Food Facts & Lore

Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia AKA Brain Freeze

You know you’ve done it. Perhaps you still do. We’re talking about getting a good ice cream brain freeze, on purpose. You just can’t help yourself, or at least as a kid it was a silly summer dare you could not resist. Whhhhoooooaaaaa! That felt good! Oddly enough. And you giggled and enjoyed a delicious ice cream cone. And that is what summer is all about.

Believe it or not, brain freeze is part of an evolutionary mechanism to protect the brain. And it is probably one shared by most warm-blooded animals. At least this is what scientists believe. We imagine that, upon hearing this, a clever child might look up from his double-scoop ice cream cone and ask, “But how did nature know there would be ice cream? And animals don’t eat ice cream!”

True. No ice cream millions of years ago when humans were merely taking shape, but there was snow and ice, and ice-cold rushing rivers to drink from. The brain is a most vital organ. It keeps conscious and unconscious body functions operating smoothly, and it allows the creature bestowed with it to process sensory input from the environment to determine how to best stay safe, warm and nourished. What the brain freeze does, in fact, is rush blood to the frontal and parietal lobes in response to sudden cold. This helps keep the brain warm.

This makes a lot of sense once we consider the key functions of these areas of our ice-cream lovin’ noggin. The front lobes are involved with communication (more specifically language), problem solving, memory, judgement, social behavior and impulse control. The parietal lobes, located behind the frontal lobes and near the center of the brain, are responsible for perception, the integration of sensory input and spacial orientation. Allow the temperature of these areas of the brain to quickly drop and you might have a case of instant cryogenics! Just kidding. We have no idea, really. But clearly, nature made sure this would not happen.

So, here we are, anticipating the unmatched goodness and sweetness of a summer ice cream treat. We know darn well what will happen if we allow it to linger on the roof of the mouth. The capillaries of the sinuses constrict. The extremely sensitive surrounding nerves say, “hu-huh!” and instantly increase blood flow to the aforementioned critical areas of the brain. BRAIN FREEZE. Thus, in truth, a brain freeze is actually a warming of the brain.

Harvard Medical School researchers believe such phenomena as brain freeze, if studied, may help them elucidate the mechanics of chronic headaches like migraines, and perhaps even devise a cure. As for the cure for ice cream brain freeze, well, you don’t really want a cure now do you? Admit it. But if you do get brain freeze from a cold beverage, occasionally, this probably happens when you use a straw. It sends the cold stream right to the palate. One more reason to ditch the straw. An ice cream brain freeze is a lot more fun anyway. It revives the kid in you. Next time, try saying “Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia” while having a brain freeze!