Why Movies Make You Sick According To Science

Movies make us feel many things, from wonder and excitement to fear and sadness. For some people, though, watching particular types of movies leaves them feeling sick to their stomach. It's a reaction similar to the motion sickness they might feel on an airplane or a boat or while riding in a car, especially when reading. 3D and IMAX movies or films like "Cloverfield" or "The Blair Witch Project" — shot from unsteady, documentary, or home movie-style camera angles — are among the worst offenders. In fact, the problem of movie-watching inducing symptoms of motion sickness is so common that an entire website, Movie Hurl, is dedicated to ranking movies on their stomach-churning potential based on viewer feedback.

As mentioned, "Cloverfield" and "The Blair Witch Project" make Movie Hurl's top 10. So, too, does "The Hunger Games," "Hurt Locker," and "The Bourne Ultimatum." For similar reasons, young children and their undeveloped brains are particularly susceptible to the blurring of the line between real life and fantasy, especially with screen-based images. Whether we stream a blockbuster at home or take a trip to the theater, regardless of how a movie makes us feel, a lot goes on in our brains when we watch them. That's what makes the experience so impactful. According to Washington University psychology professor Jeff Zacks, speaking with Southern California public radio news outlet KPCC, we know what's on the screen isn't real or that moving images can't touch or hurt us — we just react to them as if they can.

Our eyes tell us we're moving while our bodies are sitting still

Nausea and motion sickness induced by cars, airplanes, and movies are caused by something called vestibular conflict, or the incongruity between what our minds, our eyes, and our inner-ear balance regulators have detected. The realistic images in 3D movies and IMAX films make the experience just that much more convincing for both our emotional experience as well as our bodies' natural reaction to what we're seeing. As an associate professor of occupational therapy at the New York Institute of Technology, Christina Finn told Real Simple: "[Y]our eyes may detect movement on the screen while your body remains stationary, setting up a conflict that can cause similar feelings of motion sickness." For online movie watching in particular, blue light exposure could also be a contributing factor.

According to Live Science, studies have shown the more complex the pictures viewers see, the quicker that some feel nauseous. One fascinating aspect of moving imagery and motion-sickness research is that we also receive contradictory sensory information as far as what's still and what's in motion. In 2008, University of Toronto physiology researcher and professor Bob Cheung told the Toronto Star: "This sensory conflict is between what your eyes are visually telling you and what your other sensors that govern orientation are telling you. Some people are able to resolve this very quickly and some can't." To help address the issue, Cheung recommended sitting as far back as possible in the theater and — if possible — blocking your peripheral vision.

Screen nausea happens outside the cinema, too

The negative "I might barf" response also happens when exposed to other screen-based imagery on computers and mobile devices — from work to the movie and TV watching that many of us spend a great deal of time doing on screens of this type throughout our day. For this reason, there's now even a term for the nausea-inducing screen-based experience: cybersickness. Along with nausea, symptoms of cybersickness include migraines and dizziness. What makes us feel sick while reading in a car is related to what makes us feel queasy in the theater or while viewing online imagery. The unique feeling of screen nausea, though, happens in the opposite order.

As far as car reading, our eyes are locked on the words while the car is in motion. This confuses our brains and the mechanisms within our ears that help maintain balance. From a biological point of view, we are both moving and not moving. As the balance-based fluid in our ears sloshes around based on the car's motion, our brains tell us we're still. That contradiction leads to nausea, among other symptoms, and that's also the reason why looking forward rather than down at a book helps balance the stimuli. When we're watching a movie, though, we're seated in one place. Still, the visual input we receive, especially in 3D or IMAX movies or with particularly jarring camera work, tells us we're moving — the perfect recipe for upchucked popcorn.