The science of brain freeze

It is 83 degrees in Aspen, Colorado—just hot enough that I started dreaming of ice cream as soon as I stepped off the plane.

Now, if I do find some ice cream and give myself a brain freeze while woolfing it down, I will have a better understanding of what that nasty cold-food headache is and how to combat it, thanks to this Scientific American video.

One of the things I like best about the video: Learning that, despite the ubiquity of the brain freeze, it's still not 100% clear what causes it. In particular, there are several competing theories to explain why putting cold things in your mouth would make your forehead hurt. Nifty!

Video Link


  1. Here I was all along, believing that:
    You eat ice cream, you get brainfreeze.  You can’t explain that!

  2. The forehead? I always feel it in my nose. I guess the name “brainfreeze” makes more sense than I thought. My wife, for what it’s worth, claims she has never gotten one.

    1. I’ve never experienced brain freeze either.  I was hoping this video might explain why that might be, but no such luck.

      1. I haven’t either. Years ago I read that a certain small percentage of people just don’t get it.

        If someone wanted to do an experiment that involved eating ice cream, I would allow myself to be studied. For science.

      2. Ive had it before my radiation. But since, have not. Im not sure what the radiation actually DID to my head , but after the treatments I havent had “brainfreeze ” since.

    2. Yeah, I heard ‘forehead’ and I’m like “So am I NOT getting brainfreeze when the space above the roof of my mouth (synuses?) hurt when I drink icees too fast?”

  3. “woolfing it down”: to have money and a room of one’s own in order to write fiction.

    1.  Should be wolfing it down, huh?  Sorry Maggie, but you should fix it.  :D   BTW, I always get brain freeze right behind my eye (usually the right one). 

        1.  That’s what I thought too.  But I’m not sure if it wasn’t just a typo in Maggie’s original post.  :)

  4. I disliked this guy the exact moment he vocalized that smug “heh we don’t use google, we use PEER REVIEWED RESEARCH.”

    I sentence him to a lifetime of brainfreeze. 

    1. I didn’t mind his preference for peer-reviewed research. I expect standards like that from a scientific magazine. But I was puzzled by his definition of a “primary source”. 

      I’m just a small-town MS student, but to me “primary research” is research I do myself.  If I go to the lab, set up an experiment, collect the data and analyze it myself (or with a group of co-researchers), then that is a primary source.

      On the other hand, secondary research is research that someone else does. When I go to a peer reviewed article and read about how someone else went to a lab, set up an experiment and collected the data and analyzed it themselves, then that is a secondary source.

      Again, small-town MS student, but I have never heard anyone refer to someone else’s work as a primary source. Did this guy just expand my poor little bumpkinesque mind? Or did he just misuse a basic research term while he was trying to sound smart?

      1. I agree, I’ve always known primary research as research completed by you, it’s got nothing to do with peer review. Wouldn’t what he’s referring to be known as a secondary source?

        I could be wrong though, and I didn’t mind the guy.

      2. A primary source is the data, analysis, etc. of any original research, not just research done by you. A secondary source would be someone else doing a subsequent analysis of that research. In other words, the studies talked about in the video are primary sources, while the video itself is a secondary source.  Wikipedia (which is a tertiary source), actually has a really good discussion on these definitions because they have some pretty specific policies about which kinds of sources can be used in a Wikipedia article.

  5. Oddly, it seems some people are just immune to brainfreeze. Genetic or something. I’m sure not immune but I know some people who are. Also, my brainfreeze isn’t in the forehead either. Mine is in my skull behind my nose and eyes.

    1.  I seem to be immune.  OTOH, with milkshakes and water/ice slurries, I’m susceptible to esophagus freeze, but that’s completely unsurprising.

      I wonder whether certain anatomical structures are involved, and it’s not so much anatomical differences as behavioral differences that vary between people.  I don’t need to chew ice cream; I just swallow it, often after allowing it to melt a bit in my mouth, but there are some parts of my mouth that come in contact with the cold stuff, and there are some parts that don’t, and those locations may vary from person to person, just as a subtle difference in behavior.  I really have no idea how other people move stuff around their mouths with their tongues; their teeth and lips are in the way of my being able to see.  That implies lots of room for individual variation in behavior.

  6. I wonder how much ice cream costs in Aspen?  Just the price alone might give me a headache.

  7. My wife and I used to own a coffee shop where we sold a lot of frappes and smoothies, hence we treated a lot of patients with brain freeze.  Here’s the 100% effective, fool-proof  remedy for brain freeze once it’s struck:

    Take another mouthful of exactly what you just drank that gave you the brain freeze, but hold it in your mouth until the temperatures of the liquid and your mouth have equalized.  The brain freeze will subside in a matter of a second or two.  No more bending over double and having to wait the 10 to 15 seconds it usually takes to go away (that may not sound like very long, but when your head feels like there’s a frozen crowbar stuck in the middle of it, 10 or 15 seconds feels like an eternity).

    Works every time for every person I’ve ever met who’s tried it.  I kept waiting for the kid in the video to say that, and was very disappointed when he didn’t.

  8. Has anyone else here heard of brain freeze as a palliative for migraines?  I’ve seen my wife sometimes get instant relief from her horrible headaches and nausea after an ice-cream  induced brainfreeze.  (Just anecdotal, NOT primary research). 

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