Cybersickness Is Real
When you scroll, I barf.
Posted Aug 28, 2020
I remember the first time it happened. I was at a conference in 2010 in Salzburg, Austria, standing in the lobby during a coffee break. A colleague who was an early adopter was showing me his newly purchased iPad. To demonstrate its capabilities, he started scrolling through different features. Within seconds of him starting to scroll, my stomach turned completely upside down and I had to run outside to keep from throwing up. It took an hour for my stomach to settle before I could go back into the conference.
I was blindsided and, at first, didn’t know what happened. But I had exactly the same physical response I get when riding backwards on planes (could never be a flight attendant), trains (have to reserve seats and change if the train changes direction), cars (don’t back up without warning me), and being on or in any vehicle that is overbalanced like a catamaran or luxury cars that boast a smooth ride. When someone else scrolls, look out…instant and enduring nausea.
Other things that elicit the same response are the advertisements at the beginning of movies in theaters that simulate a roller coaster (but real roller coasters are fine), someone walking around with their device while they are on FaceTime or Zoom, and don’t even think about asking me to try virtual reality! Not surprisingly, I can scroll myself with no problem at all, and I would probably be OK if I were at the helm of the catamaran—as long as it is under my control, predictable, and the visual cues were congruent with my actions.
Until the pandemic, it was pretty easy to avoid watching people scroll—except those unpredictable situations when I would be on a plane or bus and my seatmate happened to be a scroller or if I just happened to see someone a few rows up as they were rifling through their photos. But now, while working from home, life on Zoom has made my computer screen a potential nausea landmine. I can be on a call with 20 people and suddenly get super nauseated, then realize that someone in the corner of the screen has started to move around in their house or whoever is sharing their screen is using weird transitions on Prezi. Even someone engaging in a repetitive behavior that is just too incongruous for my brain to comprehend in two-dimensional space can make my innards turn inside out.
After being teased about my motion sickness for years and told that it was all in my head or that I was just oversensitive, I finally convinced and trained most of my family members and close colleagues to warn me before they start scrolling or wandering with their devices. The problem is that it has become second nature to most people to hold up their phones to show you something while scrolling. It is automatic and hard to stop them in time, as it only takes an instant for the nausea to kick in. Kill me twice—show me something on your phone while in the back seat of a taxi or Uber!
To try to understand myself, I had read the limited cybersickness literature, most of which relates to how the brain integrates sensory cues in virtual reality situations.1 I tracked down a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of motion sickness conducted with data from the 23andMe database and was pleased to see they identified 35 significant hits, many of which were near genes involved in balance, and eye, ear, and cranial development.2 They also found that several of the significant single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) showed sex-specific effects, with up to three times stronger effects in women. That study focused on car motion sickness though, and whether the same factors influence cybersickness are not entirely clear. I thought I was alone until I had a virtual appointment with my primary care physician and I started walking around the house to get a better WiFi signal. She complained, “You’re going to make me vomit!” I was so excited that I almost forgot what my appointment was about! She’s my people!
My motion sickness is probably why I enjoyed and empathized with Penelope Cruz in the movie Woman on Top (in addition to the great soundtrack). Elevators even got to her! If that movie had been made nowadays, I am sure she would also have cybersickness.
I realize that by writing this I give my enemies a surefire way to torture me, but it is really a plea, especially during this time when we are spending so much time with each other virtually. If someone tells you they get nauseated when you scroll or move around, believe them. Even though you can’t see it, cybersickness is real.
1. Gallagher M, Ferre ER. Cybersickness: a multisensory integration perspective. Multisens Res. 2018;31(7):645-74.
2. Hromatka BS, Tung JY, Kiefer AK, Do CB, Hinds DA, Eriksson N. Genetic variants associated with motion sickness point to roles for inner ear development, neurological processes and glucose homeostasis. Hum Mol Genet. 2015;24(9):2700-8.