MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: is it possible to hold your eyes open when you sneeze?

Area: Medicine
Posted By: Robert West, Post-doc/Fellow
Date: Thu Sep 18 12:47:56 1997
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 873999436.Me

Dear Brianne,

Have you tried using your fingers?

Although I can't completely rule out the possiblity that someone might be able to train themselves to sneeze with their eyes open, I am inclined to think you wouldn't be able to do it.

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. (You can find several posts that describe it in more detail in the Mad Scientist's archive; just search under "sneeze". ) Since it is neurally complex, 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. It would be tough though. First, you need to have a way to reliably get yourself to sneeze. Then you need a way to monitor how much your eyes close, and hope that sometimes they don't close quite as much as other times, so you have something to work with at the beginning. Then you need to find some sort of reinforcement that will tend to pressure the behavior to change (a little electric shock every time your eyes close completely comes to mind!). Finally, you have to hope that the form of a sneeze is something that can be modified by learning. In any event, it would take an awful lot of time and energy.

I think you're better off just using your fingers.

If you have any questions or comments, send me an email.

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