Feb. 5, 2012 at 11:38 AM ET
Some rugs are just plain ugly; others do nothing to enhance a room. But can the sight of a particular black-and-white rug pattern truly make people feel ill?
Yes, say researchers Frederick Bonato and Andrea Bubka at Saint Peter's College and their colleagues, who recently observed a "sickening rug phenomenon."
Looking at a picture of a black-and-white patterned rug for five minutes gave people "motion-sickness-like symptoms," reports a study in the journal Perception.
"We were surprised at how quickly people experienced symptoms -- within five minutes," says lead author, Frederick Bonato, PhD, a psychology professor at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J. "The carpet image was not moving; the people were not moving, but they reported feelings of self-motion and motion sickness," he adds.
Why study carpeting patterns with "nauseogenic properties"? As it turns out, these researchers usually study motion sickness. But a British colleague of theirs had bought a new rug with a repetitive black-and-white square pattern.
Once the rug was put down in his home, both he and his wife felt dizzy, nauseous, and disoriented and they even got headaches just looking at it. Other guests in their home left feeling the same way.
The couple eventually had to get rid of the rug.
Since people's symptoms in response to the new carpeting resembled motion sickness, the researchers decided to run a little experiment.
So they rounded up 22 neurologically healthy college students, and they asked them to look at a photo of the rug or a gray poster while seated. They viewed one image for five minutes, and two days later the students looked at the other image for the same amount of time.
Before and after looking at either image, students completed a motion-sickness questionnaire to evaluate how they felt. They rated their feelings of self-motion much higher when looking at the rug. And they also felt queasier and dizzier compared to the gray poster.
Bonato says they don't know exactly why the rug causes these stomach-turning feelings, but they do know that its high contrast (black and white) and its repeating pattern can lead to sickening symptoms.
Other studies have shown that certain striped or checked patterns can also give the illusion of motion and leave people feeling seasick when seated and on level ground. These sorts of designs may also make folks feel tired or have eye strain.
And some repeating patterns have been known to cause visual distress and even seizures in epileptics, Bonato points out. Some of these patterns look "suspiciously similar" to the sickening rug in this study, the researchers write.
To avoid needing Dramamine the next time you buy a rug, "be careful what you buy," suggests Bonato. "You might have to look at it for a while and it might just make you feel sick."
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