If there’s one thing guaranteed to ruin a perfectly good ice cream, it’s the sudden onset of a splitting headache. At some time or other, we’ve all been in a situation where we have suddenly clapped a hand to our forehead, like Harry Potter when Voldemort gets a little too frisky, before moaning in pain and drawing awkward stares from all corners of a busy park. It might be a useful prop for your imitation of a boy wizard, but in every other situation, brain freeze really is the worst.
Part of what makes brain freeze such a nightmare to deal with is that it can creep up on you when you least expect it. To the average lay person, it can sometimes feel like it can strike without warning. Fortunately, science is here to shed some light on the mystery. According to Dr Stephanie Vertrees of Texas A&M University, brain freeze is actually a direct result of an overstimulation of the sphenopalatine ganglion group of nerves that cluster around the back of the palate. When the nerves come into contact with cold food, they send a signal to the brain to bring on a headache, which can last anywhere from 10 to 90 seconds.
You could be forgiven for thinking that keeping food off the back of your palate is an impossible task. But, as Eric Fredette - long time Flavor Guru for Ben and Jerry’s - recently revealed, there are a few tricks that can help see you through. As a man who has made his career out of eating enormous amounts of ice cream, it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.
His advice is two-fold. First, he suggests “Stirring the ice cream to warm it slightly” before putting it into your mouth. Since the SPG nerves are most sensitive to seriously cold foods, this method can be surprisingly effective, even if the ice cream is just a little softer than it was when first pulled out of the freezer.
Fredette’s second suggestion is to flip your spoon over and place the ice cream directly on your tongue rather than with the dessert pointing straight up to the roof of your mouth. That way, the ice cream will be naturally warmed by your tongue before it gets to the nerves and you have the added benefit of enjoying the untarnished, spoon-free flavour of the scoop. A win win either way.
However, sometimes even the best laid plans can end up going wrong. If somehow a brain freeze does manage to slip through your carefully laid defences, there are a few last minute measures that can spare you a few uncomfortable seconds. Victims can help themselves by either placing your thumb or tongue on the roof of your mouth, drinking something hot or cupping your hands over your mouth and breathing heavily. All of these actions will provide an injection of warmth over the affected nerves in the throat, and therefore help ward off the worst of the pain. You might look a little melodramatic, but it’s a small price to pay.
As we’ve mentioned, you may never be able to totally remove the risk from ice cream eating. Whenever there is cold food around, there will always be the risk of a nasty shock. At least now, thanks to Ben and Jerry’s and scientific method, you should now be better equipped to make the best of a bad situation.