The Science: What Causes Motion Sickness During Travel


11 Jan 2024

Motion sickness, that uneasy feeling during travel, can turn a pleasant journey into an unpleasant experience.

Understanding the science behind motion sickness is the key to managing its symptoms effectively.

In this article, we’ll delve into the causes of motion sickness, exploring the intricate processes within our bodies that trigger this common discomfort.

The Inner Ear’s Role

The primary culprit behind motion sickness lies within the inner ear. 

This complex system of fluid-filled canals, known as the vestibular system, is responsible for maintaining our sense of balance and spatial orientation. 

When you’re in motion—whether on a car ride, cruise, or plane—the fluid in these canals moves, sending signals to the brain about your body’s movement.

Conflicting Signals

Motion sickness arises when the messages sent to the brain conflict. 

  • For instance, if you’re reading a book in the car, your eyes perceive a stationary object (the book), signaling to your brain that you’re not in motion. 
  • However, your inner ear detects the car’s movement, creating a disconnect between visual and vestibular signals. 
  • This sensory mismatch triggers symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and sweating.

Here are 3 main factors contributing to conflicting signals:

1) Visual Input and Motion Sickness

The visual component plays a crucial role in motion sickness. When your eyes and inner ear send conflicting information to the brain, it can’t reconcile the disparity. 

Modern conveniences like reading, watching videos, or looking at a screen during travel exacerbate this conflict, as they provide visual input that contradicts the motion sensed by the vestibular system.

2) Adaptation and Sensory Mismatch

Repeated exposure to conflicting sensory input can lead to adaptation in some cases. 

For frequent travelers, the brain may learn to better reconcile visual and vestibular signals, reducing the likelihood and severity of motion sickness. 

However, this adaptation is not universal, and many individuals continue to experience symptoms despite regular exposure to travel.

3) Individual Variations in Susceptibility

Not everyone is equally prone to motion sickness. Some individuals seem immune, while others experience symptoms even with minimal motion. 

Genetic factors, age, and individual differences in how the brain processes sensory information contribute to this variability in susceptibility.

The Impact of Anxiety and Stress

Psychological factors also play a role in motion sickness. Anxiety and stress can heighten symptoms, making the experience more challenging for individuals already predisposed to motion sickness. 

Relaxation techniques and mental preparation may help alleviate the psychological aspects of motion sickness.

Preventing Motion Sickness: Strategies and Considerations

While motion sickness can be challenging, several strategies can help minimize its impact. 

In the second half of this article, we’ll explore practical tips and preventive measures that individuals can employ to navigate their journeys with greater comfort and ease. 

Understanding the science behind motion sickness sets the stage for implementing effective solutions.

Choose Your Seat Wisely

Selecting the right seat can significantly impact motion sickness. 

  • In vehicles, opt for the front seat or the middle seat in the middle row, where motion is less pronounced. 
  • On airplanes, choose a seat near the wings, where the effects of turbulence are less noticeable. 
  • By strategically positioning yourself, you can minimize the conflicting sensory signals that contribute to motion sickness.

Focus on the Horizon

Keeping your gaze fixed on the horizon helps align visual and vestibular signals. This is particularly effective when traveling by car or boat. 

Encourage passengers to look at distant landmarks or the horizon to create a stable visual reference point. Avoid activities that require intense focus on close objects, as this can exacerbate the sensory mismatch.

Ventilation and Fresh Air

  • Well-ventilated spaces and exposure to fresh air can alleviate symptoms of motion sickness. 
  • When possible, open windows or vents to ensure good airflow. If you’re on a boat, spending time on the deck where you can feel the breeze may provide relief. 
  • Adequate ventilation helps create a more comfortable environment for individuals prone to motion sickness.

Stay Hydrated and Avoid Heavy Meals

Dehydration and a full stomach can contribute to motion sickness. Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout your journey, but avoid excessive consumption, as it can lead to discomfort. 

Opt for light, easily digestible meals before travel, and avoid heavy or spicy foods that may exacerbate symptoms. Maintaining proper hydration and nutrition supports overall well-being during travel.

Consider Medications and Remedies

For those who frequently experience motion sickness, over-the-counter or prescription medications may offer relief. 

  • Antihistamines and scopolamine patches are common choices, which many travelers get a prescription for.
  • However, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the most suitable option based on individual health considerations. 
  • Alternative remedies such as ginger or acupressure wristbands may provide relief for some individuals.

Gradual Exposure and Desensitization

Gradual exposure to motion stimuli can help desensitize the body to the triggers of motion sickness. 

Start with short journeys and gradually increase the duration as your body adapts. This method is particularly effective for children, allowing them to build tolerance over time. Patience and consistency are key when implementing desensitization strategies.

Using Entertainment to Your Advantage
Embarking on a journey while prone to motion sickness can occasionally be remedied with calming, distracting entertainment choices. 

  • Try  audio-based options, such as audiobooks or soothing music, to minimize visual conflicts and enhance your sensory alignment. 
  • Engaging in conversations with fellow travelers or immersing yourself in travel podcasts can provide a welcome distraction. 
  • Steer clear of intense visual activities like reading or watching videos, as they can exacerbate the symptoms of motion sickness. 

By tailoring your entertainment to complement your sensory experience, you can significantly reduce the risk of nausea and ensure a more enjoyable travel experience.

Conclusion: Navigating Travel Comfortably

Understanding the science behind motion sickness empowers individuals to adopt proactive measures for a more comfortable travel experience. 

By addressing the sensory mismatch that triggers symptoms, implementing preventive strategies, and considering individual variations, individuals can navigate journeys with greater ease. 

Always remember:

  • Whether it’s choosing the right seat, focusing on the horizon, or exploring medication options, the goal is to create a travel environment that minimizes the impact of motion sickness. 
  • While complete immunity may not be achievable for everyone, informed choices and practical strategies can significantly enhance the journey for those prone to motion sickness. 
  • Prepare ahead of time, and avoid last-minute solutions that leave you stressed for the trip.
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