We’ve all drunk, at least once, to the point where the room starts to spin uncontrollably. Or rather, the point where it feels like the room is spinning uncontrollably, which begs the question: What is alcohol doing to us that makes it feel like we’re on a playground roundabout gone wild? Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor at the American National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says it’s all to do with our inner ears.
“In the middle of each ear are three fluid-filled tubes [called semicircular canals] populated by tiny nerve fibres,” he explains. “The purpose of this system—known as the vestibular system—is to help us maintain balance and orientation.”
The fluid plays a key part in this: Like beer in a wobbling mug, the fluid inside each ear canal moves with our head. When it flows over the nerve fibres lining the inner ear, they send signals to the brain notifying it of the current position of the head (looking up, tilting to the right, etc.). The problem, according to White, is that this system is very delicate. “During car rides, boat rides and any other activity with a lot of movement, the vestibular system can struggle to figure out the orientation of the head,” he says. When our brains are unsure of exactly where our head is, we experience motion sickness and vertigo.
Once you add booze to the mix, things get really messy. Blood is thinned by alcohol, so when this blood travels to the inner ear, it throws the density of the fluid within the semicircular canals completely out of whack. This allows the fluid to splash more freely over the nerve fibres mentioned earlier, sending a barrage of signals to the brain all at once. The end result is the brain thinking that we’re spinning in circles when we’re really not.
Worse yet: “Alcohol also relaxes the muscles around the eyes, making it difficult to focus and causing double vision,” White adds, all of which contributes to the feeling that we’ve become a human dreidel.
Now, for the question that anyone who’s ever experienced the spins wants to ask: “How do I make it stop?” While there’s no real way to stop the spinning aside from sobering up—you can calculate exactly how long it will take for you to sober up using this handy sobriety calculator—staring at a fixed object and keeping your feet planted on the ground can provide your brain with enough visual and physical cues to at least ease the false sense of motion. Note: This will not help if you have drunkenly climbed onto a carousel.