The Science of Brain Freeze and Ice Cream Headaches: Shortwave: NPR



Hey nerds. Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE producer Brit Hanson, who has a fun summer microwave ready for us.

BRIT HANSON, BYLINE: Yes. I was out on the summer reportage beat.

SOFIA: Okay.

HANSON: By that I mean sitting out on the porch trying to keep a cool head with my favorite summer treat (laughter). Do you know what that is?

SOFIA: Actually, friendship points. I do – a vanilla malt.

HANSON: Oh my god. It is. Yes. Which one is yours

SOFIA: Well, mine is absolutely classy, ​​a huge Mountain Dew slushie.

HANSON: (laughter) Oh, Maddie.

SOFIA: Listen, Briton.

HANSON: (laughter).

SOFIA: Think about it. You sit there You have these frozen neon green liquid candy right in your bloodstream. Magical.

HANSON: Oh, you’re right. You’re right. You’re right. You cool off and sip your slushie. There is nothing better – until bam. Out of nowhere, a sharp, sudden pain rushes into your forehead.

SOFIA: Wait. Are we talking about brain freeze today?

HANSON: Yes. Yes we are.


HANSON: You know, the severe pain you get when you eat or drink something too fast that is really cold.

SOFIA: It’s all fun and games and ice cream until someone gets hurt, Brit.

HANSON: (laughter).

SOFIA: I mean, but seriously, do you want to tell us what it’s about, for example why we get brain freezes? Because I want to know.

HANSON: Yes. That’s what I want to talk about here, Maddie. On the show today …


HANSON: … Why some of us get these cold headaches. We spoke to a neuroscientist to find out.

SOFIA: It’s also a microwave. So we have some listener mail.

HANSON: And Maddie, it’s all about you.

SOFIA: Oh god.

HANSON: So buckle up (laughter).

SOFIA: You’re listening to SHORT WAVE, NPR’s daily science podcast.


SOFIA: Okay, British. We’re talking about brain freeze today, also known as an ice cream headache. With whom did you speak?

HANSON: Well, I called an expert.

CAROLINE PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: My name is Caroline Palavicino-Maggio. And I’m a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

HANSON: And Maddie, get it – Caroline says her kids actually like to have brain freeze contests where they compete to see who gets a cold headache first.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: So you get three scoops of chocolate ice cream …

HANSON: Which you basically eat as quickly as possible.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: (Laughter) And whoever gets there first wins, whoever feels the first sensation.

SOFIA: (laughter).

HANSON: Oh my god. This is what happens when your parents are neuroscientists.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: You influence the behavior of your children in a variety of ways.


SOFIA: To be honest, that’s hilarious. Scientist mom. Scientist mom.

HANSON: I know, right? So Caroline told me that the technical term for brain freeze is …

PALAVICINO-MAY: Sphenopalatine gangloneuralgia.

SOFIA: Yes. I could have told you that. I definitely – I could have told you that.

HANSON: Right? Law? What I let her say so I didn’t have to. And it’s a real type of headache indeed that comes and goes very quickly, in about 30 seconds or so.

SOFIA: Okay. Why exactly do these short-lived cold-related headaches occur?

HANSON: Well, the exact reason is still a bit of a mystery. But it is generally agreed that there are a number of very sensitive nerves and blood vessels in the roof of the mouth and throat, and if every cold product your food touches your palate, or even generally makes you mouth really cold, those nerves feel those nerves. ..

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: The temperature change and this change causes the vasodilatation and narrowing.

HANSON: Scientists are still trying to find out what happens when. But basically, those nerves get that little shock. And nearby blood vessels change quickly, shrink and then expand.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: And this change in the shape of the blood vessels causes this sensation of pain.

HANSON: Essentially, your nerves and blood vessels work together to send a danger signal to the brain through the trigeminal nerve, which is one of the most important facial nerves.

SOFIA: And this danger signal is sent in the form of pain, but not in your mouth, but higher up, like in your head?

HANSON: Yes. exactly.

SOFIA: So it’s like this, um, ouch, ouch, turn it down …

HANSON: (laughter).

SOFIA: … switch off?

HANSON: That’s right. It’s a kind of self-protection for the brain.

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: Pain is a good thing. So your brain is telling you, okay, whatever you’re doing, you have to stop. It actually makes you aware of things that can harm you.

SOFIA: I mean, that makes sense to me. Your brain is like please don’t freeze me. So is that somehow dangerous?

HANSON: That’s a really good question, and that’s what I asked myself about. But I have good news. No, brain freeze is in no way dangerous. And Caroline says it should go away in less than a minute or so. And, Maddie, here’s another interesting fact – not everyone gets brain freezes.

SOFIA: Wow. I really thought everyone did.

HANSON: I know, right? It’s hard to say how many people are doing this because researchers don’t necessarily strive to study this – since it’s not dangerous, you know? But there are far-reaching estimates. Caroline said between 30 and 50% of the population is a fairly common estimate. It also appears that brain freezing is more common in people with migraines.

SOFIA: Okay. So did Caroline offer any tips on how to avoid it or make it less bad?

HANSON: Okay. So she shared a few theories. Although, as I said, this has not been studied in great detail. And because the duration of these headaches is so short, it’s actually hard to tell whether any of these cold-related headaches will go away on their own or whether the intervention will actually help.

SOFIA: Okay.

HANSON: That said …

PALAVICINO-MAGGIO: Some people say that just taking a sip of room temperature water before and after your bite can prevent the brain from freezing. Other people have spoken of raising your tongue to the roof of your mouth.

HANSON: Other people say try eating or drinking your cold a little slower.

SOFIA: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

HANSON: (laughter). You’re right. You are right, Maddie. You know, for some of us, brain freeze is just one of the dangers of summer.

SOFIA: I accept the risk. I accept the risk.

HANSON: (Laughter) Okay. Are you ready for some listener mail?

SOFIA: All right. Let’s do this.

HANSON: Okay. So I’ve put together a few listener notes for you, especially because we got a lot – and I really mean a lot – emails after you said you would be switching from SHORT WAVE in the coming months.

SOFIA: That is delightful. I also sweat a lot just thinking about it.

HANSON: (Laughter) Okay. So this first one comes from Pattie (ph). (Read) I just wanted to leave a message to let Maddie know that she will be sorely missed. I work at midnight and drive home 40 minutes in the morning and their passion and enthusiasm make the journey so much shorter and easier.

SOFIA: Oh my god. Thanks, Patti. This is really nice.

HANSON: (Laughter) Okay. I have another one. This comes from Em (ph). (Read) Thank you for being a consistent and uplifting voice for all of us in some of the most challenging years, telling the truth and facts about science in a fun and informative way. Good luck. And please come back to the podcast from time to time and let us know how you are.


SOFIA: Mmmhmm?

HANSON: People want a firm commitment.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Okay.

HANSON: Are you coming to visit again?

SOFIA: You can’t keep me away, Brit Hanson. You can’t keep me away

HANSON: (laughter).

SOFIA: But let’s also talk about the tariffs for freelancers. You know what I mean?


HANSON: Okay. OK. I have another one. Can you handle it

SOFIA: Absolutely not. Let’s do this.

HANSON: So the last one comes from a listener named Rachel (ph). (Read) Maddie was an inspiring figure for me as a young person interested in science and science communication.

SOFIA: No, no. I will cry.

HANSON: (reads) As a queer person, it was so inspiring to see a queer journalist openly talking on the podcast about bringing more diversity to science and creating a more inclusive environment. I’ve been hearing about the health risks of vaping since one of the very first episodes. And I’ll really miss Maddie’s light-hearted humor and banter on the show. Thank you for all you have done.

SOFIA: British guy, I didn’t expect to be crying gay tears right now. I am not – I have not …

HANSON: Oh, gay tears are welcome here.

SOFIA: That’s really nice.


SOFIA: Rachel, I appreciate you. Many Thanks. And don’t worry. I promise you, there are still a lot of Queerdos (ph) in this SHORT WAVE team for you.

HANSON: Present. Report to work.


HANSON: Maddie, everyone loves you and will miss you, including me. But we still have a few months before you officially leave. And were …


HANSON: … will enjoy each and every one of them.

SOFIA: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. We definitely will.

Thank you Brit. And thanks to everyone who took part. I love you. We love to hear from you. If you’d like to share a note, you can email us at [email protected]


SOFIA: This episode was produced and reported by Brit Hanson.

HANSON: Fact-checked by Indi Khera and published by Viet Le.

SOFIA: I’m Maddie Sofia. Thank you for hearing about SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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