The really weird reason why you feel so sick when you read in the car

A personal story for you real quick — back in the early ’90s, my parents, avid readers themselves, always suggested bringing a book along when a road trip was estimated to be over an hour long. It makes sense, since why not get lost in gorgeous fiction instead of constantly getting impatient, and asking for the ETA, right? But while I tried to take their suggestion a few times, I just couldn’t. It made me feel a little nauseous. Trying to comprehend words at 65 miles per hour was just something my brain couldn’t handle.

Turns out I’m not alone. And there’s a scientific reason as to why a bunch of us feel this way. And a weird reason, at that.

Writer and neuroscientist Dean Burnett chatted with NPR’s Fresh Air the other day, and talked a bit about general motion sickness. He claims that when you’re traveling by car, your body is not truly “in motion,” but parts of you assume it is — your eyes are gazing at the distance you’ve traveled at a fast pace, and your inner ears are trying to find their balance.


Speaking of your inner ears, they actually help inform you when things aren’t at their normal level — for instance, if you’re moving at a fast pace, your inner ear’s “balance centers” take notice. The thalamus, which is located in your brain, takes all these different signals and interprets them.

While your thalamus is pretty cool and high-tech, it still gets a little bit confused when you’re in this state. After all, part of you is “reporting” that you’re in motion, while the other parts are indicating that you’re not mobile. And, well, your thalamus freaks out a bit. In fact, it thinks you’ve been poisoned.

So, how does this relate to reading? Well, when you read, your eyes focus on something else. Your inner ear tubes, however, aren’t going anywhere. So — it blocks out yet another indicator of what’s actually happening. It confuses your brain, and it causes you to feel a little sick based on the miscommunication of your body parts.

“You’re shutting out a lot of external visual information,” Burnett said. “… It sort of increases the sensory mismatch, which is causing the sickness in the first place … You’ve got no visual information to try and help allay the brain’s concerns.”

So really, it’s your brain telling you that reading in a car is a bad idea. So, next time you’re planning on catching up on your favorite summer novel, maybe choose to enjoy it in a well-lit room. Your thalamus will thank you.

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