It’s the dead of summer, 100 degrees. You’re enjoying a popsicle, seeking relief from the sweltering sun. Suddenly, you feel it: a pang in your brain. Brain freeze. You’re instantly transported back to decades past, having the same experiences countless times since you were a young child. But have you ever wondered why we get brain freezes?
Back in May 2013, ScienceDaily published an interview with neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin, PhD, who explains the phenomenon. While the scientific term for brain freeze is “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia,” another way of putting it is that “brain freeze is your body’s way of putting on the brakes, telling you to slow down and take it easy.”
What happens is this: if you consume something such as a popsicle or cold drink too quickly, you’re in turn swiftly changing the temperature in the back of your throat. In this same area lies the meeting place of your anterior cerebral artery, where the brain tissue begins, and the internal carotid artery, which fuels the brain with blood. “One thing the brain doesn’t like is for things to change, and brain freeze is a mechanism to prevent you from doing that,” Godwin explains.
Despite being outfitted with billions of neurons, the brain itself can’t feel pain, according to Godwin. The pain we typically associate with brain freezes, however, is actually picked up by receptors in our brain’s outer covering, known as the meninges, which is where our anterior cerebral and internal carotid arteries meet. When the cold strikes them, it leads to these arteries dilating and contracting, and in turn the sensation that our brain interprets as pain, he says.
“Brain freeze is really a type of headache that is rapid in onset, but rapidly resolved as well,” Godwin said. “Our mouths are highly vascularized, including the tongue–that’s why we take our temperatures there. But drinking a cold beverage fast doesn’t give the mouth time to absorb the cold very well.”
To Godwin, studying brain freezes is also a useful way to research other iterations of headaches: “we can’t easily give people migraines or a cluster headache, but we can easily induce brain freeze without any long-term problems.” He continued: “We can learn something about headache mechanisms and extend that to our understanding to develop better treatments for patients.”
The easiest cure for brain freeze, Godwin says, is to simply stop drinking that stone-cold beverage or licking that popsicle. Alternatively, you could also stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth, where it’s warm, or concurrently drink something tepid to normalize your mouth’s temperature. But a small part of me, at least, almost enjoys that shock of head-cold that transports me back to summers past.