Motion Sickness

The typical explanation for motion sickness is that your inner ear and your eyes disagree about whether or not you are moving, your body interprets it as food poisoning, and prepares to throw up.  This does not quite make sense to me, because it fails to explain any of the following:

  1. Why being a passenger is so much worse than being the driver.
  2. Why playing video games (eyes say movement, ears say stationary), reading in a bus (eyes say stationary, ears say moving) and riding a roller coaster (eyes and ears both say moving very fast)  produce the same feeling.
  3. Why smooth rides (subways, no-turbulence airplanes) are so much easier than busses, or why highways are easier than stop and go traffic.
  4. Apparently other people consider nausea a stomach issue, but for me it’s very much a head issue.  Motion sickness also gives me headaches.  What’s up with that?  Why is it so tightly correlated with sinus pressure?
  5. Why does low blood sugar feel so much like motion sickness?
  6. I’ve never experienced this, but television assures me heavy drinking produces the same effect.  Why?
  7.  Why does motion sickness give me temperature fluctuations.

I’ve heard a partial explanation for #3, which is that your inner ear actually senses acceleration, not movement, so a steady velocity doesn’t feel like movement.  And we have a very compelling proximal explanation for #6: the difference in density between water and alcohol stimulates your inner ear both as you get drunk and as you sober up.  So obviously the inner ear is very involved in this, but how?

Alternate hypothesis: motion sickness is designed to keep you from eating, because your body is not in a good state to digest. One way that can happen is if your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight-or-stand-there-being-really-anxious) has kicked in, because it redirects blood flow and energy to things that are immediately useful in escaping from tigers (muscles, senses) and away from things that solve future you problems like digestion and the immune system (which are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system).

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are regulated by the hypothalamus.  For fun I googled “hypothalamus motion sickness” and the first result was this rat based study,* which put rats in a “animal centrifuge” to induce motion sickness. I couldn’t find video of a rat centrifuge, but NASA helpfully provided video of a dog centrifuge.  It looks not quite as bad as a tilt a whirl, although the rats were exposed to double gravity so I should probably cut them some slack.

During their amusement park adventures, the rats experienced a spike in histamine production in the hypothalamus (how cool is it that we can continuously measure that?), and caused the rats to display characteristic motion sick rat behavior.  Inhibiting histamine production or removing the inner ear (the part that detects motion) caused both of these to disappear.  Histamines also help regulate body temperature, so that’s #7.  This suggests that anti-histamines would be useful at fighting motion sickness.  The good news is that this is correct, the bad news is that they make you sleepy and possibly give you Alzheimer’s.   That’s fine for any one time but I don’t want to make a lifestyle out of taking them.

A website my laptop unfortunately ate the link to has a subtly different explanation:  your brain tracks motor movement via an efference copy, creates a prediction of what sensory changes that should create, and they compares that to the actual sensory input.  Motion sickness might be your brain saying “these are too different, abort, abort”, or buckling from the intensity of calculation needed to reconcile the input.

I have always wondered why I/people hold my (our) breath during times of stress.  Unless you’re being hunted by a xenomorph right that second, oxygen deprivation is not helpful.

An artist's rendering of when holding your breath is useful
An artist’s rendering of when holding your breath might be useful

The most convincing hypothesis I’ve found is that your brain can only do so many calculations per second, compensating for breathing takes calculation, so you stop breathing.  That this rapidly starves your brain of oxygen, lowering the number of calculations you can do, is exactly the kind of long term thinking I expect from the human body which, lest we forget, takes in air and food through the same hole.  If both breath-holding and nausea can be caused calculation overload, we would expect the same things to cause them both. I can think of two things that do exactly this off the top of my head- sparring (but not drills) in martial arts, and playing Katamari, both of which involve complex spatial reasoning.  These are not great examples because there’s a lot of confounding variables, like extreme physical exertion while being hit in the stomach.

To summarize my speculation:  sensory input requiring too high a rate of calculation points you towards your sympathetic nervous system, which makes you nauseous so you won’t eat while you’re not capable of digesting.

This suggests that anything that kicks you towards the parasympathetic system should reduce motion sickness.  Unfortunately the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems run on the same neurotransmitters, so looking at the relevant drugs does not provide useful information.

This also suggests that anything that lowers the number of calculations you need to do will be helpful.  BCMC tested a heads up display that showed users their head position relative to the horizon.

Studies found it overwhelmingly helpful, although I haven’t dug into that paper in detail yet.  Unfortunately there’s no way to purchase the technology, so I’m left hoping someone picks up the patent.

In conclusion: we don’t really know what causes motion sickness and that there’s no known really good treatmen.  I am going to experiment with consciously tracking my head position relative to horizon and with rhythm games (which help integrate sensory data).

*The second result appears to be the exact same experiment, done 10 years earlier, with the exact same result.  It’s nice to see something reproducible.