The pathophysiology of brain freeze, medically known as ‘cold stimulus headache’ is not completely understood. What is known is that, when you eat something cold too quickly, you can induce a sudden sharp frontal-lobe headache that peaks in about 20 seconds and resolves by about 2 minutes. Theories suggest that the rapid cooling of capillaries in either the upper palate, the sinuses, or the throat cause blood vessels to rapidly constrict and then just as rapidly dilate. This sudden activity causes pain receptors to signal the nearby trigeminal nerve which is misrepresented by the brain as pain in the forehead. This is ‘referred pain’ like jaw pain caused by a heart attack or shoulder pain caused by a gall bladder attack. However, in this case, no harm is occurring in the process – thankfully, because who doesn’t love ice cream?
Anyone can experience brain freeze but it is more common in migraine sufferers (a similar mechanism may cause their aura and pain) and in children whose parents also experience cold stimulus headaches, suggesting an inherited susceptibility.
To end an episode of brain freeze as quickly as possible, research suggests thrusting the tongue out toward the nose, pushing it up on the roof of the mouth, or drinking warm liquid. Luckily, however, it may pass more quickly than any intervention.
One last bit of information, 7-Eleven Inc. trademarked the term ‘brainfreeze’ in the 2010s. Oops, I was corrected by Reddit that they trademarked a drink named BrainFreeze. Whichever, don’t drink it too fast.
Motion sickness is a common occurrence in people traveling in boats and cars or other forms of motion. The symptoms of motion sickness usually include of nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and altered gait and were first described by Hippocrates. The word ‘nausea’ comes from the Latin word for ship – naus, as in nautical.
Sea sickness occurs because of conflicting information between what the brain perceives and what the body’s doing. The body senses motion through the middle ear but the brain knows that the person is not self-generating movement. This disconnect triggers an evolutionary defense mechanism: historically, the most likely cause of a conflict between the senses are hallucinations brought on by the ingestion of poisons. The nausea and vomiting are the body’s way of trying to expel the toxins it thinks are endangering it.
Women (especially when pregnant), children older than two, and migraine sufferers are most susceptible to motion sickness which is harder to treat than to prevent. Actions to minimize the conflict include looking at the horizon on a boat or out of the window of a car, sitting in front of the car or the middle of the boat, breathing fresh air; don’t read books, electronic media, or watch films; drink ginger ale or ginger tea, eat ginger candies or cookies. Benadryl or meclizine tablets, scopolamine patches, and acupressure bands can all be helpful.
I’m not affected in cars or boats, but I can’t go near a spinning carnival ride!
A yawn is a reflexive action of inhaling deeply, stretching the chewing and swallowing muscles that stretches the eardrums and dilates the airway, followed by a long exhalation. It occurs due to tiredness, boredom, or hearing or seeing someone else yawn. “Contagious” yawning is also seen in chimpanzees, dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles and can occur cross-species. Even fetuses yawn (watch here). ‘Pandiculation’ is the term for the especially satisfying act of yawning and stretching at the same time.
Many theories exist about why we yawn. It may have developed to stretch the muscles to strengthen vocalization, swallowing, chewing, and breathing. Research shows that the brain gets warmer in stressful situations, before exercise, and as people grow tired. A yawn takes cold air in and increases blood flow around the brain, carrying away excess heat.
Contagious or empathetic yawning may have developed to signal animals in a pack to stay alert or, alternatively, to synchronize sleep time. Many dogs yawn when a human yawns in front of them but do not yawn when the person only opens their mouth. Some dogs also respond to a human’s yawn by becoming relaxed and sleepy – I think they’re always looking for any excuse to take a nap.
In humans, empathetic yawning is greatest and quickest to occur in response to family, then friends, then acquaintances, and lastly strangers. Children with autism spectrum disorders do not respond to yawning as frequently as neurotypical children, furthering the suggested connection to empathy.
If you want stop yawning, try breathing through your nose – or if you’re really struggling, hold a cold pack against your forehead! I must have yawned at least a dozen times during the writing of this entry – along with some pandiculation.
Lump in the throat:
Under stress, the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in triggering the sympathetic nervous system which shuts down temporarily unnecessary bodily functions like digestion and increases blood flow and oxygen to now necessary functions like an alert brain, flexing muscles, and running. Emotional situations trigger the same sympathetic response. To facilitate breathing, the ‘glottis’ that opens the vocal cords expands allowing more air to pass through to the lungs. The body can only maintain this heightened state for a short time because some functions must continue – like swallowing. The glottis needs to close the vocal cords during swallowing to prevent anything but air from getting into the lungs. As the body struggles against itself to shut the expanded glottis, it feels like there is a lump in the throat.
Speaking of emotional situations, we now know that there is a direct nerve connection between the lacrimal glands or tear ducts and the location of emotional response in the brain – voila, the release of tears! But not just any tears – emotional tears contain more hormones and chemicals than tears from other sources of crying. These elements serve to lower stress levels, increase heart rate and slow breathing rate, leaving a person feeling better after a bout of crying.
One source states that, “the average woman cries between 30 and 64 times a year and the average man cries between 6 and 17 times a year.” The paper is in German, which I cannot read, so I don’t know how or when the study was conducted but it seems to me there is an awful lot of crying going on in Germany!
The tickling response is theorized to be “a system designed to help develop combat skills.” Say what??
Tickling is hypothesized to create a bond between parent and child to establish familiarity and trust between a caregiver and a child to allow for unpleasurable touching when necessary, like in the administration of an injection or a stinging medicine.
There are two ticklish responses – one, knismesis, is the response elicited by a crawling insect on the skin (picture the horse shooing the flies away); the second is gargalesis which elicits laughter and is caused by deeper pressure and shorter strokes in targeted regions of the body. The first occurs in humans and animals, while the second only occurs in humans and primates, although there is some evidence that rats are also ticklish. Lab techs sometimes get bored.
Tickling is also common among siblings and close friends. The tickle response is dependent on both pain and touch receptors which explains why there is sometimes elements of both. Such activity causes the tickled to try to escape the tickler without either person causing pain to the other. The fact that it is somewhat pleasurable and elicits laughter, stimulates the participants to do it again, effectively honing the defense and escape skills of the ‘victim.’ In addition, the most ticklish areas of the body are those that are most vulnerable during hand-to-hand combat – the trunk, the neck, the sides. Hence the thinking that tickling play is evolutionary combat training.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, first noted that one can’t tickle oneself. This fact suggests that the tickling response must include the element of surprise. Isn’t being in a body a curious and fun phenomenon?
Wrinkled fingers and toes:
Ever wonder why only the fingers and toes get wrinkly in water and not the whole body? Wouldn’t that be hilarious? The wrinkling of the skin at the ends of the extremities is caused by the numerous nerves and blood vessels situated there.
Water seeps into the outer layers of the skin causing them to swell. This causes the myriad nerves in the skin of the fingertips and toes to fire off electrical charges and chemicals that make the blood vessels constrict pulling in the skin as well, causing the appearance of wrinkles. This is supported by the observation that the fingers and toes of people with nerve damage there do not wrinkle. Evolutionary thinkers suspected that this wrinkling assisted ancient humans to better grip tools and have steadier footing in wet or rainy environments and this has been confirmed by modern studies.
Pre-sleep body jerks:
I had one just last night – that sudden startle just as I was falling asleep. Also called a hypnic jerk or a night start, this involuntary muscle contraction is randomly experienced by about 70 percent of healthy people, with about 10 percent of people experiencing it nightly. It is more common in children who, between the ages of 8 to 12, may experience, and often sleep through, four to seven hypnic jerks per hour.
The physiological cause is unknown but anxiety, caffeine, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and dreaming may facilitate it. The decrease in blood pressure, body temperature, and relaxation of muscle tissue as sleep approaches may be involved. Scientists theorize that the brain may misinterpret the muscle relaxation as a signal that the body is falling and the responsive jerk allows the sleeper to awake and reassess its position. It was particularly helpful when we were sleeping in trees. I guess that’s why we call it ‘falling’ asleep?
When Charles Osborne was 28 years old, he burst a blood vessel in his brain lifting a hog to be weighed (it was 350 pounds). And then he passed out. Fortunately, the only residual effect was a bad case of the hiccups. Unfortunately, his hiccups lasted for 68 years, the longest case of hiccups on record. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic could not cure him of the condition but they taught him how to breathe between hiccups and he lived a fairly normal life, marrying twice (once before and once after the pig episode) and fathering eight kids. His hiccups spontaneously stopped when he was 96 years old, about a year before he died in 1990.
The word ‘hiccup’ is an example of onomatopoeia – a word created from the sound of the thing. A hiccup is the involuntary contraction or jerk of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle below the lungs, causing a suction episode that forces a rapid inhalation followed by the sudden closure of the vocal cords that causes the “hic” sound.
Most frequently, hiccups are caused by rushed eating, overeating, excessive alcohol or carbonated beverage consumption. Other common causes include head trauma, stroke, encephalitis, gastric reflux, appendicitis, and general anesthesia. Just recently, COVID-19 has been implicated as a cause of hiccups in several case reports.
While most bouts last for several minutes; hiccups lasting more than 48 hours are called ‘persistent,’ and if they last more than a month they are called ‘intractable.’ Only in rare cases are hiccups a signal of underlying disease such as kidney disease or cardiac arrhythmia. Children, men and taller people are more likely to get hiccups and men are much more likely to suffer persistent or intractable cases.
In women, hiccups and chest pain may signal the onset of a stroke. Hiccups occur more frequently in the few days before the onset of menstruation. Prior to the advent of at-home pregnancy tests, a prolonged case of hiccups was considered by many women to be one of the early symptoms of pregnancy, though they become less frequent as the pregnancy progresses.
Hiccups decrease quality of life by interfering with eating, drinking, sleeping, and conversation. They may also exacerbate pain; cause insomnia, and fatigue.
Evolutionary theory: There is no known physiologic purpose for hiccups but the latest theory suggests an evolutionary one. Mammals are the only animals that breastfeed their young and the only animals that hiccup. A recent hypothesis suggests that hiccups evolved to facilitate breastfeeding. The shutting of the vocal cords creates a suction that pulls air from the stomach up and out, effectively “burping” the infant to allow for greater milk consumption.
Treatment: The Mayo Clinic’s wisdom on the topic was summed up in 1932 and is still relevant today: “The amount of knowledge on any subject… [is] in inverse proportion to the number of different treatments suggested and tried for it.”
Here are some suggested remedies:
- Pulling on the tongue, swallowing a spoonful of granulated sugar, gargling with water, sipping ice water, drinking from the far side of a glass, biting on a lemon, or sniffing noxious agents like ammonia
- Stimulating the back of the throat or the uvula with a spoon or cotton swab
- Breathing into a bag, holding the breath, or hyperventilation
- Pressing on the eyes with the thumbs
Medications (some muscle relaxants, sedatives, stimulants, etc.) and/or surgery can also be effective in cases of intractable hiccups.
Only mammals get true goose bumps or goose pimples. This “ability” is a vestigial reflex, an inherited trait from our animal ancestors that has lost its original function. The hypnic jerk (see pre-sleep body spasms) is another example of a vestigial reflex. The goose bump automatic involuntary reflex originally caused the raising of fur for two purposes: 1) in cold conditions, the raised hairs trapped more warm air close to the skin and 2) when startled or scared, the raised hairs made the animal look bigger and more formidable. Since we have since lost our formerly luxurious fur coats, we can see the bumps created by the muscles erecting the hairs, especially on the forearms.
If you’ve seen the Thanksgiving bird before mom puts it in the oven, you’ll understand why this bodily phenomenon is called goose bumps. When we are shivering or spooked, our skin can look very much like a plucked goose or turkey’s. In fact, the term “cold turkey” was derived from the goose bumps that addicts experience during an abrupt withdrawal from drugs.
How does it work? Each of our hair follicles contains a tiny muscle that contracts to pull the hair straight up in response to the cold or the fright as part of the fight or flight response. While this ability is no longer that helpful, we still experience it and associate it with strong emotions. The release of dopamine in instances of pleasure, and the release of epinephrine in instances of fear, trigger the response, hence, we feel chills when listening to music or watching scary or emotional films, even though we are in warm and safe environments.
One interesting addition to this phenomenon is from a study to ascertain why the sound of fingernails on a blackboard elicits such strong negative reactions. The researcher determined that the core sound was acoustically similar to that of a primate distress call. We are still fundamentally monkeys.
Phantom Vibration (or Ringing) Syndrome
This one is relatively new to the lexicon. Phantom vibration syndrome or phantom ringing syndrome is the perception that one’s cell phone is vibrating or ringing when it is not. Other playful terms to describe it include rangxiety, fauxcellarm (false alarm), and phone-tom (phantom).
A recent study at a university found that almost 90 percent of students had experienced it. Forty percent said it happened at least once a week with the average occurrence about once every two weeks. Few found it to be bothersome. Some think it’s a psychologically derived, physically experienced hallucination related to FOMO (the fear of missing out).
It’s been suggested that by keeping ourselves in a state of anticipatory alertness for the phone signal, our brain misinterprets a routine sensory sensation like a touch from clothing or a shift in contents of a purse as a phone vibration or an ambient sound as a phone ringing. Such a constant state of alertness can be fatiguing and stressful. On the other hand, perhaps, like dogs and monkeys can be, we are conditioned to answer the phone when it vibrates or rings and it doesn’t mean we are psychologically defective. Little research has yet been done on this phenomenon, there is little evidence that it is harmful and, in my mind, it does not qualify as a “syndrome.” Nevertheless, some psychologists are recommending periods of time away from our electronic devices with more time outdoors, moving, dancing, and singing which sounds like good advice to me for a number of reasons.
I confess to having experienced this phenomenon more than once. Catching myself retrieving my phone for a phantom vibration just makes me laugh. Oop! There goes my phone – gotta run!