Brain Freeze and Protection

6 Minute Coffee with Uncle Reggie Stories: Brain Freeze and Protection
Reggie 叔叔的故事:大脑冻住和保护 (Sonic 翻译)

  1. Part 1 Can we air condition the brain gently?
  2. Part 2 What can babies teach us (about air conditioning brains)?
  3. Part 3 Can we buffer the brain gently, and what can woodpeckers teach us?

Part 1 Can we air condition the brain gently?

Brain freeze. In the first few years after we moved to Seattle, I began to have regular headaches, seemingly more than in the past. I wondered, why am I getting all these headaches? Then I noticed them often occurring with low temperatures at home, and I began watching the actual indoor temperatures more carefully. This strange syndrome of “brain freeze” especially occurred when I was sitting down quietly inside, and working on my computer, presumably therefore not generating much internal heat from physical activity.


Before moving to Seattle, we lived in the Midwest for 50 years, where the outdoors is considerably hotter in summer, and colder in winter. It might seem logical that Seattle would have “better weather,” implying at least that it “isn’t as cold” as the Midwest, but it isn’t that simple. In the Midwest, the temperature indoors in winter can be like summer, since people readily turn up the heat! Seattleites like the cool air so much, they often don’t turn on the heater at all, so it’s sort of 50s cool for most of the year. I think my ageing brain was not prepared for this at all!


Photo 1: Native Seattleites however don’t seem to have brain freeze.


I figured out soon that I had a “brain freeze cut-point,” below which my headache would be triggered. This cut-point was initially 73F, but with time it started moving up, and it’s now even higher than 75F. Whenever I feel a headache coming on, I can just raise the room temperature if it is under my control, splash relatively hot water over my face or eyes, or even take out a hair blower to “blow dry my brain.” To my immense relief, the headache then starts disappearing. Which is just great, both a relief to know the diagnosis, and a relatively easy treatment. No pain killer pills at all! Which is no mean feat, in view of the national epidemic of pain killer related diseases.


Brain warmer. I discovered also that putting on a neck scarf and hat was also quite protective for “my brain,” so if you look at my pictures in recent years, I seem always to be wrapped up warmly. Actually, I like wearing scarves and hats anyway, so it fits my vanity angle. I have been an ardent admirer of Sherlock Holmes, so I might even use a hat like his! But when I go to church I feel embarrassed that often I still need a cap, and seem to be the only one feeling the cold. What I really need is a cap that can become invisible or camouflaged!


I used to have the opposite problem. In summer in Asia, where it can get very hot and humid, my brain would feel so toasted, that I needed to splash cold water on my face numerous times a day. I was particularly envious of people who seemed quite cool even in hot weather (like my wife), and admired people boldly smashing freshly cut cold watermelon onto their faces, which is an amazing summer face freshener.


I used to carry an Asian fan all the time wherever I went in China, so that I could just “fan my brain,” in hopes of cooling it down. Asian scholarly gentlemen of yore seemed to do just that, at least in drawings of the period, and I was quite in style, just not the right century. Or, in modern Hong Kong, I might carry ice inside a self-improvised strap to cool or freeze my neck, which seemed to work even better. I often dreamt of inventing a localized “brain freezing” helmet, just for poor toasted brains like mine. I imagined that if this helmet fad caught on, then there might even be no need for air conditioning of homes: all you need is air-conditioned brains or necks.


You might have noticed that, in these cold or hot “sob stories,” all I needed really was just to, respectively, keep warm, or cool off, the head or neck, and I would feel quite comfortable. I didn’t really need to heat or cool any other part of my body. Which makes physiologic sense, since significant numbers of nerves in the body are actually in head and neck. If head and neck are happy, the rest of the body seems happy also.


Part 2 What can babies teach us (about air conditioning brains)?

Premature baby lessons. I learned about temperature-head interactions dramatically when I was managing sick small babies. One of our illustrious neonatologists (newborn baby specialists) on our team, Dr. P specialized in temperature control in babies. He discovered that temperature changes inside the baby incubator actually even affected the breathing pattern of premature babies.

早产儿课。我在照料生病的小婴儿的时候,我学习到头部温度会对机体有显著影响。我们团队著名的新生儿专家Dr. P 专门研究婴儿的体温调控。他发现保温箱的温度变化会影响早产婴儿的呼吸方式。

The small premature baby has times when he has “apnea,” or spontaneous stopping of breathing, presumably related to disturbed brain control of breathing. Dr. P discovered that, contrary to what you might think, the usual incubator temperature was quite unstable, and actually cycled up and down all the time, amazingly affecting even the baby’s breathing. When the temperature swung up in the incubator, he discovered small babies more often actually stopped breathing (had apnea), which he presumed was from change in brain control of breathing!

幼小的早产儿发生偶发的短暂窒息时, 或者自发的呼吸停止,推测和大脑呼吸控制紊乱有关。和我们所认为的相反,Dr. P 发现,常规的保温箱的温度是不稳定的,一直在上下波动,明显影响婴儿的呼吸。当保温箱温度向上波动时,他发现小婴儿经常呼吸暂停(窒息),他推测和大脑的呼吸控制有关!

So, this creative doctor designed a novel computer-controlled incubator which tamped down temperature swings. By reducing sudden increases in temperature, he proved the babies had less apnea and better breathing. Since he surmised that the head was the key organ to sense temperature changes, he further devised a box around the baby’s head that made it cooler than the rest of the incubator, and the babies indeed were able to breathe better.

因此,这位有创造性的医生设计了一个新奇的电脑控制的保温箱,可以避免温度波动。减少了突然的温度上升,他证实婴儿很少窒息,呼吸更平稳。自从他推测头部是感受温度变化的主要器官,他进一步设计了一个盒子,包绕婴儿的头部,让保温箱内头部的温度比其他部位稍微低一点 ,这样婴儿能更好的呼吸。

There seemed to be a remarkable interaction of temperature and brain function in these babies, and I wondered often if there were subtle effects even for adults like me! It reminded me of my attempts at “cooling the brain” in summer in Asia, by cooling head and neck, so that not only was my head more comfortable and happy, I was certainly breathing better and happier!


Part 3 Can we buffer the brain gently, and what can woodpeckers teach us?

Brain concussions.
In my pursuit of keeping the brain nice and warm in winter but cool enough in the summer, I began to also think, here is another thing which is often neglected… After all the brain needs a lot more protection than cooling or heating. As I age, it is quite apparent to me that lots of seniors die from falling and injuring their brains.


I remember vividly a foreign student’s mother who came from China to visit, fell down unfamiliar stairs at night at their home, and ended her life in this foreign land. It made me think there must be a way to prevent this. Homes in other countries often don’t have the American luxury of 2 or 3 stories with indoor stairs, so it can be disorientating at night to the visitor, especially when the lights are dimmed. Anyone walking in the middle of the night is likely only half awake, so it’s a potentially doubly dangerous trap.


And it isn’t just foreigners, since a local friend of mine was visiting her son in another American city, and she rolled down the stairs also in the middle of the night, apparently from a wrong turn in the dark. Fortunately she survived without major issues. But these are just a few examples of dangerous falls or blows on the head that could ruin a life.


Woodpecker brains to the rescue. I came upon an amazing strange new story of how the brain might be protected from a strong blow on it. Many have heard the unusual pecking of the woodpecker. He keeps pecking away at wood, blow-by-blow, and if he is drilling into your home, you worry your house might fall one day. But when you think more, you might worry that the bang, bang, bang impacts are so great, why doesn’t he blow out his brain, and repeatedly so?

啄木鸟的大脑保护。我偶然读到一篇很让人惊讶的新的文章,关于在重击下如何保护大脑。很多人都听到过啄木鸟不同寻常的啄木头的声音。它一下又一下连续的凿着木头,如果它就这样在你家的墙上钻孔, 你会担心你的房子某一天会倒塌。但是你再想想,你可能会迷惑,如此强烈的砰、砰、砰的撞击,为什么没有把它的脑浆震出来,还可以这样持续不断?

Photos 2 & 3: The anti-concussion woodpecker bang, bang, bang, secrets now being revealed. Save your brain! No simple “bird brain” here. From photographers Larry and Amy Wymer, Cincinnati.

图2 & 3:啄木鸟啄击木头时的抗震荡的秘密已经揭示了。保护您的大脑! 不要再藐视“小鸟脑袋”. 图片来自摄影师Larry 和Amy Wymer,辛辛那提。

After all, the pressures are huge, as much as 1,000G (1,000 times gravity). His brain should have severe concussion with each blow, but it seems quite content and happy. Shockingly, we now have learned a possible explanation. It seems that the woodpecker has a fascinating (long) tongue that is able to wrap around the neck when he is pecking away at the wood, and therein lies a likely secret!


The tongue wrapping around the neck compresses the neck veins so that brain veins, which flow down into neck veins, are backed up and engorged. In turn, the brain is engorged, and turgid, full of brain and fluid essentially! Like a balloon filled totally with water, and therefore filling out any dead space inside the skull. The brain then fits the skull perfectly and snugly.

舌头包绕脖子,压迫颈部静脉,回流到颈部的大脑静脉受阻变得充盈。啄木鸟颅内本来就充满着脑组织和液体, 因此变得更加充盈,像装满水的气球,填充了颅内的所有腔隙。脑组织完美地、紧密地填充了颅骨腔。

So, when the head receives each peck and blow, the brain has no free space to move, and doesn’t “slosh around” and stretch or tear up brain tissue, or dangling blood vessels and nerves. Thus, the woodpecker pecks merrily away with no concussions or brain injuries, even from such great impact pressures.


I just learned that investigators at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, my mother institution, have been taking off on this idea, and are studying specially designed neck wraps to reduce children’s head trauma from concussion causing blows, during (“American”) football games. Even though we talk disparagingly about small “bird brains,” stealing this novel brain protection idea from birds might remind us the small bird brain is “not so dumb” after all.

我是在辛辛那提儿童医院,我过去的研究所,了解到这个观点, 从这个观点扩展开,他们开始进一步研究,特别设计了颈部保护带以减少美式足球比赛中头部打击引起的震荡造成的头部创伤。尽管我们不屑地说这是“小鸟脑袋”,有什么用呢?, 但是从小鸟那里启发出的这个新奇的大脑保护点子,也许会提醒我们小鸟脑袋根本不是那么“傻气”。

Brain Fantasy. Senior citizens definitely have a high risk of falling and having brain concussions, which can be fatal. So, in my fantasy, if God could create a remarkable woodpecker tongue “scarf,” maybe we could be inspired to create a simple preventive, senior scarf that has anti-concussion (“woodpecker style”) function!

大脑的幻想. 老年人毫无疑问有摔倒和脑震荡的高风险,那是可能致命的。因此,我设想,既然上帝创造一个非凡的啄木鸟似的舌头围巾,我们也可以受此启发创造出简单的、有预防脑震荡功能的、“啄木鸟式”老人围巾。

Photo 4: Head and neck well protected from brain freeze headache. With refinements one day, maybe even also prevent concussion, Woodpecker scarf, someone?


Maybe, thinking ahead, in the future that scarf could even be electronically activated to tighten up automatically when falls are actually happening, to maximize the protection. This response will probably need to be faster even than activation of auto airbags at time of collision.


Plus, in my personal bias, it should then be easy to program this scarf also to keep brain and neck nicely warm in winter, but cool in summer (“Uncle Reggie style”). Computer nerds and geniuses, you got the ideas here, without patent or royalties. You can send an acknowledgement to my website,!

另外,出于我个人的偏好,这个围巾还要好控制,能在冬天保持头和脖子舒适温暖,夏天凉爽(Uncle Reggie 的风格。)电脑高手电脑奇才们,没有付专利费和使用费你们就得到了这个点子,你可以在我的网站上 说声谢谢吧!