For Some Chocoholics, an 'Orgasm of the Face'

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Everyone knows that a damn good, chunky hunk of chocolate is capable of inducing a euphoric state of mind—a feeling, for many women, like they're in love. But I've recently discovered a whole new effect.

The sensation starts around the inner corners of my eyes, tickles the sides of my nose, flaring my nostrils with a deep inhale and then, then—achoo! This is often freakishly repeated, once or twice moreover. There are no other apparent allergic reactions, yet every time I have a piece with at least 70 percent cacao, I need a tissue. In fact, the Universal College of Reflexology has quite bluntly dubbed this non-allergy-related sneeze an "orgasm of the face," which can also be attributed to other welcome stimulants such as bright lights (most common), mint or other strong flavors, a cold breeze, and even loved ones.

Most of us choco-sneezers are not combat pilots worrying about the next blinding sneeze, so the best thing for us to do is simply, and publicly, welcome the experience.

Yes, even loved ones, proves Wendy Miller Stopperich, a realtor based in Pennsylvania, who's pretty sure the love-struck sneeze has been with her consistently for years and who can pinpoint her realization to a trip she took with her husband in 1994. I asked her, Are you sure it's not just some cologne he wears? No, they've been married for 17 years, and just rolling over, waking up next to him, thinking of him lovingly, produces a sneeze. "My friends think I'm crazy!" she said. "But it just happened again the other day." She surmises that extreme pheromones are at play with her strong sense of smell; nothing else makes her sneeze quite like her husband. Like a misunderstood sister of the blush, her sneeze displays her heart on her face and gives it all away.

Message boards abound with unanswered queries, muddled by the usual sarcastic remarks: "Hahaha that blows. I LOVE dark chocolate!" "I have no idea but I got a visual, that's funny!" "If you're allergic to chocolate, don't stuff it up your nose." But I came across description after description that fit mine perfectly—"Ooh I get this with red wine...if a wine makes me sneeze, I usually think 'damn, that's good wine!'" So I'm not alone. But, but ... why?

If you try to self-diagnose, you won't exactly find "orgasm of the face" in any medical journals. What you will find is the phrase "photic sneeze reflex," the phenomenon's less obvious (ahem, less humorous) technical term. And if you have it, there's a good chance someone in your family had, has, or will have it too. The choco-sneeze trait transfers dominantly through heritage but only affects about 18 to 35 percent of the population. Even animals have been known to produce a sneeze-like chuckle—horses huffing around in their stables is a good thing. Maybe it even runs in nose-twitching Cadbury bunnies.

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OakleyOriginals/flickr

While the photic sneeze reflex has yet to be widely studied, it gets its name from the most common offense: bright lights, which can overstimulate the photic, or visual, senses. Most sources believe the optic nerve somehow crosses with the trigeminal nerve, which corresponds with sneeze production. But I don't sneeze when I see chocolate; I sneeze when I eat it, when its flavor engulfs my mouth and almost seems to fume out my ears. Which would mean there's a whole set of nerves intertwining.

"Maybe you have a tight neck," James Pedersen told me. He's an instructor at the Florida-based International Institute of Reflexology who works with feet; if you've got an ailment, such as a diseased liver, he can rub the corresponding spot on your foot to make you feel better. He explains that a normal sneeze, one induced by allergy or illness, involves not just your nose but also your neck, your head, and your entire respiratory system. It's triggered by a foreign particle, which releases histamines into your system so it can rid itself of the allergen. But an overstimulation of any kind, be it toxic or enjoyable, can produce the same reaction.

Whatever the exact cause may be, since the time Aristotle first wrote of his frustration--Why doth the heat of the sun provoke sneezing, and not the heat of the fire?--there has been no known cure; your doctor will likely send you home with an antihistamine, or allergy medicine. But most of us choco-sneezers are not combat pilots worrying about the next blinding sneeze, so the best thing for us to do is simply, and publicly, welcome the experience. If only everyone's joy for food were as vocal as our tiny, little deaths—la petite, petite mort? Mass achoos from the dining room would be the sound of every chef's dreams.

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Jessie Cacciola is a freelance food writer based in New York. She also blogs at Zest & Thyme and would like to dedicate her premier story for The Atlantic to Ithaca Fine Chocolates.

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