Why do we say 'bless you'
after a sneeze?

'Frolicking Putti,'  By Franz Lefler
In 'Frolicking Putti,' the 19th-century Czech artist Franz Lefler captures the principle of the sun-triggered sneeze.

After all, we have no such custom for people when they cough or hiccup. In ancient times, it was believed that the soul left your body when you sneezed and that evil spirits could then enter. Blessing you was supposed to prevent this. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) ascended to the Papacy just in time for the start of the plague. Gregory (who also invented the Gregorian chant) called for litanies, processions and unceasing prayer for intercession. Columns marched through the streets chanting, "Kyrie Eleison" (Greek for "Lord have mercy"). When someone sneezed, they were immediately blessed in the hope that they would not subsequently develop the plague. All that prayer apparently worked, judging by how quickly the plague of 590 AD diminished.

The connection of sneezing to the plague is not the first association of sneezing with death. In the Dark Ages, it was believed that your heart stopped momentarily when you sneezed. You were, in effect, dead for an instant and had to be blessed. Many cultures, even some in Europe, believe that sneezing expels the soul — the "breath of life"— from the body. That doesn't seem too far-fetched when you realize that sneezing can send tiny particles speeding out of your nose at up to 100 miles per hour!

Other explanations are based on superstitions and urban legends about sneezing and what a sneeze entails. Some well known superstitions that may have contributed to bringing "bless you" into common use are:

The belief that the heart stops when you sneeze, and the phrase "bless you" is meant to ensure the return of life or to encourage your heart to continue beating. (Of course, the heart beats because of electrical pulses that are not affected by normal functions like sneezing.)

Your soul can be thrown from your body when you sneeze, and saying "bless you" prevents your soul from being stolen by Satan or some evil spirit. Thus, "bless you" or "God bless you" is used as a sort of shield against evil.

A sneeze is good luck and saying "bless you" is no more than recognition of the sneezer's luckiness. Alternatively, it may be possible that the phrase began simply as a response for an event that wasn't well understood at the time.

Another urban legend states that you cannot open your eyes while you sneeze, or if you manage to your eyes will pop out. During a sneeze the impulses travel through your face causing your eyelids to blink, this response is entirely automatic.

Cat folklore in Italy says that a cat sneezing is supposed to be a good omen for everyone who hears it. Other superstitions say that a cat sneezing once means there will be rain; if a cat sneezes three times, the family will catch a cold; and a sneezing cat is a sign of future wealth.

We know today, of course, that when you sneeze, your heart doesn't stop, nor does your soul get expelled, nor will your eyes pop out if you could keep them open. Also, it's just about impossible to hold your eyelids open while you sneeze. They snap shut by reflex. The nerves serving the eyes and the nose are closely intertwined, and stimuli to the one often trigger some response in the other.

In many English-speaking countries, the German equivalent, gesundheit (which means "good health"), is used after sneezing or coughing. Gesundheit is also used in Australia. It was imported to South Australia through the Evangelical Lutheran refugees who fled the established Lutheran church in the east of Germany. These Silesian immigrants spoke their own language until the two World Wars caused a dramatic decline in the use of German in Australia. Gesundheit was used until recent times by the majority English speaking population. Its usage seems now to have declined. The expression is also found in Jewish custom. Although not technically part of Jewish Law (Halacha), the custom of saying gesundheit, tzu gezunt, labree'ut, or God bless you is considered a mannerly custom. It is written in the Talmud that the patriarch Jacob was the first person to become ill before passing on. Before that, people would sneeze and die. When God infused the soul into Man, He "blew it" into Adam's nostrils. Thus, when it came time for the soul to be returned to its Maker, it would leave through the same portal it arrived.

These days, one says "Bless you!" because it is expected, not out of concern for the wellbeing of the sneezer's soul or a need to disassociate oneself from the dying. During a multiple sneeze episode, bless once after the first sneeze and once after the last. Blessing each time gets tiring. In the final analysis, it may not be as much about souls leaping out or demons clawing to get in as it is about simple human acknowledgment of another's presence.

FROM NPR.ORG: Why the Sun Makes Noses Go Ah, Ah, Ah ...choo

"Why is it that one sneezes more after one has looked at the sun?" he Aristotle asked in Problems, Book XXXIII, in a section called Problems of the Nose."Is it because the sun engenders heat and so causes movement, just as does tickling the nose with a feather?"

Sorry, Aristotle, you're sneezing up the wrong tree. A sneeze provoked by sudden exposure to intense light is known as the photic sneeze reflex -- or, more whimsically, ACHOO (for Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst). It occurs in about a quarter of the population, according to researchers at the University of Texas. And it has nothing to do with the heat of the sun.

The reflex is probably the result of a malfunction in the fifth cranial nerve, called the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve is responsible for facial sensation and such motor functions as biting, swallowing and, yes, sneezing. Scientists believe that in some people, the trigeminal nerve is linked to the optic nerve, which transmits visual impulses to the brain. So when someone with ACHOO syndrome sees bright light, their optic nerve is overstimulated, triggering the trigeminal nerve. Ergo: achoo! Researchers say some people can also sneeze when they suddenly breathe in cold air or eat strong mints, like Altoids. These sensations likely overstimulate other nerves close to the trigeminal nerve, launching the sneeze.

But why doesn't the family that sees together sneeze together? ACHOO syndrome is passed along genetically, as an "autosomal dominant trait." This means only one parent has to have a set of ACHOO genes pass on the trait. In your case, Mr. Bolduc, you probably have one set of DNA with the genes for ACHOO and one sneezeless set of DNA. Each of your children had a 50 percent chance of inheriting this trait from you. In your family's case, genetic inheritance worked just as expected: two kids, and exactly 50 percent of them sneeze when they look at the sun.

From ... Straight Dope.com and Wikipedia

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