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A Scientific Theory is. . .
What’s in a Sneeze? What’s Snot? PDF Print E-mail
(5 Votes)
Written by Randall Reiserer   
Tuesday, 09 September 2008 20:55

I like to think about obscure things, and lately, I’ve been thinking about memes.  You know, those selfish ideas that replicate through the collective human psyche like mental parasites.  Okay, perhaps you don’t know—I did say obscure.  The term “meme” was coined by the prominent British biologist, Richard Dawkins, who gained notoriety by calling genes selfish and God a delusion.  However you swing on the teleology of molecules or the certainty of ultimate causation, you will, I trust, find that Dawkins’ christening of the meme has fertilized our ideas about ideas.


 Memes are thoughts, sayings, stories, jokes, jingles, etc. that get passed along or inherited much like genes, only through social, rather than biological, heredity. Like DNA they are subject to change and selection, and they can also enjoy great success, sometimes for reasons that defy simple explanation.  Take, for example, the saying “nothing to sneeze at.”  Nobody knows exactly when this idiomatic quip originated, or even what the allusion to a sneeze connotes.  The saying means “not trivial,” as when someone says “an extra thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at.”  The implication is that sneezing at something is trivial, a notion that runs contrary to another sneezy saying, that trusty “Bless you,” or “God bless you” that follows Old Faithful in social settings.


As memes go, the act of blessing others or wishing them health after they sneeze is top flight, certainly more prominent than Father Christmas, and perhaps as widespread as the belief in an Almighty.  Indeed, it has so many cultural and linguistic parallels that there must be a real imperative behind it.


Wikipedia hosts a nice article on this nearly universal custom, including a long, but incomplete, list of linguistic equivalents to the predominantly European and American “bless you.”  The uncertain history includes the claim that “God bless you” originated with Pope Gregory I, whose papacy began in 590 AD as a wave of bubonic plague was threatening Rome.  In addition to obligate prayer, as the story goes, the wise pope urged his subjects to exclaim “God bless you” when someone sneezed, as sneezing was thought to portend the onset of plague.


While this legend may hold some truth in the origin of one benediction, it is almost certainly just one step in the long evolutionary transmutation of a meme.  Other more nebulous legends hold that blessings ward off evil spirits that opportunistically enter a body at the vulnerable moment when all of ones breath (life force) has been momentarily expired, or that the explosive exhalation blasts out the soul and a quick blessing reseats it. 

One superstition has it that the heart stops when one sneezes, and others claim that sneezing foretells good or bad fortune.  The blessing is a prayer of sorts—for divine defibrillation in the first case, and for a happy ending in the latter two.  Following a sneeze, the Zulu tribespeople of Africa are said to call out “I am now blessed; the ancestral spirit is with me,” while other African tribes hold that sneezing is a sign of demonic possession.  In modern Buddhist Sri Lanka the common reply to sneezers is that someone is remembering or thinking of them, and the same belief is widely held in other Buddhist societies.  The different beliefs are so widespread and multifarious that expounding on them here would be nothing to sneeze at, so I won't.  I have provided a short list of resources for the curious reader in an endnote.


Because the distribution of sneeze mythology, and its compulsory post-commentary, is global and undoubtedly dates to prehistoric times—occurring in isolated tribal and island societies as well as modern ones—there is absolutely no reason to postulate a single cultural origin for this phenomenon.  The widespread social obligation to bless or wish well simply seems too pervasive to dismiss as mere tradition, and the character of sneeze offerings seems too similar across cultures.


The sentiment in the saying “someone is thinking about you” is really the same as in “bless you,” and these two sayings are especially comparable when one considers the emotional support received by the social beneficiary.  Buddhists conceive of the natural order quite differently than those of Western faiths, and their declaration is just as much a benediction as “God bless you.”


Most cultures use a salute to good health rather than an overt blessing, but the basic premise for all of them remains the same: a sneeze has special or supernatural meaning and sneezers must be verbally addressed, either to ward off imagined consequences or to wish them well.  The result is always the same, too: the momentary loss of composure is dismissed through reference to something with a benevolent meaning. 


All of the various sneeze benedictions are equally irrational, too.  Presuming that someone is thinking about you because you sneezed is just as mystic-minded as calling on God for a spiritual intervention—as is appealing to some nebulous force to render good health.  Humans do a lot of irrational things, so in itself this observation is of little interest.


It’s not so hard to imagine that the ancients would appeal to the supernatural in explaining the sneeze.  After all, the triggering agents are usually microscopic, and sneezes are involuntary and unpredictable.  Given the obvious mystery in pre-science times, a spiritual interpretation of sneezing would not have seemed irrational at all.  But why do modern folks, equipped with evidential knowledge, continue blessing that capricious fountain with irrational declarations?  More puzzling still, why don’t we pay the same homage to yawns, coughs, hiccups, belches, and farts?

Coughs are legitimately associated with illness, so why don’t we bless each other after a cough?  If God is going to intervene, surely he will do so more readily for a legitimate illness.  There is certainly no shortage of ancient folk wisdom surrounding coughs, yawns, and other bodily functions, but nowadays we greet those social interruptions with rational retorts.  A cough is most likely to elicit such commentary as: “That sounds bad; are you okay?” or “You must be coming down with something.”   We respond to a yawn with “Someone is sleepy,” a belch with “You’re such a pig!,” a hiccup with some curative suggestion, and a fart with “Not in the elevator, man!,” or some such cogent response.  The sneeze alone has retained its ancient mystique, commanding a divine sanction rather than merely a tissue offering.


Some scholars have suggested that the sayings associated with a sneeze are simply repetitions of the same sound (bless you, sounds like achoo when spoken).  This explanation falls flat for two reasons.  First, not all cultures sneeze with the familiar achoo sound.  And, second, many of the salutations used in other cultures lack any resemblance to a sneeze.  Hungarians, for example, make the sound “hopchee,” and their salutation "egészségedre" sounds nothing like hopchee.  If there is any truth to this hypothesis, it is founded in linguistic opportunism, whereby sayings that sound more sneeze-like are preferred.  Clearly, though, meaning has prevailed over sneeze mimicry in most cultural equivalents.


One online article at Snoops.com suggests that blessing a sneezer is nowadays just a socially ingrained, polite acknowledgement of the sneezer’s presence.  If this were so, we would expect any bodily eruption (or at least one or two others) to be accompanied by a similar declaration.  This explanation, while perhaps on the right track, just doesn’t seem complete, and a little additional exploration seems desirable, for enlightenment’s sake. 


Coughs are viewed as serious predictors of poor health and naturally garner sympathy, but a sneeze might or might not indicate illness.  Hiccups, though involuntary, are rare for the most part, and can usually be cured by a willful act.  Belches and flatulence can be suppressed or otherwise privatized, and such control explains the customary regard for these expulsions as rude.  That leaves sneezes and yawns as the only involuntary, “trivial” social interruptions over which we have little control.  It is interesting that both of these physiological functions have attracted much mysticism in the past and that both of them involve exaggerated, stereotypical facial expressions.


Actually, I think that it is more than interesting; it might turn out to be explanatory.  Yawning provides us with a powerful means of understanding the possible social interplay of sneezing, because the social contagion of yawning reminds us that facial expressions alone can trigger neurophysiological responses.   As we all know, when one person yawns in a room full of others, those who witness it are very likely to yawn themselves, and this phenomenon holds whether the yawner is actually present or is viewed on TV.  Incidentally, we do not bless people on TV when they sneeze, but we often bless others when we hear them sneeze from the next room, or if our backs are turned to them when they blow.

This difference does not, however, mean that the facial expressions involved in a sneeze are any less psychologically potent than those of a yawn, only that the context is different.  The response to a yawning face has become stereotyped during a long evolutionary history, and the causal agent of yawning is a neurological phenomenon of social consequence (alertness), while the cause of sneezing is not.  The visual information in a yawn is so stereotyped that yawning dogs, cats, and monkeys at the zoo can trigger yawning in humans and vice versa.  This observation strongly suggests that facial expressions not only pass subliminal information (something interpreted beneath the radar of the conscious mind), but that our mammalian lineage has made use of such expressive signals for a very long time.


Quite telling is the fact that merely reading about yawning or thinking about it can provoke the yawning response.  I have gathered quite a lot of empirical evidence for that assertion in writing this essay.  This occurrence stems from mental visualization, and the same should hold for sneezing.  When someone sneezes, we cannot help but form a mental representation of the event, but there must be more to the story since the yawn can be transmitted through the TV and a blessing is denied a televised sneezer.


There must be a person present to receive the blessing, and this context specificity tells us that, unlike yawn contagiousness, the sneeze benediction is mediated by higher brain functions that control social awareness.  It is clear that while the response is usually automatic (i.e., done without conscious thought), it is certainly a voluntary one.  It is also, at least partially, a learned response.  We know that young children do not innately bless sneezers.  Children do, however, readily adopt this practice upon acquiring the most rudimentary proficiency for empathy (as early as age 4), and they seem to never question its logic. 


We could easily postulate that children are mindlessly parroting the behavior of their parents and dismiss the topic altogether, but this does not explain the worldwide distribution of a behavior that seems to function the same in all cultures.  Cultural norms are simply too variable to be global, unless there is some hard-wiring behind them.  The most parsimonious explanation is that there exists some innate imperative to offer a benediction to a sneezer, and that we so easily learn and adopt the behavior because our biology favors it.  But what could this imperative be?


One possibility is that we perceive sneezes as embarrassing to sneezers, and in order to help them past the social awkwardness we say something to ease their discomfort.  This explanation seems pretty empty to me, simply because sneezing is so common that nobody really feels embarrassed for doing it, at least not under most social circumstances.  We are far more embarrassed by an ill concealed fart, but no one blesses us for that.  I do think that embarrassment might play a role in the social interplay, but it simply does not explain a global social pattern, especially since the pattern extends to societies that lack most civilized formalities.  It certainly does not explain the sneeze responsiveness of children under age 6, because their capacity to feel embarrassment is not fully developed.  Their empathetic skills are pretty much confined to the feelings they know: pain, sorrow, and happiness.

While some tribal cultures practice self affirmations after a sneeze, most civilized cultures do not.  If a blessing were founded on an accepted metaphysical belief, we would expect that the sneezer would bless himself as readily as anyone else, and this is indeed what we see in some tribal settings.  In the absence of a driving belief, however, others still feel obligated to provide some sort of benediction, and it seems plausible that this misdirected empathy is evoked by facial expression.


While the facial expression of a yawn displays exaggerated features, those features are relaxed in form.  The eyes are not tightly shut and the teeth are not exposed.  A sneeze, on the other hand, displays two rather distressing expressions in sequence.  The first mimics extreme grief and dramatic crying, and the second imitates the expression of excruciating pain.  The eyes are shut tightly and the teeth are bared.  Were either of these expressions to be present for more than an instant they would elicit a strong empathetic response from any normal observer.  The question is, do they do so subliminally?


It may well be that science will weigh in at some point in the future, with controlled empathy experiments aimed at subliminal sneeze psychology.  With luck, we’ll one day have studies as informative as those carried out on yawning.  I predict a great funding future for this topic, along with the spectacular return of powdered wigs.


For now, it does seem plausible that the facial expressions displayed in a sneeze are potentially important to the way we respond to a sneezer.  Expressions of both grief and pain elicit empathy and helping behavior, and it seems quite possible, given what we know about yawning, that facial expressions in a sneeze, whether witnessed or imagined, have a subliminal influence on us.  Such expressions could provoke a potent urge to render some form of assistance to a sneezer.  Nowadays, we know that sneezes are benign most of the time, so we should be able to shed the urge to offer a benediction.  That is, unless there is a hard-wired reason for the benediction.  The fact that we can dismiss other bodily functions without much empathy suggests that our irrational response to sneezes is controlled by something subconscious.


Why, for example, would we say “Bless you” to a sneezing baby when we know for certain that the message is not understood?  Is it to teach the infant this social convention?  That seems unlikely.  I am a father of two and I can vouch that no such motive was ever part of my post sneeze bless-yous (and indeed I did offer them).  I think that we make such gestures because we are predisposed to supply assistance to those expressing the facial signals that resemble grief and pain and, however brief those signals may be, the feelings evoked in a witness to a sneeze are powerful enough for the witness to need some closure.  While far from conclusive, my personal experience seems to bear this out.

Many years ago my brother learned to suppress his sneezes.  He could not completely stifle all facial expression, but he got rid of the open-mouthed prelude and significantly diminished the explosive finale.  His gesture resembled a cough more than a sneeze, and he issued but a brief nasal exhalation accompanied by a short nareal grunt.  I noticed that the incidence of blessings was significantly curtailed for him compared to me.  One day we both got into a dusty service elevator with a lady who worked in the Physics Department office at Vanderbilt University.  Neither he nor I had ever spoken to her previously, and the elevator ride would likely have passed in awkward silence were it not for the dust.  My brother issued a couple of muted sneezes and the lady said “You keep holding those in and you’re going to burst a blood vessel.”  Just then, the tickle in my nose reached critical and I blasted a fully formed sneeze into my open hand.  I was immediately greeted with “Bless you!” from the office assistant.


Perhaps the more interesting detail in this anecdote is our lack of familiarity with the office assistant.  Is it not odd that a sneeze can elicit polite blessings from complete strangers who, were it not for your sneeze, would have completely ignored you?  What is it that compels them to comment?


Over the years I too have learned to stifle my sneezes and I have noticed quite a change in the responses to those I can successfully suppress compared to those I cannot.  The responses to stifled sneezes are much more rational, though opinionated, often expressing concerns that holding a sneeze might do damage—a perfectly rational supposition given the pressure differential generated.  More often than not, though, I get no response at all.


Back in graduate school, before I learned to thwart a sneeze, my advisor used to respond with “You okay?” when someone sneezed.  A contemplative professorial type, he had no doubt thought about the practice of blessing others and rejected it intellectually.  Still, he had not shaken the unconscious need to offer social assistance following a sneeze.  Thinking back on it now I might have logically replied “Yeah, sure, it’s just a sneeze,” but I was so used to hearing “Bless you” that nothing seemed out of place.  The point is that his “You okay?” was just as good as a blessing, and served exactly the same purpose, so it is not the blessing, per se, that is expected or required.  What seems obligate is the show of concern itself.  But who expects it, the sneezer or the witness?


I have a cousin, Mathew, with mild autism, and it is well known that autistic individuals lack empathy.  In fact, autistics do not experience the contagion of yawns, a function that is thought to be contingent upon the capacity for empathy.   One day Mathew—in his late teens at the time—and I were playing pool in his family’s basement and, owing to my allergies, I couldn’t stop sneezing.  There were perhaps six other relatives in the recreation room and each of them offered a “Bless you” almost every time I sneezed—that is, except for Mathew.  It is not that he lacks any facility in communicating; he can express most things quite well, but his diminished capacity for empathy is evident in a general indifference to the emotional needs of others.  I would not have noticed except that another cousin, age ten, pointed out that Mathew was not saying “Bless you.”  After giving it some thought, I realized that Mathew’s omission had bothered the younger cousin because he felt a social obligation.  The fact is, it didn’t bother me at all.  I was the one sneezing and my concern was with my own misery, rather than social conventions.

A few years ago I began to think more on this topic, and I too stopped saying “Bless you,” replacing it with a rational response.  Now when someone sneezes, I usually say something like “Need a tissue?” or “Sounds like you have allergies, too.”  I have also tried saying nothing, though it feels awkward.  What I have observed is that the sneezer is not the expectant one; it is the witness who feels obligation.  The sneezer feels mild embarrassment and is too busy recovering from it to pay much attention to what the witness says.   He excuses himself and moves on, hoping that nothing conspicuous escaped while his eyes were closed.


It appears that saying something helps the witness, not the sneezer, to reestablish the social equilibrium by dismissing what he has just experienced.  A sneeze is a rather sudden and violent interruption, but then so is a cough.  The primary physical difference is that a sneeze is accompanied by facial expressions that mimic sorrow and pain.  If we grant these expressions anything near the subliminal power of a yawn, it seems likely that the witness would naturally feel a need to render some form of assistance.


A verbal rescue seems all that is required, however, and the witness goes away feeling benevolent.  A blessing, salute to health, or reminder that people think of you is perceived by the witness as appropriate assistance.  The actual content of a benediction is somewhat incidental to its function.  Like genes, the success of memes is subject to historical accident.  The sayings are irrational partially because they stem from pre-science traditions, but perhaps also because they represent ceremonial assistance for a condition that requires no real aid.  To the sneezer, it makes little difference what is said, as long as it seems socially benign.  Indeed, a pleasant smile seems to provide a perfectly adequate transition after the disruption. 


So, referring back to the article on Snoops.com, the seemingly obligatory benediction for a sneeze is not just a polite acknowledgement of the sneezer’s presence.  Rather it appears to be a social show of concern, perhaps mediated by facial expressions that falsely signal that the sneezer is in distress.  What provokes my interest in this topic is that this perceptual error might have given rise to a species-wide meme, rooted in the neurobiology of social behavior.


It seems likely that all very successful memes will rest on solid neurobiological foundations, and this is the genius in the concept.  Without the intellectual framework afforded by the meme concept, we might easily ignore the psychological and historical bounty in pervasive ideas, and to this end we must hail the meme as nothing to sneeze at.


Now that I have thoroughly intellectualized this topic, I feel a bit of nostalgia for my favorite sneeze myth—none other than the immortal soul spewed into one’s palm along with a million happy germs swimming in little ponds of phlegm. 


Who can resist that image?

Additional Information on Sneeze Mythology

Wikipedia--Bless you
The Straight Dope--Why do we say "God bless you" after a sneeze?
Snoops.com--Bless You!
Sacred-texts.com--The Omens of Sneezing

Comments (5)Add Comment
Bless your heart
written by sxe60, October 19, 2008
• Blessing people brings to mind a swarmy local Dallas guy name Bob Lovell who pitches Home Marketing Services on TV. His catch word phrase is "Bless your heart". He even uses it as his web page address www.blessyourheart.com. Now I can see, since the heart is a vital organ, that it may need blessing from time to time. But, why not bless your brain or bless your liver too?
RE: Bless your heart
written by rsr, October 19, 2008
Good point, but why bless any organ? What does it mean to bless something? Do we really have the power to manifest an outcome by uttering a blessing? I think that the presumption is that blessing things is like issuing a short prayer, and in doing so we tap into God's power to affect outcomes. This practice seems to presume that God is in the habit of taking suggestions from us on when to intervene. I find it doubtful that an all powerful deity would bother with most things that we see fit to bless, but then I find many rational inconsistencies in just about any other iron age belief.
RE: Bless your heart
written by sxe60, October 19, 2008
True, but pneumonic respiratory problems, such as sneezing, are symptoms of the plague. Consequently, they must have deduced that sneezing on someone and the fact that they later died had some connection.
RE: Bless your heart
written by rsr, October 19, 2008
Thing is, nobody had any clue about germs or disease transmission in 590 AD.
RE: Bless your heart
written by sxe60, October 19, 2008
I can see how this phrase could be connected to the plague. If sneezing was thought to be an indication of the disease, it would follow that you didn't want to sneeze on anyone or anything dear to you lest they catch it and die. Thus, something or someone of value to you is nothing to sneeze at and if you do sneeze on them then they can only be saved by God's blessing.

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