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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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Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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Uncombable Hair Syndrome Is a Real—and Very Rare—Genetic Condition
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Everyone has bad hair days from time to time, but for roughly 100 people around the world, unmanageable hair is an actual medical condition.

Uncombable hair syndrome, also known as spun glass hair syndrome, is a rare condition caused by a genetic mutation that affects the formation and shape of hair shafts, BuzzFeed reports. People with the condition tend to have dry, unruly hair that can't be combed flat. It grows slower than normal and is typically silver, blond, or straw-colored. For some people, the symptoms disappear with age.

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Although there have been only about 100 documented cases worldwide, one of the world's leading researchers on the condition, Regina Betz, of Germany's University of Bonn, believes there could be thousands of others who have it but have not been diagnosed. Some have speculated that Einstein had the condition, but without a genetic test, it's impossible to know for sure.

An 18-month-old American girl named Taylor McGowan is one of the few people with this syndrome. Her parents sent blood samples to Betz to see if they were carriers of the gene mutation, and the results came back positive for variations of PADI3, one of three genes responsible for the syndrome. According to IFL Science, the condition is recessive, meaning that it "only presents when individuals receive mutant gene copies from both parents." Hence it's so uncommon.

Taylor's parents have embraced their daughter's unique 'do, creating a Facebook page called Baby Einstein 2.0 to share Taylor's story and educate others about the condition.

"It's what makes her look ever so special, just like Albert Einstein," Taylor's mom, Cara, says in a video uploaded to YouTube by SWNS TV. "We wanted to share her story with the world in hopes of spreading awareness."

[h/t BuzzFeed]

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