For some people, car journeys are the perfect time to relax and catch up on your favourite book.
For others, the thought of being a passenger in any moving vehicle is enough to make you nauseous, dizzy, and regretful that you ever agreed to a road trip.
So why is it that some people get motion sick in cars, and why the hell does reading make it worse?
Well, neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett has the answer. In an article published by The Sun, Burnett puts motion sickness down to our “idiot brains” which think that they’re being poisoned.
It turns out that back in the day when hunters and gatherers were normal, and we spent our days fearing for our lives from predators and plants out to kill, we became hyper-vigilant. This vigilance was a kind of stress response that caused sickness at the first sign that something might be up, like poisoning.
Modern human beings can’t really see anything abnormal about sitting in the back and enjoying a guilty paperback, but the cavemen who live in our brains are a little slower on the uptake. In an interview with NPR, Burnett had this to say:
“When you think about it, moving shouldn’t make us sick. We move around all the time. We’re a very mobile species. So… why would moving suddenly make us want to throw up?“
Apparently, it all comes down to the way we move around, relying on vehicles instead of our own bodies.
“When we’re in a vehicle like a car or a train, or a ship especially, you’re not actually physically moving. Your body is still. You’re sat down. You’ve got no signals from the muscles saying we are moving right now – your muscles are saying we are stationary.”
However, while your muscles might say you’re stationary, other parts of your body do not. The fluid in your ears, for example, continues to move, which informs the body that you’re still in motion, despite your muscles, nerves and eyes claiming it isn’t true. What you end up with is mixed messages from a sensory confusion, which happens to be exactly the kind of sensory mismatch that we experience when we’re being poisoned.
With your brain fighting itself over whether you’re in one place or in motion, your body is getting the message to throw up and rid yourself of whatever it is that’s making you sick. Burnett says:
“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’.” So basically, motion sickness comes from your brain being super vigilant and anxious. Talk about a worry wart!
And what about reading?
Well, reading makes the sensory mismatch that much worse because instead of looking out of the window, and proving to your brain that you are still in motion, you’re looking at a static page, which just makes everything that much more confusing.
Oh and just in case you were wondering, kids tend to get worse motion sickness because their brains are still developing, and are therefore easier to confuse. The good news is, many people grow out of it by the time they reach adulthood, or at least learn to manage it better!