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Scientists Are Working to Train Your Brain to Reduce Motion Sickness

Woman experiencing motion sickness.

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Key Takeaways

  • About a third of the world's population is highly susceptible to motion sickness.
  • Traditionally, people have taken medications to help manage common symptoms or avoided situations that trigger motion sickness.
  • Researchers found that visuospatial training exercises can help reduce susceptibility to motion sickness.

You can train your brain to reduce motion sickness, according to recent research findings.

A September study published in Applied Ergonomics found a relationship between susceptibility to motion sickness and visuospatial ability. This refers to your ability to identify and manipulate visual and spatial relationships. Visuospatial ability is what makes it possible to judge distances, pick up objects, and walk without bumping into objects.

Researchers found people with lower visuospatial performance are more susceptible to motion sickness, and those with greater visuospatial performance are less susceptible. The good news is that visuospatial skills can weaken and strengthen, meaning people can improve their visuospatial skills and reduce their likelihood of motion sickness with training.

“We've discovered one perhaps potential causal relationship between motion sickness sufferers and visuospatial skills,” lead study author Joseph Smyth, EngD, research fellow at the University of Warwick, tells Verywell. “For the general population, I think this research should give them confidence that we’re working toward methods of reducing motion sickness susceptibility.”

Smyth and his co-authors studied how the increased use of advanced technologies, like self-driving cars, may be hindered by motion sickness.

“There is a need to find new methods of reducing motion sickness considering the quantity of people who suffer from it and the broad impact it has on many people and industries,” the authors write. “This need is further motivated due to the increased efforts to get automated vehicles on the road by many manufacturers. It is known that automated vehicles and many of their use cases will increase the likelihood of motion sickness onset and severity.”

What This Means For You

Researchers found that exercises aimed at strengthening visual and spatial awareness can reduce feelings of motion sickness. While these exercises aren't yet publically available, in the future you may be able to work at improving your motion sickness.

How Training Can Reduce Motion Sickness

Almost everyone is susceptible to motion sickness and one-third of the population is highly susceptible, according to the study. But besides medication, there isn't much that can currently be done to curb the sickness.

Because of this, researchers developed a visuospatial training tool that was then tested on two sets of participants. For part one, 20 participants completed 14 days of visuospatial training exercises on pen and paper followed by a 3D simulator test.

For part two, a different cohort of 22 participants completed reading exercises on a computer screen while in a car operated by a driver, to imitate a fully autonomous vehicle. Following the 30-minute ride, the experimental group participants were given the visuospatial training exercises used in part one.

After a 14-day training period where participates completed 15-minutes of pen and paper tasks per day, visuospatial skills improved by 40%. This increase in visuospatial ability was directly responsible for a reduction in motion sickness by 51% in the simulator and a 58% reduction in the on-road trial. 

The participant dropout rate also decreased in both parts. The authors argue this is a strong indicator of a reduction in motion sickness, since participants were willing and able to tolerate the simulations.

Understanding Motion Sickness

Motion sickness is still only minimally understood. Smyth says current understanding of the condition comes from the 1975 book, Motion Sickness.

“Since then, there has been a lack of progress in the field,” Smyth says. “Our knowledge as a scientific community and the field hasn't really grown that much. That was quite shocking thinking that we've got all these technologies … and we don't really understand how we can mitigate the problems from this.”

Motion sickness is the result of a mismatch between the visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems resulting from real or perceived motion. It is typically triggered by road, sea, air, or space transportation or by virtual simulators such as video games and virtual reality. Motion sickness commonly occurs when passengers engage with non-driving related activities, such as reading books or browsing on their phones.

Symptoms of motion sickness include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Cold sweating
  • Sudden paleness
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Yawning
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased salivation

“When we have a mismatch of our senses, our body goes into self-preservation mode, this is explained through the evolutionary hypothesis,” Smyth says. “Our body assumes that once a mismatch is sensed, it must be because we’ve ingested some sort of poison, and that poison is responsible for these mismatches. That’s why we see the characteristics of sweating to push the toxins out of the skin, burping to alleviate gases, and eventually people emptying the contents of their stomachs—they vomit. That’s the body’s natural way of getting rid of a suspected poison.” 

Not surprisingly, Smyth says people who are susceptible to motion sickness tend not to put themselves in situations where they are likely to experience motion sickness again. For example, people who are highly susceptible to seasickness probably wouldn’t join the Navy.

But avoiding a situation is a way to self-manage, not treat, the problem and improved technologies might make it more difficult for people to avoid these kinds of situations. Smyth hopes these exercises can make a real difference.

“We believe that we’re basically empowering the brain to reduce the visual and stimulus dependency and help the brain understand motions better, and then clarify where there are mismatches and why those mismatches occur rather than jumping directly into sensory conflict when motion sickness really kicks in," he says.

Motion Sickness and Self-Driving Cars

As self-driving and autonomous vehicle technologies advance, consumers are considering what they want to do while the vehicle drives. Smyth says the consensus is clear: People want to engage in non-driving related activities such as watching films, reading books, and working.

“A lot of people currently cannot complete work-based tasks as a passenger and that’s likely to be true for self-driving vehicles and will probably get a bit worse,” he says.

Automotive manufacturers have already met the Level 2 threshold of autonomous vehicles as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers International. While no Level 3 vehicle is currently on the market, these vehicles will be capable of assuming full driving control, with the driver taking control at other times. That transfer of attention and skills strains the body.

Smyth’s previous research looked at the effect motion sickness has on human performance, including driving ability. He found that even mild motion sickness could have a significant impact on cognitive processing abilities and reaction times.

“We wouldn’t give the control to a driver if we knew they were drunk,” Smyth says. “Would we give control to a user if we knew they were suffering some degree of motion sickness, even mild?”

The Future of Visuospatial Training

It’s not possible to buy a visuospatial training exercise book off the shelf today, but Smyth thinks they will be on the market eventually. He and his co-authors developed the training books used in their study based on past research.

“This is the first of its kind of findings and is a big step forward in the field,” he says. “But now the real hard work kicks in. We need to understand what specific types of visuospatial skills break down into things like spatial awareness, spatiality, and mental rotation.”

He believes these exercises will first be adopted into existing training programs where people are often susceptible to motion sickness, like those within the military, private aviation, maritime, or automotive companies. Their findings may then filter down to general consumers.

He says this will become an even more pressing issue in the future as society increasingly relies on virtual reality, self-driving cars, and other technology that can trigger motion sickness.

“We want to make sure that when we’re developing self-driving technology and cars, the benefits are not only available to select people, so making sure that they’re accessible, even for people more traditionally susceptible to motion sickness,” Smyth says.

 

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