Rethinking Motion Sickness and Digital Devices

Motion sickness affects millions worldwide—and our dependence on digital devices and screens is creating an epidemic. I’ve been studying the problem since the 1980s, and my research suggests that many of the popular theories regarding the cause of motion sickness are inaccurate.

As a child growing up in the ’60s, I was fascinated by America’s space program, especially the Apollo and Gemini manned space missions. As a graduate student in behavioral science, I wanted to combine my interests. When I asked people involved with space exploration about their biggest behavioral problem, the answer was nearly unanimous: motion sickness. This sparked a new chapter in my career; I’ve spent the last few decades looking for the root causes of motion sickness.

The Real Cause of Motion Sickness

The conventional explanation for motion sickness is what’s known as the “sensory conflict” theory. When there is a conflict between visual and other sensory input and how motion is perceived using your inner ear, it causes nausea and imbalance. However, when I started looking at this in the context of space flight, it seemed that approach was not very helpful. I took a look at the evidence and reached the conclusion: This explanation doesn’t allow us to predict who’s going to get sick, or when they will get sick or how to prevent them from getting sick.

In the years since, I’ve conducted extensive experiments on motion sickness, including the use of a “moving room” at my lab in the School of Kinesiology. I can move the walls of the structure back and forth while having the subject stand on a pressure plate that records his or her movements.

My research indicates the root of motion sickness lies not in the inner ear, but in what I call “postural instability” in situations where unusual motion challenges people’s control of their bodies. On dry land, when you press with your toes, the ground underneath you resists and your body sways backwards. When you press down on your heels, the ground underneath you resists and you sway forward.

The moment you step on board a cruise ship, this simple cause-and-effect response is upended. Ships move constantly and in a highly complex way. At the moment when you press with your toes, the ship may be rolling out from you. In which case, pressing with your toes will have no effect on what your body is doing. There is a disconnect between your control actions and the results that you want. This postural instability is what I believe causes motion sickness.

Only by acquiring “sea legs”—that loose-limbed style of walk that sailors refer to—will you be able to control your body without getting sick.

Motion Sickness in the Digital World

In the ’80s, I had the opportunity to conduct research at the Air Force Flight Simulation Laboratory at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH. At the time, the lab had the most advanced flight-sim technology on the planet – which was effective enough to create motion sickness for the pilots.

With the rapid advances in technology over the past few decades, millions worldwide now experience simulated 3D environments with their video game consoles, iPads and smartphones. Soon, consumer headsets like the Oculus Rift will introduce true virtual reality to a mass market.

As we spend more time in digital 3D environments and interacting with small screens while simultaneously experiencing real-world motion in cars and trains, we’re seeing an epidemic of motion sickness. After seeing so many anecdotal stories of game-related motion sickness online, I decided to purchase some game consoles for the lab. To my knowledge, we’ve conducted the first controlled scientific study on “off the shelf” games and motion sickness. So far, the results show a problem that’s significant and growing. Depending on the game, we’re seeing rates of anywhere from 20% to 70% of users experiencing motion sickness symptoms while playing games. Extrapolate those percentages over the hundreds of millions of game consoles and PCs in the world, and you have an epidemic.

Motion Sickness and Gender Equality in Virtual Reality

We’ve known for years that women tend to experience motion sickness at higher rates than men. Now, as we begin to put a greater focus on motion sickness in digital environments, we’re paying closer attention to these gender disparities. In our Oculus Rift study, the rate of motion sickness in women was more than double what it was in men.

In relation to seasickness, there is little we can do about this gender disparity. But technology and the digital world is a different issue. We built the digital world and we are responsible for it. If we find that the digital world that we created is systematically discriminating against one group—particularly when that group is one half of the population—we have a social responsibility to do something about it.

As technology continues to advance these issues begin to have serious implications. If a significant part of our lives in the future will be spent in virtual reality, and if that technology systematically discriminates against half your population, then you have a social problem. It’s not just a technology problem anymore. That’s why I’m paying more attention to gender differences in my research moving forward, and why it’s important that the technology industry begins to take responsibility for the problem.

Tips For Avoiding Motion Sickness

While there’s no “cure” for motion sickness, there are steps you can take to prevent it. It’s easier to avoid motion sickness than trying to reduce the symptoms once they’ve set in.

Lay down and relax. Whether on a ship or another place where you’re likely to experience motion sickness, your best bet will be to lie down and rest your head. On a ship, staring at the horizon may also help you avoid becoming seasick.

Skip the tablets. Dimenhydrinate (marketed under several brand names) has been shown to have moderate effectiveness for some people, but not for the reason you think. Looking at the pharmacological effects of the ingredients of products like Dramamine, we see that most “motion sickness” drugs are actually mild sedatives – making it likely that the user will take my advice and lie down.

Turn off the screen, put down the book. Activities like reading or interacting with smartphones or other electronic devices especially in a moving vehicle, can cause motion sickness or dramatically worsen the symptoms.

Put in your earbuds. While you should avoid visual electronic stimuli, listening to music is often helpful. It engages your attention and distracts you from the symptoms, as well as discouraging you from becoming bored and standing up, which could worsen your motion sickness.

Tom Stoffregen, Ph.D.

About the Author

Tom Stoffregen, Ph.D.

  • Director, Affordance Perception-Action
  • Laboratory School of Kinesiology
  • College of Education and Human Development

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking Motion Sickness and Digital Devices”

  1. Jonathan says:

    This was a great read, so thank you very much. One question: What are the theories as to why women experience motion sickness at a higher rate than do men?

    1. Tom Stoffregen says:

      Men and women differ in shape and size; height, mass distribution, etc. These differences cause the sexes to move differently, simply because of the physical masses involved. A long pendulum swings differently than a short pendulum, for example. Sure enough, the sexes reliably differ in the subtle motions that comprise body sway. And strange as it may seem, these differences correlate with known sex differences in susceptibility to motion sickness. We recently completed (and are preparing for publication) research demonstrating this relationship empirically, for the first time. This effect is consistent with my general approach–the idea that motion sickness arises from unstable control of the body. PLEASE NOTE: I do not claim that women are “less stable” than men! There are subtleties here, but they are scientific, not political.

  2. Morch says:

    Thanks for the read; however after all that research seems we are no closer to resolving the epidemic you speak of, can I safely then assume that in order to potentially overcome seasickness time on the boat should / could help?

    As an aside and future wanabee Captain of a boat (who suffers greatly with motion sickness) should I rather avoid the task altogether or simply tighten (or loosen) my belt and persevere?

    1. We are closer. I think that after decades of “close to zero” progress we are moving forward pretty quickly – but it won’t happen overnight.

      On a boat, seasickness naturally recedes with continued exposure, anywhere from 12-96 hours for 98 percent of people. If exposure is less than 24 hours per voyage, you may never adapt. That is speculation, however; there is no research on this question yet.

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