Why Don't Some People Get Brain Freeze?

We talked to a neurologist and challenged our team to a slurpee-drinking contest to find out how the phenomenon works.

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Sep 3 2015, 3:20pm

I have never had brain freeze. Ever. What is a staple of summer childhood exuberance for so many people has forever eluded me. I have no idea what it feels like or why people get it, and it has been a mystery to me all my life.

So, one summer day, I set out to try to get to the bottom of my brain freeze invincibility. I decided to investigate how the phenomenon works, and to see if, once and for all, I could induce the brain pain in a self-styled experiment here at the VICE offices.

I'm not alone; brain freeze remains mysterious even to the handful of scientists who have studied the phenomenon in some depth, like Jorge Serrador, an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Rutgers University. In a study published in 2012, Serrador examined how blood flow in the brain is related to brain freeze, and he's currently preparing to do a follow-up study on ice cream headaches.

"Brain freeze really hasn't been studied a lot so the mechanism remains unclear," Serrador explained via email, but he noted that there are a couple of theories about what's going on.

The materials for highly-unscientific study. Photo by Kaleigh Rogers

In Serrador's study, 13 people induced brain freeze by rapidly drinking ice water through a straw. His research team found that just before participants reported experiencing pain, there was an increased blood flow to the anterior cerebral artery, which provides blood to the front of the brain behind the forehead. That's where participants said it hurt.

Serrador's theory of brain freeze was that the ice water was causing the arteries in the brain to expand, increasing warming blood flow, which in turn increased pressure in the brain. This pressure then triggered receptors on the outside of the brain that interpret the sensation as pain.

But even that theory has some holes: why would ice water in your mouth cause blood vessels deep in your brain to expand? This is what Serrador hopes to determine with his next study.

"We're actually going to be numbing some nerves and stuff to see if we can block the blood flow increase," he said, "and if we can [block it], will people not develop brain freeze?"

An ice cream headache strikes Managing Editor Adrianne Jeffries.

Serrador's thinking is that the trigeminal nerve, which runs along the roof of the mouth, gets stimulated by the sudden influx of cold. It then misfires, causing the arteries to widen in the brain. But there could be other explanations, he said, and more research needs to be done before we can know for sure.

As for why I've never experienced brain freeze myself, Serrador was stumped.

"There's definitely some inter-individual variability in that brain freeze response," he told me over the phone. "But I don't know why some people don't get it and some people do. It may be related to how reactive your nerves are. It may be related to anatomical placement. There are a ton of possibilities."

Given what we know about how the phenomenon works, I made a few educated guesses. Maybe I eat and drink cold treats too slowly, allowing my tongue to warm it up before it hits the roof of my mouth. Or maybe I'm just wired differently, and my brain doesn't register the increased blood flow in a way that triggers a pain response. Or maybe the increased blood flow never even occurs in my brain.

Still, I wanted to see if I could induce brain freeze now that I understood a few things about how it works. First, I tried the method from Serrador's study: I quickly downed a large cup of ice water through a straw, directing it towards the back and top of my mouth. Nothing happened. I mean, my mouth got really cold, so that was kind of uncomfortable, but no headache.

My colleagues argued that water wasn't the best brain freezer, that a frozen treat like ice cream might be better, so we put a call out on Twitter to solicit suggestions. Slurpees won the vote by an overwhelming majority. It was time for a trip to 7-Eleven.

I got a cherry slurpee in a medium sized cup and got to work. It even said "Brainfreeze Drink" on the side of the cup. How could I fail?I drank it, fast. I tried taking big gulps and little sips. I tried holding it my mouth and swallowing quickly. I tried forcing it to the back of my throat and to the roof of my mouth. I tried abandoning the straw and just dumping the slurpee directly into my mouth. Despite lots of suggestions and encouragement, all I got was tooth sensitivity and an awful feeling in my chest as the frozen sugar was forced down my esophagus at exceptional speeds. No headache. No pressure. No brain freeze.

To see if maybe the method or materials were defective in some way, I enlisted my colleagues to drink slurpees too. They experienced some of the same symptoms as I did (the cold throat and chest) but every one of them quickly felt pangs of pain in their temples or backs of their skulls, too. This was the sensation I was missing: the telltale sign of an ice cream headache.

Editor-in-Chief Derek Mead tries to warm up his brain manually.

The control group was pretty conclusive: the straws weren't defective, I was. While people in the office and on Twitter joked that I was superhuman, I actually feel subpar. Your body probably should send some kind of signal to your brain when you're pouring frozen fluids down your throat, instead of blithely allowing such reckless behavior to continue without consequence.

A few folks on Twitter, on Yahoo Answers, and on Reddit said they have never experienced brain freeze either, so at least I know I'm not alone. Still, I can't help wondering what other signals aren't reaching my brain. What if I was on fire? Would my brain even notice? Are there rusty nails in the bottom of my feet right now that I haven't perceived? Am I a ghost?

Serrador's experiments have a goal more noble than my own: he hopes that understanding ice cream headaches could shine some light on other, more seriously debilitating headaches.

"You can't have people hang out in a lab until they develop a headache or a migraine, so it's basically all research after somebody has a developed a headache," Serrador said. "I wanted to know what was happening up until the pain develops. It could give us more information about what the mechanism is."

I've never had a migraine and I rarely get headaches, so there could be something to this mysterious trait of mine. Maybe if researchers studied how my brain avoids ice cream headaches, it could provide answers for how to relieve other people of their real headaches. I selflessly offered myself up for experimentation, but Serrador just laughed.

"Well, you're in New York, so it'd be close at least," he said.

Happy to help, guys. Just point me to the ice cream.