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Brain Freezes Don't Freeze Your Brain

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If you grew up in the '90s, first of all, holla. Second of all, you may remember these 7-Eleven commercials, in which the convenience store bragged that its Slurpees are so cold, they freeze your brain. Suddenly, there was an entire generation of kids trying to out-freeze one another, gulping down iced drinks and screaming in pain as a surge of cold shot through their heads. That pain is technically called an "Ice Cream Headache," since the phenomenon was reported way before 7-Eleven coined and trademarked the term "brain freeze" in 1994.

But what is a brain freeze? And does it actually come from chugging down cold drinks, or will you get one no matter how slowly you chug your slushie?

Surprisingly, there is little literature on brain freezes, their short-term causes, and their long-term effects, but as Popular Science reported in 2010, there are a couple of major theories: The cold liquid might fill your sinuses with cold air, making your blood vessels constrict. Blood vessel constriction is one of the major causes of migraine headaches, so by this method, you would basically be experiencing a very short-lived migraine. 

The other theory is that the cold triggers the trigeminal nerve, which travels from the area behind your eyes and on down your throat. A quick shot of pain into this nerve would travel upward and feel as though it was in your brain. (Personally, I vehemently stake my bets on Cause #2.)

Either way, most people report that brain freezes appear to be worse the faster you eat your frozen treat. Others say it doesn't matter how fast you eat, just how much you eat. In theory, if you eat the same amount of cold food in a short period, a matter of a few seconds isn't enough to change your body's thermal state.

In order to find out, we must turn to the cutest study in the whole world.

In 2002, 13-year-old Maya Kaczorowski decided to see why she was always getting short-term but severe pain after eating her favorite treat: ice cream. To figure it out, she (with the help of her father, the professor Janusz Kaczorowski) devised a study.

Maya gathered 145 students from her middle school, and randomly separated the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders into two groups. Groups A and B both were given the same amount of ice cream, but Group A was told to eat it at a slow pace, finishing half the ice cream in about 30 seconds, and then finishing up the rest at their natural pace. Group B was told to wolf down the entire bowl in 5 seconds. Unsurprisingly, no middle schoolers declined to be included in the ice cream study.

The results: The students who wolfed down the ice cream were twice as likely to get an ice cream headache as those who took their time. Still, most students experienced no pain at all.

Some 13 percent of students in Group A, and 27 percent of those in Group B reported a headache. Most of the headaches lasted for less than 10 seconds. However, that doesn't mean the rest of the students were immune; 86 percent of the kids said they had had an ice cream headache before. 

Maya's study was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal.

So, there you have it: Brain freezes, ice cream headaches ... whatever you want to call them, they are a nearly universal experience, and they do worsen the quicker you slurp down your slushie. Also, middle schoolers like ice cream.

But the pain of a brain freeze won't actually hurt your brain, for two reasons: (1) It never gets near your brain, and (2) Even if it did, that kind of brief temperature drop is nothing to that ball of goop in your head.

"There are situations, particularly for correcting blood-vessel problems like an aneurysm, where we cool the brain in order to stop circulation to an area [of the brain] to perform our work safely," explained surgeon Stacey Gray, to Popular Science. During those procedures, the brain may be cooled as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and be no worse for wear when the patient is warmed back up. Tech Times recently reported on a similar procedure in which hypothermia is used to treat infants with brain damage. If they can make it through that without a scar, you can survive a milkshake.

As for Maya Kaczorowski, today she works for Google, and according to her LinkedIn profile, is "passionate about ice cream."

Photo: Daniel Oldfield | Flickr

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