My Weird, Spooky Body

My body has a few unusual traits, or anomalies if you will. For most of those anomalies, science has attached a name. But those traits are still strange enough to make them worth describing.

And a couple of them are, well, just plain weird.

Sun Sneeze.

Let’s start with an easy one. The so-called photic sneeze reflex used to be most noticeable when my brother and I would leave a dark movie theater after a matinee and open the doors to bright sunshine. Instantly, I’d feel a slight tickle in my nose, which would be immediately followed by a sneeze.

What the heck! Sunlight makes me sneeze?

Well, I can assure you that as a Sunshine State resident, not all sun exposure makes me sneeze. It’s only an abrupt transition from dark to full brightness. It comes on faster than a transition lens can transition.

While most bodily adaptations and reflexes have conveyed to humans some survival value, I can’t see that this one does. Let’s suppose that a distant ancestor of mine might have been stalked by a Sabre-tooth tiger. To elude it, my hominid homey disappears into a dark cave waiting for the tiger to pass by. He tries hard to make no sound that would alert the big cat to his presence. Then, when he thinks the coast is clear, my ancestor sticks his head out into the sun outside the cave, and promptly sneezes.

So, I see absolutely no adaptive benefit to the so-called sun sneeze.

Just to show that scientists do have a sense of humor, according to Wikipedia, the photic sneeze reflex is also known as Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst(ACHOO) syndrome, or photosneezia.

This is a joke, right?

Well, apparently not. Google it if you’re in doubt.

“Outburst (ACHOO) syndrome or photosneezia…colloquially called sun sneezing, is a reflex condition that causes sneezing in response to numerous stimuli, such as looking at bright lights…the condition affects 18–35% of the world’s population.” 

So, statistically, quite a few readers should have the same response.

Quoting further, “The condition often occurs within families, and it has been suggested that light-induced sneezing is a heritable, autosomal-dominant trait. A 2010 study demonstrated a correlation between photic sneezing and a single-nucleotide polymorphism on chromosome 2.”

Which is science talk meaning I picked it up from one of my parents. Oddly, I don’t remember my parents ever sneezing. But then, that’s not the type of thing one remembers.

Salt Cough

Speaking of useless human reactions, my mouth is an extremely sensitive salt detector. Although I do love salt and have occasionally been caught snacking on a few unhealthy potato chips for their salt content, they do make me cough.

Which, of course, means my wife catches me every time. My cough betrays me.

As for the cause of a salt cough, my Googling has returned essentially nothing. For instance, someone responded to a Quora inquiry by stating, “You must be sensitive to salt.”

Well, duh. Brilliant non-answer.

Now, for more weirdness that lacks a good explanation.

Itchy Spot

My dermatologist explained that the proper medical term for an itchy spot in a well-defined area below my left scapula is Notalgia paresthetica. The cause and explanation for it are not clear. Still, once again, roughly 20% of the adult population might be similarly affected at one time or another.

Not surprisingly, my dermatologist gave me a Botox injection to deaden the spot. Well, I appreciate the effort, Doctor, but it didn’t work. In fact, some research from 2014 has found limited or no improvement from using Botox.”

It’s important to note that the study only included 5 participants. So, I’m thinking about writing the authors of that study to ask them to add me to their list.

I know my brother was so affected because I remember him rubbing his back against the edge of a door frame. From my own experimentation, that helps a little but is short-lived.

For me, after a shower, when my back is exposed to drafts, the itch becomes acute enough that I reach for the best back scratcher I’ve ever found. It’s called a Cactus Scratcher.

A couple of seconds of gentle scratching relieves the itch.

(Caution: although it may feel good at the time, excess scratching damages the skin and will do more harm than good.)

(Note: I have no association with the creators of the Cactus Scratcher. I simply love their product.)

The Marvels of Near Sightedness

For those who temporarily remove their glasses and descend into the poor-vision world, some optical marvels await you. You can see things normal-sighted people can’t.

I discovered this in my youth in Kansas when I would make long runs during the cool of a summer’s night. Stopping to wipe sweat from my brow, I removed my glasses and noticed the most intricate patterns in the distorted light of street lamps.

In the absence of my eye correction (my vision was measured as 20/400+), I would have expected the light from the tall lamp to be little more than a fuzzy halo, like everything else I saw. But instead, I saw intricate patterns in the light. There was amazing geometrical complexity and symmetry in what I saw, something that, to my knowledge, had never been reported. The patterns were beautiful.

So how could that occur, when in fact, the definition of myopia is that light focuses too far in front of the fovea? Beyond the focal point of the lens, the light expands into a fuzzy spot. How could a fuzzy beam of light from a street light reveal a beautifully detailed and symmetrical image?

Photographers are aware of symmetrical and surprisingly sharp images that appear in out-of-focus images of sources of light. That optical phenomenon, called Bokeh,  is often altered by the properties of both the camera lens and the geometry of the aperture or iris. It can be “good” Bokeh, enhancing the aesthetic of the image, or “bad” Bokeh, detracting from the appeal of the image.

An example of the bokeh produced by the Canon 85 mm prime f/1.8 lens. The polygonal shapes are due to the 8-bladed aperture diaphragm being slightly closed. At its full aperture (f/1.8) these shapes would be smooth and not polygonal. By JWCreations – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Reasonably, the human lens and iris might contribute to a similar phenomenon, in nature, not artificially in a camera.

However, that does not explain the geometrical patterns I saw in the street lights. Fortuitously, but decades later, the research group at the MIT Media Lab discovered that very small patterns can be used to transmit information. But unlike the microdots so famously used by spies, these patterns can be made visible by setting a camera lens to an infinity focus. Ironically, the out-of-focus view of the dot reveals the embedded pattern.

Such a method of data encryption and revelation is called a Bokode, an invented word being a portmanteau of the Japanese word bokeh and the English word bar code.

A short MIT-produced video about Bokodes.

Similarly, I wonder if a pattern embedded in the lens of a vintage street light would be revealed by the out-of-focus image captured by the retina of a myopic young man. 

If so, that might explain the intricate detail I saw when looking at the fuzzy image of a street light thirty or so feet away.

Of all my physical anomalies, this was the spooky one. Like that famous line in The Sixth Sense, I can “see things” normal people can’t.

Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment, in The Sixth Sense.

A Non-Microscope Microscope

While the previous bodily trait was a little spooky, the next one is just weird.

A year or so after the street light discovery, I was sitting at my desk in a dorm room at Georgia Tech. My parents had bought me a Tensor lamp to study by. The bulb was small but put out a high-intensity light, unexpected for the bulb’s size.

At the time, the Tensor lamp was the newest thing in lighting. The light had been designed for medical and dental applications. Still, a year before I started college, it was being sold to the public as a sleek, modern-looking, compact desk lamp.

I appreciated that lamp because, in a shared dorm room, size does matter. Smaller is better.

One night during my studies, and being as easily distracted as a cat by a laser pointer, I noticed that the intense spot of light from the Tensor lamp was reflecting off the convex surface of the cap of a Bic pen. 

Mindful of discovering the intricate patterns in the street lamp in Kansas, and most importantly being alone in the room, curiosity overcame me. I set my glasses on my desk and looked at the reflected light.

I saw nothing but the reflected light. Undeterred, I moved the pen cap closer to my eye, thus expanding the relative size of the reflected spot of light. I could then see something, but it wasn’t a clear image like the street light aberration. So, I moved the cap still nearer, until the cap was a few millimeters from my cornea. I should not have been able to focus on anything that perilously close to my eye.

But as they say in France, Voila! Now I could clearly see a microscopic view of the surface of the curved cap. From a normal distance, the plastic cap was smooth, but in my new microscopic vision, the surface was slightly irregular.

To confirm that what I saw was not an illusion, I scratched the plastic cap with a straight pin. After viewing the cap again as I had before, I could clearly see a plastic canyon where I had just gouged the surface.

I had inadvertently discovered a nonmechanical inspection microscope!

About that time, my roommate opened the door and froze. “Are you trying to put your eye out?”

Not surprisingly, roomie did not share my excitement in this new discovery in optical physics. Nor did a physics professor I later queried about the observation. He had no clue about what I had seen, and probably thought I was a little reckless to have tried that experiment.

Of course, I wondered about the commercialization and patenting potential of my discovery. But I never found an explanation for the physics, a requirement for a patent. And besides, there was no hardware I could sell. It was simply yet another “feature” of myopia. All I needed to conjure the effect was to be very nearsighted, own a Tensor lamp, have a supply of BIC pens, and be willing to open myself up to ridicule.

I suspect that combination is somewhat rare.

I am tempted to think that what I was seeing on that BIC cap was somehow related to MIT’s Bokodes. The reflected light was intense, and there was a pattern of sorts on the cap. And certainly, my view of that reflected light spot was way out of focus.

But without a fair amount of experimentation in an optics laboratory (which I don’t have access to), I can neither support nor dismiss the Bokode hypothesis.

In other words, I’m not sure how it happens. If any of you readers figure out how that phenomenon worked, please let me know. I will be grateful, and you will have proven yourself smarter than at least one Georgia Tech physics professor.