Wednesday, March 27, 2013


On Romance and Psychosomatic Sneezing

“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.

“Some people thought this was a joke, but most people who contacted me have been quite grateful."

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.”

Fliess discovered that the nose contained erectile tissue, which, he postulated, became engorged whenever the genitals did.

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

57 Comments / Post A Comment


I only have the boring ol' photic reflex where I sneeze if I look at bright lights. Yours is much sexier.



Miss Maszkerádi

My dad does that sneezing in sunlight thing and we say he's allergic to photons.

Also, in Hungary, one of the more amusing folk superstitions holds that if someone sneezes in the midst of a conversation, it is a sign that the other person either has just told the absolute truth or is about to (never was entirely clear on whether it's a sign of past truth or a harbinger of truth to come.)


@Miss Maszkerádi In Russia/Ukraine, too. I've seen it used to mean that whatever was said (by anyone) before someone in the room sneezes is the absolute truth.


I sneeze at the taste of peppermint, so brushing my teeth gets really messy if I'm not careful.

I'm also reminded of a case study I read in an Oliver Sacks book, where sneezing would end this guy's migraines. Check it here.

fondue with cheddar

@cuminafterall Oliver Sacks! <3


@cuminafterall Same here! Though toothpaste is not strong enough to trigger it in me. Starlite mints do it to me almost all the time. My mom and (Maternal) grandmother also do/did it.

Sam I am

I sneeze when plucking my eyebrows!


@Sam I am Me, too! Luckily, I almost never pluck them. Too sparse and blonde to matter, plus I'm currently working on bringing the '80s big-eyebrow look back. Hop on the bandwagon--no more sneezing!

fondue with cheddar

@Sam I am Me too! It's one of the reasons I hardly ever do it even though I look a lot better when I do.


@Sam I am I sneeze when yanking out nose hairs, but that makes more sense and is slightly more than I'd like to admit.

fondue with cheddar

@whizz_dumb I know several men who pull out their nose hairs and it doesn't make them sneeze. I don't understand why they don't sneeze!

Sam I am

@Lu2 I used to have beautiful thick, dark brows, that I insisted on thinning out for years (much to my mothers dismay). I try and leave them as thick as I can now, but its not the same after years of plucking. Hindsight is 20/20!

Sam I am

@whizz_dumb How do we feel about yanking vs trimming?

fondue with cheddar

@Sam I am Mine take up a lot of real estate but they're really sparse. They're pretty difficult to work with. I kind of hate my eyebrows.

Sam I am

@fondue with cheddar Pencil FTW!


@fondue with cheddar I hear you. I've been using this to fill in,

and it works well--a nice dry, ultra-tiny-pointed eyebrow pencil that makes marks that do resemble natural hairs.


@Sam I am I have those point-rounded nose hair scissors but I only use them when I'm grooming like crazy (so much to groom). Yanking takes care of the fast growers? @fondue with cheddar I can't imagine it not making me sneeze it is such an obvious and strong reaction. Let's get more in-depth about nose hairs, the devil is in the detail.

fondue with cheddar

@Lu2 If it were a matter of just filling it in solid (which wouldn't work for me) that would be one thing, but drawing individual hairs sounds way too involved. I'm like a dude when it comes to grooming. ;)


@whizz_dumb How are people able to pluck their nose hairs!? Every time I have ever tried it has just ended in tears.


@Pyxis Cocaine helps. No I'm just really tough, or rough, at least gruff.


@Sam I am Dangerous. http://www.sharecare.com/question/danger-of-pulling-nose-hairs

Sam I am

@puncturedbicycle Eep, terrifying...


My nose itches pre-orgasm. How about that?

Miss Maszkerádi

*reads the whole article*

Nitrous oxide.....is released in the.....penis?
Nitrous oxide is laughing gas, right?
Dongs standing at attention are a natural source of laughing gas?

fondue with cheddar

@Countess Maritza Well, when you say it like that...heehee!


@Countess Maritza As a biochemist, I'm gonna speak up and say that I actually think that's wrong. Nitrous oxide is laughing gas, but nitric acid is a vasodilator (something that expands the veins). I think that nitric acid is involved in the mechanisms of some ED medication-- it would make sense if it's naturally produced, too.

Miss Maszkerádi

@Shara That makes immensely more sense. I was seriously picturing a bunch of schlongs radiating nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.


@Countess Maritza I was curious so I looked it up in the drug guide. During sexual stimulation the body releases nitric oxide which activates the enzyme guanylate cyclase which relaxes the smooth muscles of the penis and allows in blood to create an erection. The enzyme PDE5 then inhibits guanylate cyclase which tenses the smooth muscles, and removes the blood, thus removing the erection. ED medication works by inhibiting PDE5, allowing guanylate cyclase to work longer. Science is cool!


@Shara *puts whippets back in amazon shopping cart*


HA! "Then he declared that a host of ailments could be treated with nose lobotomies, and people just sort of dismissed him after that."


@nonvolleyball That's too bad. The world would be way more interesting if we had a bunch of people walking around like those Muppets with out noses. They could play "got your nose!" for real!


I sneeze when I'm really hungry! No one ever believes me! Now I can just tell them, mysteriously, that sneezes are complicated things.


@SarahP I know that I am late to this party (I was out of town), but--me too me too me too! Hello, fellow hunger-sneezer! I thought everyone sneezed when they were hungry until not that many years ago.

My cursory internet research some time ago suggested that an allergic-type response (sneezing, nose running) to nausea is a Known Thing (I forget why), and so maybe the nausea of extreme hunger is the sneeze trigger? I don't have to be nauseous-hungry to get the hunger-sneezes, though.



Prostitute Robot From The Future

Sexy-toughts-sneezes are fun. I like to pretend everyone has them, so whenever I hear someone sneeze, I just want to say "pervert" in stead of "bless you".


According to my boyfriend, he had sexy-thoughts-sneezes when he was a teen but grew out of them.


Well, this provides an interesting hypothesis for why Mr. Sandwiches' nose runs when we have sex.


!!! I also sneeze when I eat dark chocolate! I'm so glad this is a thing, so now I can tell people it's backed up BY SCIENCE.

I wish I sneezed when crushing on inapprop guys, though -- so much more useful.


I'm convinced my late lamented Old Ladydog used sneezes as form of communication but I'm not sure what she was trying to tell me. She wasn't a leg humper so I don't think it was sexy thoughts.


I wonder if it means anything that I'm almost always annoyed by the sound of someone else sneezing. I'm overly sensitive (overly for my own comfort, that is) regarding sensory perceptions (everything gets in: noises, lights, people jiggling their feet next to me on a seat), so maybe it's all part of one of those nervous systems---autonomic, parasympathetic, or whatever. And when you add in the fact that many people yell or otherwise "voice" their sneezes, which I consider overdoing it, after all, one can see how it might be a bit much for someone like me. Hm.


@Lu2 People jiggling their feet are the worst. I sympathise.


In "A Complicated Kindness" by Miriam Toews, the protagonist mentions that her sister always used to sneeze when she had sexual thoughts about boys...

Until I read that I thought I was the only one.


OH MY GOD haha this happens to me! Except in an explicitly sexual way! It's very awkward when getting down with myself or someone else. But it's always happened, from waaaaay back when I was but a young girl exploring her nascent sexuality.

Anyway! a couple months ago I was like, "oh wait, I should google this" and came across THAT SAME ARTICLE. But I think my tic is annoying, but kind of cute, I guess.


Aaaah this happens to me too! When I'm really attracted to someone and start thinking sexy thoughts, it's like, argh, can't stop sneezing, why. I'm surprised it happens to others too!

Ragged But Right

Oh, the nose. Whenever she broke up with a boy, Sylvia Plath would get a raging sinus infection and have to take to her bed. I have never found a moment to impart this bit of information until now.


I'm taking bio at University right now and my lecturer says that we kind of suss whether we're attracted to someone by seeing whether we have different enough immune systems (this is the scientific basis of attraction).
One of the ways we do this is by releasing pheromones, which can be picked up and kind of smelled by others in a subconscious way.
It explains why Mr TARDIStime stinks, and I know he stinks, but I kind of like the way he stinks? I can't stand others' stinkiness, but there's something about his specific smell, you know? So I can imagine that if you smelled someone whose system your biology didn't agree with, sneezing would be a pretty stock standard response?
It's also what kissing is for - the mixing of saliva allows our system to suss out their system and whether you're biologically compatible or not.
Sorry to suck out the romance, you guys!
EDIT: "This is what kissing is for"? Man, I sound like a robot! Kissing is for whatever you want it to be for!

John Manfredi@twitter

I've only recently found out I'm not the only person on the planet that this happens to and have recently written Dr,. Bhutta myself thanks for sharing


OMG!! This has been a mystery to me my whole life!! The same thing happens to me and I never thought I would find an explanation! Thank you!!!


OMG! There's GOT to be something to the bad-dude-for-you psychic-sneeze, because I sneeze out of nowhere every time I allow myself to fantasize about merely kissing -or getting close to- someone I used to crush on - and only this ONE person in particular. My working brain KNOWS it's not a good thing, but my lizard brain agrees! I'm going with your theory, Steph. Deep down, our psyches are saying STAY AWAY!

Krista Meadows@facebook

Oh my goodness!!! After all these years, I finally looked up "arousal" and "sneezing" because I'm the ONLY person that I know who sneezes when I'm intensely aroused! :-) That's awesome! There are others! Except... as I read your article, I differed from you because you took the sneezing as a sign of "get away"... I've always taken it as a sign of "Oh yeah... That means THIS is GOING to happen." LOL!!!! :-) I accepted it (after living with it for a while) then grew to love it :-) Is there a club I can join? haha Much love <3


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So interesting to read about it. I gave birth to my second child a couple of months ago. I have been single since the beginning of pregnancy, so no sex since then. In the last few weeks when I think sexy I sneeze! This is new to me. Haha I knew if I looked it up there would be others.
While I was pregnant I loved to eat rocket leaves, and whenever I did I felt aroused. So I looked it up and yep its an aphrodisiac! Great to share things

J Smith

I sneeze whenever I am getting emotionally attached to someone or am thinking of potential attachments. I also sneeze in response to light.


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