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Why do people get seasick or carsick?

Motion sickness is a common disorder resulting from the brain receiving conflicting signals concerning motion. We detect motion in several ways. We use our eyes to sense objects moving either towards or away from us. We also use a special organ inside our head called the labyrinth or inner ear. Every time we move our head, the inner ears tells our brain that our head is moving. While sitting in a moving car, we see motion with our eyes and feel the motion of the car with our inner ear.

Suppose we decide we decide to a read a book while riding in the car. Our inner ear still feels motion, but our eyes tell us that we are not moving because the words on the page don’t appear to move. This conflict between our eyes and our inner ear that tells our brain that something is wrong. We feel dizzy because our brain does not have a clear signal of what is moving. Our brain translates this confusion into a command to stop eating or perhaps to spit out whatever we ate because we may be upset because of something we ate.

One of the best things we can do when we begin to feel motion sickness is to look out the window at a distant object. That will coordinate the movement signals from your eyes with your inner ear. Distract yourself by using a fan or listen to music. Several medications such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) orscopolamine patches may also be helpful in relieving the problem.


David A. Levitsky

  • S. H. Weiss Presidential Fellow
  • Nutritional Science, Cornell University

Ph.D. Rutgers University
Research Area:
Control of Body Weight, Medicinal Foods
Sons: Michael and Steve, Daughters: Sarah, Susan, and Sandra; Wife: Barbara Strupp
Biking, music, cooking

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