Thursday, June 23, 2011

What do you know when you know you are going to sneeze?

What causes a sneeze? Is it a tickle in your nose? The sneeze is a surprise, a reflex, not a response to a stimulus comparable to the one that leads you to brush a mosquito from your arm. When you’re going to sneeze, you open your mouth and get ready. Sometimes nothing happens and the sneeze “goes away.”

We should assume that a sneeze is a response to some biological event. You can’t sneeze at will. It is a reflex response to something going on in the body. Most probably a sneeze is a response to an irritation of the mucus membranes somewhere in the nasal passages.

But I have no awareness of my mucous membranes, in the nose or anywhere else. I can’t visualize them; they don’t give me any information; and I am unable to introspect on their state of being. This is true for most of the inside of the body. We have no direct mental access to its various states of being. You can feel a pain in your knee, but you cannot introspect on the various parts of the knee itself. You know when your bladder is full, but you have no direct mental communication with your bladder.

Yet there is warning for a sneeze. Rarely, if ever, is a sneeze completely a surprise. We are aware that a sneeze “is coming.” What is the nature of that awareness?

My hypothesis is that we are aware of a particular kind of brain activity that is distinctive enough to be discriminated from others, and associated with the actual sneeze. How that could be so is a mystery. The brain does not give off any sensory data, like the heart does. I can hear and feel my heart beating so to that extent I am aware of its location and activity in my body. But I have no direct awareness of my brain. I only know it’s in my head because I have been told. I can’t feel it in there. It doesn’t make any noise and doesn’t jump around.

But somehow, we can discriminate brain states from each other. We know the difference between having a full bladder and a pain in the knee and being about to sneeze. But since we do not have direct awareness of the brain, we have no easy way of describing these brain states, so we talk about them in terms of associated effects. For example, the sneeze itself is sensory and observable, so we say of the pre-sneeze condition, “I am going to sneeze.” All the talk is about the sneeze. But actually, what we’re referring to is not the sneeze-to-be, but the pre-sneeze condition of the brain, which we have learned to discriminate but not name.

Other examples of awareness of, and discrimination of, specific brain states include being aware of blood sugar level, pre-orgasm, pain, a feeling of nervousness or restlessness, being overcaffeinated, and being drunk. We talk about these brain states in terms of their observable bodily effects, but actually, we can discriminate the phenomena as specific brain conditions before there are overt bodily effects.

I think the most dramatic example of being aware of a brain condition, without being able to name it directly, is dreaming. We make up all sorts of fantastical stories upon awakening, because we have no vocabulary for naming or discussing the brain activity that we just experienced.

It is inconceivable that someone properly socialized would not be aware of their heart. We have anatomy books, the history of medicine, the doctor’s stethoscope, Poe’s story of the “Tell-tale heart,” and so on. But we do not have comparable socialization in our culture to name and discuss brain activities. We don’t even have any reliable visual imagery to attach to different brain states. That’s too bad. If we did have appropriate vocabulary, we could contribute a lot to understanding of the brain simply by discriminating and naming its various states when they occur.

We don’t understand the interface between the biological neurology and the mental experience, but the answer is, when you are about to sneeze, you are aware of a particular brain state.