Thursday, May 06, 2010

Do Asthmatics Really Sneeze at Plastic Flowers?

Do asthmatics really sneeze at plastic flowers, presuming them to be real?

So a variety of papers, books, and websites -- many of them arguing that the mind is "immaterial" -- would have you believe. Just to list a few:

James Le Fanu, in his 2009 book Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, writes (p. 219): "it is well recognised, for example, that asthmatics sneeze in the presence of plastic flowers, presuming them to be real", but he gives no citation.

Kenneth R. Pelletier, in a chapter "Between mind and body: stress, emotions and health" in a 1993 Consumer Reports book edited by D. Goleman and J. Gurin entitled Mind Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health, claims in the very first line of his article that "Asthmatics sneeze at plastic flowers" (p. 19). He gives no citation, but repeats this claim in his 1995 book Sound Mind, Sound Body: A New Model for Lifelong Health, writing (p. 79): "Control is the vital link between mind and body. It is the pivotal point between psychological attitudes and our physical responses. Asthmatics sneeze at plastic flowers."

Anees A. Sheikh, in his 2002 book Healing images: the role of imagination in health quotes Pelletier, as does Max Velmans, in a paper entitled How could conscious experiences affect brains? that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies 9 (11) (2002), 3-29.

Arthur V. N. Brooks, in a paper presented at the Philosophical Club of Cleveland in 1993, asks "Why do asthmatics sneeze at plastic flowers?" No citation is given.

Christopher Gilbert, a physician currently at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, writes in a 1998 article in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies that "Asthma attacks, for example, can be set off by plastic flowers if the individual has had asthma responses to flowers in the past, and believes the flowers are real."

Naomi Judd, in her 1994 autobiography Love Can Build a Bridge, writes (p. 449) that "The mind is the deepest influence on the body. Asthmatics have been known to sneeze at plastic flowers." She seems to be citing Pelletier (1993).

A 1923 address by W. Langdon Brown that appeared in Proc. Roy. Soc. Med. 16 (1923), 1-16. He says, "That asthma often occurs in neuropathic families, and that asthmatics are unduly suggestible, are well-known facts. The paroxysm excited by an artificial flower figures in every text-book."

And what appears to be the original citation is an 1886 paper entitled "The production of the so-called "rose cold" by means of an artificial rose", by John Noland Mackenzie, in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences.

With all these citations, it would certainly seem to be a fact, right?

Not so fast.

First, single anecdotal examples (like that given in the 1886 paper) are not very convincing. There are lots of reasons other than psychological ones why someone allergic to flowers might sneeze in the presence of a plastic flower - such as, for example, having an allergy to plastic or residues of chemicals used to make plastic. That's why a controlled study would be needed to be truly convincing.

Second, Neville J. King, in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine 3 (2) (1980), 169-189, wrote, "The classical conditioning of human asthma attacks also has yet to be reliably demonstrated. Despite the many anecdotal cases of human asthma attacks elicited by the sight of dust and artificial flowers (Dunbar, 1954; McGovern and Knight, 1967) which are consistent with a classical conditioning model of asthma, attempts at the classical conditioning of human asthma in the laboratory have not been successful. Of approximately 100 asthmatic patients, Dekker et al. (1957) could succeed in classically conditioning asthma attacks to apparatus used in allergy investigations in only 2 of these patients. Also, Knapp (1963) reported negative findings after a careful and elaborate series of experiments on conditioned asthma in human beings. As Purcell and Weiss (1970) concluded in their review, "it appears accurate to state that, with either animals or human beings, the successful conditioning of asthma remains to be demonstrated, even in the opinion of those investigations whose original positive reports on conditioning are cited frequently" (p. 607).

Asthma is a common disease with a strong genetic component. If you have two asthmatic parents, your chances of developing asthma are about 1 in 2. Asthmatics react to various allergens and to infections of the upper respiratory system. In the 1930's, under the influence of Freud's batty ideas, many people claimed asthma was due to "separation anxiety", a claim that has since been discredited. Later, it has been claimed by some doctors that asthma was just a conditioned response, but as we have seen, this has not been demonstrated rigorously.

All in all, I am skeptical of the claim that asthmatics sneeze at plastic flowers. Even if it were true, I don't see how it supports the claim that the mind is "immaterial". I know very little about neuroscience, but it doesn't seem that farfetched to me that an neural network could, after repeated stimulation, associate some autonomic response such as sneezing, with some visual stimulation. No supernatural explanation seems to be required.


cody said...

There is a great debate with AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins (against a couple of religious twits I have forgotten), in which Grayling says:

"If you want to investigate the relationship of consciousness to matter, and in particular the brain, just take a heavy blunt instrument and bash yourself over the head and see which bits of thinking you can no longer do."

I think that is all the response we really need to give to the "immaterial mind" crowd.

James Cranch said...

There are good reasons to be suspicious at the anecdotal evidence that asthmatic people sneeze upon seeing dust.

I imagine that the air around visible patches of dust is quite likely to be unusually dusty.

Podger said...

It is hard to say how much the mind controls. In regards specifically to asthma, the brain can cause an attack to occur.

"In one experiment, asthmatic patients breathed in a vapor that researchers told them was a chemical irritant or allergen. Nearly half of the patients experienced breathing problems, with a dozen developing full-blown attacks. They were “treated” with a substance they believed to be a bronchodilating medicine, and recovered immediately. In actuality, both the “irritant” and the “medicine” were a nebulized saltwater solution."
Nonspecific Medication Side Effects and the Nocebo Phenomenon

But an asthmatic seeing a plastic flower and sneezing would be the same (I have no evidence of this occurring) as a dog hearing a bell and drooling. I don't understand how it supports the idea of an immaterial mind.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


It'd be nice if you gave a full reference to the journal or book where this study appeared.

It appears to be this one: Barsky, A.J., Saintfort, R., Rogers, M.P. & Borus, J.F., "Nonspecific Medication Side Effects and the Nocebo Phenomenon", Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol.287, No.5, (6 February 2002), pp.622-627.

Alexander said...

I assume that otherwise informed people believe the claim and pass it on without checking because it's very similar to many better-documented similarly striking cases of placebo and nocebo effects. As for unsophisticated dualists, that's just a silly jump to conclusions. I think Denyse O'Leary made the same "inference" from experiments showing that conscious effort affects neural activity (I believe the subjects were OCD patients). Since physicalists typically believe that mental states supervene on brain states (i.e. mental states change if and only if brain states change), they can accommodate these experimental results without any worries at all. But what do you expect from fuzzy-thinking dualists?

cody: on behalf of the dualist, one can always say that the headbashing experiment only shows that brains are necessary for minds*. It doesn't show that brains are sufficient for minds. Dualists are committed to denying the second proposition, but may endorse the first.

*That should actually be "minds that are causally interacting with the physical world"

Phil said...

I don't have any references, but personal experience. I had extremely serious asthma as a child - i.e. couldn't run more than 3 meters without having an attack, very sensitive to particulate matter in the air.

I can tell you right away that the whole idea sounds to me like a 'crock of shit' (pardon the expression).

Whenever there were particles in the air that triggered my asthma, I would have trouble breathing, cough, weezing. Sneezing was seldom a problem.

As for plastic, some plastics release an odour when new. These usually triggered a minor effect. Plastics with no odour did not. To give you an idea of how sensitive I was to these things, if a candle was lit for a few minutes across the house without my knowledge of it, I would start have trouble breathing. Same reaction with perfumes, flower odours, cleaning products and small amounts of dust.

cody said...

Ah! Alexander, you are of course correct, but for as long as I've had a concept of the mind-body problem (long before I knew it had a name), I've been a strict physicalist; basically, for as long as I can remember.

I was raised in christian science, which I always interpreted as a strict-spiritualist view (though my parents disagree) and it always felt like nonsense: their concept of god is so abstract, it was easier for my child-brain to understand the world in purely physical terms and just imagine that they were pretending because they thought it'd make me feel better. After all, the physical aspects of reality seemed obvious, and the alleged mental aspects appeared nebulous, elusive, unreliable, and frankly, susceptible to self-deception.

As a result, I struggle to remember that the vast majority of people are dualists, and so I typically overlook their point of view completely. (This is in addition to rejecting their viewpoint as unfounded when I do consider it.)

But yes, I do agree, a dualist does have that out. (And likewise a spiritualist has an even bigger out, potentially claiming the whole notion of heads and bashing are merely illusory.)

To reference Grayling again, I think in the same debate he defines the word rationality as proportioning the strength of belief in a proposition to the evidence. In which case, I would argue it is very rational to believe in physical events, but not very rational to believe strongly in an immaterial/mental/spiritual aspect.

Scote said...

A more basic question would be what is *sneezing* supposed to have to do with **Asthma**??

However, why shouldn't a sociogenic cue trigger a physiological response? Not saying I'm buying the claim, only that sociogenic illnesses can have real physiological symptoms.

andrew said...

meh. patients feel better after taking a placebo; it doesn't mean that medicine isn't real or doesn't work. even supposing it were true, why should asthmatics reacting to plastic flowers prove anything other than the fact that the placebo effect is real?

sneezing disease said...

I have also asthma and I have sneezing problem...