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The Man Who Has Been Counting His Sneezes for 8.5 Years

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We live in a time of lists—and are unabashedly, unashamedly addicted to them. At the end of the year, we make lists of the best (and worst) movies, books, and food we had the previous 365 days; we might even make hopeful lists of our resolutions for the coming year. We make to-do lists, grocery lists, lists of pros and cons, lists of things to pack into a carry-on. There are list apps and lists of lists of lists.

But Peter Fletcher is perhaps the most unique listmaker in the world. He is the force behind Sneezecount, which chronicles—yes, you guessed it—his sneezes.

Fletcher hasn’t always been a listmaker, at least not “beyond the administrative-procrastinatory,” he says. But on July 12, 2007—an otherwise unremarkable day—Fletcher began to wonder how many times people sneezed in 24 hours. Then he wondered how many times people sneezed in a year. And what about a whole life?

“The idea of keeping a detailed count then occurred to me, and struck me as innately ridiculous, and the ridiculousness appealed to me,” Fletcher tells mental_floss via email.

Peter Fletcher, presumably in the room where he sneezes most. Photo credit: Peter Fletcher.

But why sneezes? After all, people cough, fart, pick their nose—in other words, there are a variety of other bodily functions that Fletcher could have chronicled instead of the everyday spray. “Sneezes work perfectly because they are discrete events,” he says. “They are countable in a way that so many body functions or everyday events are not, and broadly speaking, they cannot be manipulated or faked.”

And so, the lowly sneeze became Fletcher’s chief daily interest. He noticed a curious, perhaps obvious fact: that sneezing occurs only when one is awake (or at least, Fletcher was only aware of sneezing when he was awake). He also noticed that his sneezes occurred more in the morning, tapering off by afternoon. But Fletcher hasn’t been able to track any other meaningful conclusions about the frequency of his sneezing.

Fletcher’s early attempts to record his sneezes were far less detailed than his current records. “I started off keeping a note on post-its if I was at my desk (I usually was) or writing it on my hand or any scrap of paper,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to be more disciplined and systematic, and so kept a notebook with me at all times, writing down the details, starting from the back of the book.”

He moved on to blogging, reporting the sneeze number, the location, “strength” of the sneeze, and “comments” describing his state of mind, environment, and observations about the sneeze. But this past October, Fletcher stopped his online blog; it had become too cumbersome, and Fletcher resorted back to a private journal.

Fletcher’s blog describes his growing awareness about the mundane act of sneezing. He’s noticed where he sneezes most—in his office/spare bedroom. Because he wants to record every sneeze, he often “deters” sneezes if they occur when he’s not able to record them or it’s the middle of the night. Fletcher’s accuracy in this realm extends to even the source of the sneeze: a pepper-induced one, for example, is considered a cheat and not quite an honest sneeze. And he’s oddly self-competitive with his sneeze count, congratulating himself at the end of a particularly sneezy day.

His recording devices have evolved, moving from Post-It notes to various Moleskins to emails while out and about and unable to reach his journal. Today, he’s let the journal habit go (he’s filled three notebooks worth), instead emailing himself when he sneezes. “It’s the one ritual that I’ve neglected and I regret that I stopped,” he tells mental_floss. “The notebooks and the writing down were an important part of the process in their own right.”

Fletcher is definitely on to something there. Journaling and recording thoughts has sometimes been viewed as a gratifying experience, a mindfulness exercise, and a way to cultivate appreciation for the little things. For some, jotting down the details of the day is a habit; for others, it’s a path toward happiness.

The thought of perhaps stopping his sneezing record has crossed Fletcher’s mind, and he’s entertained it. “There have been times when I’ve thought I might stop at a certain milestone, so x thousand sneezes, or five years or 1000 days, but each milestone comes and goes and I’m still doing it,” he says. Fletcher said that if he ever did stop tracking his sneezes, it would probably be when he died. “I might stop voluntarily one day though,” he says, with a never-say-never mentality. But it’s unlikely he’ll cease.

He’s blunt: The project is a solo, personal exercise, one that he finds rewarding for himself, though people have expressed their opinions, which Fletcher describes as “moderate to strong, occasionally warm.” He’s achieved some minor celebrity with the project—he’s been a featured speaker at the Boring Conference, spoken at Ignite London, and been the subject of a BBC mini documentary.

“When I finally sent out some messages to say that I was doing it, a self-assured acquaintance advised me to ‘Get yourself some kids’—I assume for the purpose of more fruitfully occupying my spare time," he says. "Of course, since then, that is exactly what I have done, and it was sound advice.”

Perhaps most surprisingly to the average outsider, Fletcher shrugs off how the project has affected him. In fact, he doesn’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps in keeping a record of their sneezes, “as it can be a bit of a burden.” He emphasizes he started the project as a joke but that, eight and a half years in, it’s become a habit and that he really doesn’t remember a time without recording his sneezes. As he says, “I’m interested in sneezes, but not overly interested in them.”

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Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why
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Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.

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A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
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On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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