A friend recently took his kids on a much-anticipated trip to Disneyland. When I saw him afterward and asked how it was, he shook his head. “We went on Space Mountain,” he said, by way of explanation.
He has two kids under six, so I figured they’d gotten scared. Later, my husband told me what really happened: the kids had loved it. Our friend had nearly puked.
My own parents would never have taken me on a roller coaster, although my dad did chaperone the Milli Vanilli/Paula Abdul concert at an amusement park, which probably required a stronger stomach than any ten-story drop. I’ve been on a few big rides (my glory day was a high school physics field trip to Great America, when I rode the Demon, Top Gun, and the Vortex in exchange for filling out a worksheet on momentum and acceleration) but never really caught the coaster bug.
Still, I felt for my friend. In the last few years, I’ve started to feel a bit queasy on the most benign of rides, just as my son is starting to enjoy the giddiness of dizzying pastimes.
There are a few different categories of motion sickness, but in general, it’s thought that motion sickness comes from when what a person sees doesn’t match up with the motion the body feels.
Women tend to be more affected by motion than men, particularly during their menstrual cycles. Migraine sufferers are at-risk for motion sickness, too—and women who haven’t been struck by motion sickness in the past can become more likely to get it around the two peak migraine onset periods (around age 35 and again at menopause). There may also be a genetic component to motion sickness.
Much of the motion-sickness literature reports that babies and toddlers under two are seldom victims. One thought as to why we get motion sickness is that it’s designed to stop movement that makes us unstable or involves conflict between different senses, and that avoiding this kind of movement would confer evolutionary fitness. In Brain Research Bulletin, Brad Bowins goes on to propose that motion sickness’s negative reinforcement would only work once a person could act to relieve its effects, eliminating its “advantage” in those too young to physically respond.
What throws me off is that motion sickness is actually more common in children (ages 2 to 12) than in adults. I still haven’t been able to find much about why kids are more prone to motion sickness, but also usually seem to love twirling, spinning, and tumbling so much.
Adults might be getting less fond of whirling because we’ve had more time to racking up a long list of things that make motion sickness worse, from illness to lifestyle. Colds, sinus infections and other ailments can tinker with your inner ear (home of the vestibular system, which helps the body sense movement and position). Booze, dehydration, too much or too little food can also increase the likelihood of getting sick. Suddenly, I’m remembering the ice cream and half-bottle of wine I had before co-piloting a tiny airplane at Tivoli Gardens—bleh.
Some adults are thrown for another loop by Ménière’s disease, a disorder that affects the inner ear and brings with it a symptom roulette that can include sudden, severe vertigo. Astronaut Alan Shepard spent six years grounded by Ménière’s after his first NASA mission. After successful corrective surgery, Shepard went on to command the Apollo 14 mission at 47, becoming the fifth person to walk on the moon.
To learn more about plain-old motion sickness (and how astronauts and pilots can minimize its effects), researchers from NASA and the U.S. Navy send people spinning around on quease-inducing chairs. They’re looking at medications that might help, as well as techniques like biofeedback and adaptation to motion through repeated exposure.
I’m not sure I’ll go so far as to take medication for the roller coasters—as one amusement park sales and marketing director does–or ride so many that I’ll feel acclimated. But if my son wants me to ride the Demon with him, I’ll give it a whirl. And I promise I’ll sit through any cheesy, possibly-lip-synched pop concerts—and embarrass my kids by being the crazy lady who’s still spinning.