For folks who are prone to motion sickness — that woozy, lightheaded, nauseous feeling when you get when moving in a car, ship, plane, or train — traveling is no fun at all.
But a recent study from Britain’s University of Warwick suggests that we can “train our brains” to be far less susceptible to motion sickness with the help of simple visuospatial exercises.
Visuospatial ability refers to the capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. We rely on visuospatial function for all kinds of activities throughout our day, every time we reach for an object, do a jigsaw puzzle, hit a baseball with a bat, or gauge the empty space between two cars in a parking lot.
One in three people are susceptible to motion sickness, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the University of Warwick researchers predict that number will rise as self-driving cars become prevalent. “It is expected that due to potential designs and use cases, self-driving cars will increase motion sickness onset likelihood and severity for many car travelers…This research develops a novel visuospatial training tool and explores the effect of visuospatial training on motion sickness.”
The study included 42 test subjects, both male and female. To get a baseline, participants were taken for virtual car rides in a 3-D simulator and actual rides in an on-road vehicle. During the rides, the participants rated their degree of motion sickness.
For the next two weeks, the group was split in two. Half of the participants did nothing. The second group spent 15 minutes per day doing pen-and-paper visuospatial training exercises.
These training exercises included paper folding reasoning tasks, identifying embedded images within drawings, and mental rotation tasks where the participant compares 3-D objects, often rotated in some axis, and tries to find those that match.
For example, the participants were asked to identify which two of the four shapes below are the same as the “target” shape on the left.
At the end of the two weeks, the study participants were taken for rides again. While there was little change in the control group, those in the “brain trained” group reported 51% less motion sickness in the simulator and 58% less motion sickness on the road in a real-life situation.
“Visuospatial ability has a causal effect on motion sickness susceptibility,” conclude the researchers. “Improving one’s visuospatial skills is an effective method of reducing motion sickness.”
“We have shown that it is possible to improve visuospatial skill through pen and paper training task,” wrote the researchers, “and that this improvement was directly responsible for a large, and statistically significant, reduction in motion sickness.”