“I don’t always know when an infatuation has gone too far, but when I do, it’s with a sneeze.” I’d be interested to see an ad campaign involving The World’s Most Interesting Woman, especially if she had some sort of bizarre tic that helped her navigate her torrid love life. I’m not as interesting as she'd be, but I could relate: I think my mind-body circuits got so backed up with toxic, unrequited affections over the years that some higher, unconscious version of myself decided to strongarm my psyche into giving up the ghost.
It was the winter of 2009 when I started sneezing with conviction. I was getting over a deluded infatuation to end all deluded infatuations (and it did, actually). What it entailed was occasionally lapsing into indulgent thinking, which consistently triggered a forceful, emphatic sneeze. It was like my body wasn’t having it anymore: uh-uh, girl. This got no business here. Bless you.
My friends thought it was wonderful, of course: Here was further proof that I needed to move on. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t really think about it. How many people would kill for that level of willful oblivion? There’s a Jim Carrey movie about that, right?
I went on thought-policing myself for probably a couple of years. It went from being an emotional survival mechanism to a de facto warning sensor, a way for my body to say “don’t even go there” every time a potentially bad match attached himself to my brainwaves. I guess I thought of it that way because it only happened with certain people, and those certain people had me sneezing almost without fail.
For a long time, I wondered if I was alone in my "allergy." If I was really the only person metaphysically advanced enough to sniff out a poor suitor in the incipient stages of romantic awareness. As it turns out, I still don’t know of anyone who does that, but, according to The Internet, there are a lot of people out there who sneeze for similarly weird reasons, and there’s a good chance my own symptoms weren't the streamlined emotional processing mechanism I liked to think they were.
Mahmood Bhutta, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, published a paper in 2008 titled “Sneezing induced by sexual ideation or orgasm: an under-reported phenomenon.” This study was the first credible exploration of arousal-based sneezing, and it was also the first thing to make me reconsider my claim to a thought-rejection zen stasis. Not that it’s any of your business, but I wasn’t having dirty thoughts about these people. But Bhutta told me that these sneeze triggers need not be raunchy or explicit. In my case, it was usually just a kiss that would irritate my brain mucosa and send my thought particles flying at several miles per hour.
One of the most compelling discoveries I made in my research was that not all sneezes are actually triggered through the nose. In fact, there appear to be multiple pathways involved. Bhutta makes a pretty strong case for the parasympathetic nervous system as a common variable among the more bizarre sneezing triggers: photic sensitivity (sneezing when exposed to light, otherwise known as ACHOO syndrome); an exceptionally full stomach (otherwise known as snatiation, a portmanteau of “sneeze” and “satiation,” also an acronym among smug jerks in the medical community that stands for “Sneezing Noncontrollably At a Tune of Indulgence of the Appetite — a Trait Inherited and Ordained to be Named”); and, of course, sexy thoughts.
Essentially, the autonomic nervous system is so old and lizard-brain-like that it functions without our input. It formed before just about everything else in our bodies did, and because it’s so basic, certain pathways never really separated as our bodies developed. This likely explains why one part of the system can trigger reactions in seemingly unrelated parts of the body — an indiscrete response — and so you get scenarios where your heart slows to an abnormal rate in your sleep, but you’ve also got a boner as a direct result.
This seems to be the most plausible theory offered up by the medical community so far. Doctors had noted a link between sneezing and sexual excitement as early as 1875, but no one stepped forth with a plausible explanation until Freud’s batty friend Wilhelm Fliess proposed his theory of “nasal reflex neurosis” in 1892. Fliess discovered that the nose contained erectile tissue, which, he postulated, became engorged whenever the genitals did. Then he declared that a host of ailments could be treated with nose lobotomies, and people just sort of dismissed him after that.
Fliess was right about the erectile tissues, but, according to Bhutta, he never came up with a satisfying explanation for how the two were linked.
“I have yet to find any evidence to suggest that it’s true, except that they’re somewhat similar in structure and can become engorged with blood,” he said. “To me, this [theory] suggests the presence of nitrous oxide, which is a chemical released in the penis when it’s erect, but in order for that to reach the nose, it would take a few minutes. Everyone I’ve spoken to says [the sneeze] is pretty immediate. The only things that work that quickly are neurons.”
Bhutta stresses that he has no proof for any of this, but judging by the cases he’s come across, it’s pretty safe to say that a decent chunk of the population experiences sex-related sneezes — either those induced by sexual ideation or those induced by orgasm, but usually never both by the same person. In fact, at least 200 people have sent him unsolicited emails since the publication of his paper, which then relied on only about 17 individual cases he’d found reported on the internet.
“I’d say hundreds of thousands — probably more than that even — suffer from this,” he said. “Some people thought this was a joke, but most people who contacted me have been quite grateful. A number of people were worried that there was something wrong with them. I’ve had doctors, high court judges contact me — all sorts of people. This affects anyone and everyone. I think people have found this reassuring, because it’s not an easy thing to talk about.”
Of course, this still leaves a sizeable portion of sneeze quandaries to be examined. As mentioned before, there’s the photic sneeze reflex and snatiation, both of which, in theory, are riding the same wave of parasympathetic outflow. There may also apparently be a link between sneezing and increased estrogen levels, physical stimulation of the trigeminal nerve (i.e. eyebrow plucking), disquieting thoughts, pictures of cats (or other allergic triggers), stress before a test, eating a certain percentage of cacao, and being so racist that you’re effectively a living satirization of racists (I found at least one person in my research who claimed to be "allergic" to minorities).
Also, to no one’s surprise anywhere, the arousal-sneeze mechanism seems to work in reverse (i.e. there’s a fetish for that).
I guess what I really set out to discover was whether it was possible to sneeze on an emotional basis, the way I had thought I was doing. A paper written by Turkish doctors Cemal Cingi and Murat Songu suggests that sneezing “may play an important role in maintaining health in ways that we don't currently understand.” Is it too much of a stretch to apply that to emotional health as well?
“What I have presented is a theory, and as I said, it is difficult to prove,” Bhutta told me. “I have no doubt that sneezing can occur in response to emotions. Emotional responses are linked to the sympathetic nervous system, but in particular emotions that invoke fear or excitement — not all emotions. However, emotional processing will invoke regions of the frontal lobe and the limbic system, probably as the first site of neuronal processing.”
A 1983 New York Times article reported the findings of a certain Dr. Stromberg, who asserted that emotional stimuli did indeed trigger the sneeze reflex, with fear causing the nasal membranes to shrink, and frustration, apprehension, grief, anguish, and resentment causing them to expand. Excitement, joy, and sexual arousal all got a nod of recognition as well.
I think the bit about the sympathetic nervous system is key, as it makes it a wholly separate construct from the more knee-jerky sex/light/eating response. Indeed, the biggest difference between that and psychosomatic/emotional sneezing, if there is such a thing, is that the latter may be more than just a matter of getting our wires crossed. If nothing more, sneezing relieves tension and releases endorphins in the brain, so even if it’s scientifically dubious that a sneeze could take on the role of one’s inner Miss Cleo, it’s likely that there’s some cognitive dissonance involved in thinking about an ex or a person you know, deep down, is no good for you. And maybe, just maybe, a sneeze can help you out with that a little.
One last point that Bhutta made to me — the people he studied generally appraised their thoughts as positive in nature. These aren’t thoughts they would necessarily want to get rid of. These are scintillating, maybe slightly embarrassing, but wholly enjoyable phenomena, and they can even happen in private with their partners. So what’s the rub?
Maybe the truth is always a little more boring than we’d expect, and I wouldn’t be so quick to rule out a case of relatively meaningless neuronal wackiness. Is it significant that this all began right when I broke it off with the last dude I ever practically created in my own head, or that I haven’t experienced this at all since finding the right guy? Anyway, I’ve always considered “well done” to be a more appropriate response than “bless you.”
Steph Koyfman is just trying to make it. You can find more of her writinghere.
Photo via Flickr/booleansplit