For millions of us, sneezing isn't relegated to illness or allergy. It happens when we pepper our food, chew minty gum or encounter bright sunlight. We even sneeze when tweezing our eyebrows or during a cycling class at the gym.
The list of stimuli that can turn an ordinary person into a sneeze factory is a long one, but can simply seeing someone else sneeze do the trick?
There's no clear scientific evidence that sneezing is contagious in the same fashion as catching a yawn. But that doesn't mean there aren't possible conclusions to be drawn. How many times have you seen or heard someone yawn and then done it yourself? Yawns are so contagious that reading about it can make you do it. Could this social yawning factor apply to sneezing, too?
There's an increasingly well-mapped connection between social yawning and empathy. In one study, researchers spent a year gathering behavioral data from more than 100 adults of varying ages and ethnicities. The adults were observed in their natural habitat, much like primates, and their yawning behavior -- suppressed versus open-mouthed -- was recorded.
The data were then plugged into a statistical model that revealed the contagious yawning hierarchy: People yawn more in response to the yawns of those they love. The tiers of the social yawning hierarchy, from high to low, are family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. The more you like someone, the more you reflect that person's behavior, at least when it comes to yawning [source: Dell'Amore].
So what does your sneeze say about your relationships? It could be silent on the matter, as in the case of a sneeze that occurs spontaneously in the absence of social stimuli. Or, like a yawn, could it be prompted by the power of your social environment?