Sneezing and the Pavlovian Response

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  AH-CHOO!

“Bless you.”

HA-CHOO!

“Gesundheit.”

It’s automatic. It’s a reflex. When someone sneezes in a crowd, there is always someone, or someones, who respond with one of the above phrases.  It’s almost a part of the collective-conscience or social mind. It’s a custom that we use simply because most people around us throughout our lives have used it. From the time you were learning to crawl, you likely heard someone say “Bless you” to a sneeze.

More than likely, you do too. Have you ever stopped and asked yourself “Why?”

There are different theories regarding the origin this Pavlovian response. One idea is that the expression stems from the Middle Ages when the Bubonic Plague was threatening European health. In this case the person saying gesundheit was actually wishing good health upon themselves, since they may have been infected by the one who sneezed. During this time it was also commonly believed that sneezing made one’s body vulnerable to evil spirits. Thus another plausible explanation is that gesundheit was a blessing to ward off demons while the sneezer’s body was defenseless.

Gesundheit literally means “good health” in German.

Long before that (around 440 B.C.), the Ancient Greeks believed that the soul left through the nose upon death. A vicious sneeze was thought to be an ominous event.

Remember that the next time you hear someone sneeze.

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