Facts of life Can you sneeze with your eyes open? [Archives:2005/859/Health]

July 14 2005

By Dr. Khaled alNsour
For the Yemen Times

You may wonder why we sneeze in the first place? People sneeze because something is irritating their nose or in some cases, because they've looked at a light.. Some people joke that your eyes will pop out if you sneeze without shutting them. The real reason we are shut-eyed sneezers is because it's a reflex.

A reflex is a natural reaction to a certain cause such as a hit on the knee joint like most doctors do or blinking when there is strong light etc. It's not too difficult to use conditioning techniques to modify reflexes, in the sense of making them stronger or weaker, or easier or harder to evoke. It's much more difficult, and in some cases impossible, to change the reflex itself (add or remove a component). This is particularly true of simple reflexes.

However, a sneeze is a pretty complex reflex. Theoretically it may be possible to use something called instrumental conditioning to modify the reflex.

Instrumental conditioning is essentially learning that a particular behavior predicts a particular outcome. Here's an example. Normally, rats don't go around pressing levers. However, if a lever is around, a rat may, for some reason, press it once in awhile. If the rat is hungry, and you give him food every time he presses the lever, pretty soon he'll be pressing the lever alot (at least until he's not hungry anymore). The rat has been instrumentally conditioned to press the lever.

One thing you can do with instrumental conditioning is shape behavior. For example, when the rat was first learning that moving the lever gets him food, you might reward him if he only touches the lever. After he begins touching the lever regularly, you might require him to move it a tiny bit to get food. By changing what the rat has to do to get his reward a bit at a time, eventually you can get the rat to push the lever very far, or maybe in a particular direction. You have shaped his behavior.

You probably see where this is leading. You might be able to use a similar procedure to shape a sneeze. Although seriously I would not advise this, beacause being natural is a blessing. But why is the reflex closing our eyes and not doing something else such as raising our hand or something. Doctors say it is a medical mystry but some of them propose that we close our eyes to protect them perhaps from microorganisms and particles flying out as fast as 630 mph from our sneezes. But it could also be simply because a sneeze is a kind of body-wide reflex in which a lot of muscles contract, not just in the nose and throat but also those in the diaphragm, the abdomen, thighs, back, even sphincters, such as bending your body or pulling your hands inwards (which is why some people with stress incontinence may urinate slightly when they sneeze).

Another astonishing reality is that the heart may stop while sneezing for a fraction of a second before resuming its normal rhythm. Doctors say that this is not dangerous, but it's believed that people began saying ''God bless you” when a person sneezes because they believed that