The Science Behind Why You Can't Read in the Car

Gianni Jaccoma/Thrillist

For many of us, carsickness is the bane of every automotive experience: it's always there, preventing us from navigating with our phone or even reading a book to pass the time without the sudden onset of a headache, cold sweats, and crippling nausea. It's like being hungover, but without the fun drinking part that precedes it.

What exactly is going on here? Why do some of us fall violently ill just by glancing at a book in a moving car, while others can read through an entire road trip without any problem at all? Here's the scientific lowdown on what makes carsickness tick, as well as what you can do to prevent (or at least minimize) its wickedly brutal effects.

Gianni Jaccoma/Thrillist

The motion sickness mystery

These days, the prevailing belief is that motion sickness arises from a disagreement between your eyes' visual input and your inner ear's sense of acceleration and/or movement. For instance, if you're in a plane that starts to bank sharply to the left, your inner ear tells you you're moving even though your eyes tell you you're clearly sitting still in your seat. The same holds true for reading a book in a car, and anyone who's ever gotten motion sickness in a movie theater knows the opposite can be just as uncomfortable. 

It's not that simple, though (why would it be?): the scientific community still isn't 100% convinced that sensory disagreement alone is responsible for the motion sickness people experience in cars (or boats, or planes). Nor are they sure why nearly one third of us are more sensitive to it than others, or why women seem to get it more than men -- there simply isn't a consensus, and since nobody's funneling millions of dollars into motion sickness research, definitive answers don't seem close at hand.

Gianni Jaccoma/Thrillist

How to get around it

There's no cure for carsickness, unfortunately, and to paraphrase your middle school sex ed class, abstinence (from visual distractions) is the best way to ensure you don't get sick. If you're dead set on finishing DDP's autobiography before you get home, though, here are some tips that might help:

  • Ensure you're adequately hydrated and nourished, and avoid consuming alcohol (boooo!) or caffeine before your journey.
  • The CDC actually suggests that aromatherapy, flavored lozenges, or even listening to music can help distract you from the sensation of motion.
  • Block out confusing external stimuli by scooting down in your seat or sitting with your back to the window to obstruct your outside view.
  • Taking antihistamines like Benadryl or Dramamine can prevent or alleviate symptoms but often leave you feeling drowsy -- not ideal, if you're trying to read.
  • Natural alternatives like ginger can be helpful as well, but aren't scientifically proven to work for everyone.
Gianni Jaccoma/Thrillist

The bottom line

Ultimately, it comes down to luck: either you're one of the people who can look at your phone or a book in a moving car without feeling lightheaded, or you're not. Make peace with your lot in life, forget about being an astronaut, and maybe get some audiobooks instead.

Gianni Jaccoma is a staff writer for Thrillist, and while he's completely unable to read in the car, his girlfriend has no problem. Follow his nauseous tweets at @gjaccoma, and send your news tips to