Listening to your inner ear

“A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
Lord Nelson

Until he went to sea with young Cubby on his sail back from Maine in a small cruising sloop, Big Red hadn’t been seasick and never dizzy when he got ashore. That was because he’d spent his life navigating the calm waters of the Mississippi River. But that changed after he’d been on the ocean for 28 hours, then stepped onto land. From “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red”:

“How far is it, Cubby? ‘Cause I ain’t walking. I ain’t even sure if I can walk on level ground after all this rocking,” I said. When we made it to shore in the little skiff, tied up to the town dock, and stepped onto land, I said “I feel like a drunken sailor – the whole ground just keeps moving.”

“You are a drunken sailor, Red.”

“Will be soon, I hope.”

“The rocking problem comes from your inner ear,” Cubby said.

“No, the problem comes from the ground under my feet. It’s moving.”

“Your ears have little fluid-filled tubes in them. When you lean one way, the fluid stimulates one side of the tube, and it gives you the sense of motion. On a boat, the tubes are constantly stimulated in the same pattern, so your body gets used to this and then anticipates it. That’s why you keep rocking for a while even though you’re on stable ground. Grampy told me. You should be fine tomorrow.”

“It feels like my brains are just sloshing around in my head.”

“Maybe you need to expand your brain, Red.”

“Might be easier to make my head smaller.”

“Just kidding, you know.”

“I know, Cubby.”

So what does happen inside our little heads at sea? Cubby just explained why we get dizzy, but why do we get sick? Here’s an interesting explanation from a neuroscientist:

“When you’re at sea, your unsuspecting thalamus is picking up all sorts of mixed signals. Your muscles are motionless, and yet your eyes can see that you are, in fact, moving along, and quite quickly. And then there’s the problem of the aforementioned fluids in your inner ears, which are rocking around and sloshing because you actually are moving.

So what’s happening there is the brain’s getting mixed messages. It’s getting signals from the muscles and the eyes saying we are still, and signals from the balance sensors saying we’re in motion. Both of these cannot be correct. There’s a sensory mismatch there.

“And in evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison. So the brain thinks, essentially, it’s been poisoned. When it’s been poisoned, the first thing it does is get rid of the poison, a.k.a. throwing up. As soon as the brain gets confused by anything like that, it says, Oh, I don’t know what to do, so just be sick, just in case. And as a result, we get motion sickness because the brain’s constantly worried about being poisoned. Your poor, dumb brain is only trying to help, in the best way it knows how.”

But dumb humans have their cures. Here are a few of their ‘remedies’ (I’m not making these up):

  • Sit on a sheet of blotting paper or brown paper, or place the paper against your chest or stomach under your clothes.
  • Drink a cup of bilge water (sometimes seawater is recommended instead).
  • Take a handful of earth or mud onboard and sit on it during the voyage.
  • Wear a tight belt to “control the stomach;” they’re called “anti mal-de-mer belts,” which supposedly support the diaphragm.
  • Carry a piece of malachite (this from the gemstone crowd)
  • My real preference? A giant bag of Tate’s Ginger Zinger cookies. Yes, they’re expensive, so they might bust your wallet. And you’ll get fatter because they work so well you’ll keep them down. But they should do the trick.
  • Finally, if nothing else works, there’s the Nelson’s Travella (homeopathic) route. Quite simple, really: just mix Apomorph, Staphisagria, Cocculus, Theridion, Petroleum, Tabacum and Nux vomica. Then follow with one bag of Tate’s Ginger Zinger cookies (see above).

Nothing should happen. (I think).

Glad I could help.

Dave Roper’s new novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,”was released in mid-June and is available from and Barnes and Noble.

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