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Attempts to Understand Sneezes

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Research about sneezes, sneezing, and those who sneeze
compiled by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

Sneezing has defied, or successfully interrupted, many attempts to understand why it happens and what exactly it signifies. Here are some of those attempts.

Sneezing and the Full Stomach
“Autosomal Dominant Sneezing Disorder Provoked by Fullness of Stomach,” A.S. Teebi and Q.A. al-Saleh, Journal of Medical Genetics, vol. 26, no. 8, August 1989, pp. 539-540. The authors, at the Kuwait Medical Genetics Centre in Raas, report:

[The subject is a] phenotypically normal 32 year old man, fullness of the stomach immediately after meals invariably results in three or four uncontrollable sneezes. This phenomenon is also present in his three brothers, one of his two sisters, his father, an uncle and his son, and the grandfather. The index subject became curious when his daughter started to show the phenomenon at the age of one year.... The ‘stomach sneeze reflex’ in this family has no relation to the type of food and occurs only when the stomach is full to the extent that no more can be eaten. There are usually three or four sneezes but may be as many as 15 consecutive sneezes.

The Persuasiveness of Sneezing
“Sneezing in Times of a Flu Pandemic: Public Sneezing Increases Perception of Unrelated Risks and Shifts Preferences for Federal Spending,” Spike W.S. Lee, Norbert Schwarz, Danielle Taubman, and Mengyuan Hou, Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 3, 2010, pp. 375–377. (Thanks to Rae Tazawa for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Michigan, report:

[We] arranged for participants in two field experiments to encounter a sneezing person before answering questions about perceived risk.... exposure to sneezing in a public space increased the perceived risk of contracting a serious disease as well as the perceived risk of unrelated threats, namely having a heart attack and dying from crime or accident (Study 1). Moreover, sneezing... shifted policy preferences from allocating resources to the creation of green jobs to allocating resources to vaccine development (Study 2).

Detail from the study “Sneezing in Times of a Flu Pandemic: Public Sneezing Increases Perception of Unrelated Risks and Shifts Preferences for Federal Spending.”

Hypnotherapy of Pseudo-Sneezing
“Hypnotherapy of Pseudo-Sneezing: A Case Report,” Murray Elkins and Jacob J. Milstein, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, vol. 4, no. 4, April 1962, pp. 273-275. The authors, at Peninsula General Hospital, Rockaway Beach, New York, report:

When [the patient] was aroused from hypnosis, the pseudo-sneezing was dramatically at an end. She was happy and relieved, socialized with other patients, “sneezed” only occasionally, possibly once every two hours. This occasional “sneezing” was regarded as necessary in serving the useful purpose of meeting her personality needs without rendering her a victim of those needs....

One can only wonder at the readiness with which unthinking critics decry as “symptom-removing” the corrective, adjustive, educative use of hypnosis.

Treatise on Sneezing
“Sneeze Reflex: Facts and Fiction,” Murat Songu and Cemal Cingi, Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease, vol. 3, no. 3, 2009, pp. 131-141. (Thanks to Andy Charles for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Dr. Behçet Uz Children’s Hospital and Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Izmir Ataturk Research and Training Hospital, Izmir, Turkey and at Osmangazi University Medical Faculty, Eski┼čehir, Turkey, report:

In this first comprehensive review of the sneeze reflex in the English literature, we aim to review the pathophysiology, etiology, diagnosis, treatment and complications of sneezing....

CONCLUSION — Sneezing is a phenomenon that is common to all humans and is widespread in the animal kingdom as well. It may play an important role in maintaining health in ways that we don’t currently understand. Sneezing, which cannot consciously be controlled, is a protective reflex for the body during which facial, pectoral and abdominal muscles function concordantly, maintaining respiration. It is rarely a sign of serious illness or impending disaster as feared by previous generations. On the other hand, it can be remarkably annoying.

The Fan and the Sneeze
“Exhaust Fan Remedies Sneezes Caused by Alkali Soap Powder,” P.C. Shimer, Occupational Health, vol. 13, no. 6, June 1953. p. 87.

The Twins Who Sneezed
“Sneezy Twins,” G. Forrai, J. Antal, and A. Balogh, Acta Paediatrica Hungarica, vol. 26, no. 4, 1985, pp. 323-326.

A curious monozygous pair of twins producing sudden and vehement nose blowing and/or sneezing during/after eating and drinking, when their stomach had achieved a certain stage of fullness, has been observed. The sneezing reflex could be registered in 4 male members of the family. Since there were neither neurological disorders nor significant alterations in their electroencephalographic activity, the phenomenon may be regarded as a special type of hereditary vegetative sensitivity. The trait seems to follow either an autosomal dominant or perhaps a Y-linked mode of inheritance.

When Food Was Sneezed Upon
“Eww She Sneezed! Contamination Context Affects Children’s Food Preferences and Consumption,” Jasmine M. DeJesus, Kristin Shutts, and Katherine D. Kinzler, Appetite, vol. 87, 2015, pp. 303-309. The authors, at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explain:

Three- to eight-year-old children were presented with two identical foods, yet children were led to believe that one food had been contaminated by sneezing and licking, while the other was clean. When given the opportunity to eat the foods, 5- to 8-year-old children consumed more clean food and rated the clean food’s taste more positively; younger children did not distinguish between the foods.

Detail from the study “Eww She Sneezed! Contamination Context Affects Children’s Food Preferences and Consumption.”


This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2017 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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