yourself some slack when you also recognize cars are a very new addition to our everyday lives. We simply haven’t had enough time to adapt to the disorienting sensation of throttling down the highway at 65 (realistically 82) miles per hour.

So next time you’re sitting on the passenger side trying to crack War and Peace and start feeling a little woozy, just look out the window at the scenery speeding past you. All your brain needs is a little reassurance that you are in fact moving and you (most likely) haven’t been poisoned.

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