This month, we find ourselves in peak ice cream season, the most wonderful time of the year! But ice cream has its hazards — including the dreaded brain freeze. We all know that when the mouth-chilling wave hits we need to go easy on the Tiger Tail or Superkid, but have you ever thought about how the physical process works?
Turns out, the complex network of nerves that cover our palates, that are usually so good at sending information to our brains about what’s just arrived in our mouths, are too good when it comes to relaying the cold from a bite of a frozen treat. Brain freeze — also known by its technical name, “sphenopalatine ganglion neuralgia” — is a textbook example of how those nerves process stimuli, and how referral pain appears in the brain in response. Dr. Kris Rau of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, as interviewed by NPR:
“‘Now on the roof of your mouth there are a lot of little blood vessels, capillaries.’ […]
The rush of cold causes those vessels to constrict.
‘And when that happens, it happens so quickly that all of those little pain fibers in the roof of your mouth — they interpret that as being a painful stimulus,’ Rau says.
A message is then shot up to your brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area.
The brain itself doesn’t have any pain sensing fibers, but its covering — called the meninges — does.
‘And of course all of those little pain-sensing fibers are hooked up to your trigeminal nerve,’ Rau says. ‘So the brain is trying to figure out what is going on. It knows there is something wrong, something that is painful and they don’t know exactly where it is.’
Sometimes, our brains are too smart for their own good — and so far ahead of us we can’t even tell them that the cone we’re enjoying isn’t a threat! But, ice cream season will soon be over; brain freeze aside, I will enjoy every scoop before winter comes our way.