MP Andrew Robb writes in Crikey today about his own personal battle with depression. One quote in particular caught our eye:

I employed various bizarre techniques to try and get myself going. For example, when driving to work, I’d stop a few times, stare at the sun to make myself sneeze, as this would release endorphins and give me a lift.

There are two big questions to examine here: does looking at the sun make you sneeze, and more importantly, does sneezing help depression?

Crikey consulted various medical experts and the results are nothing to sniff at:

Can staring at the sun really make you run for the tissues?

Yes, in fact the condition even has a name: photic sneeze reflex. It was first noted by Aristotle, according to The Scientific American. And it’s not just looking at the sun that makes people sneeze, looking at other types of bright light can have the same affect.

Can everyone look at the sun and make themselves sneeze?

This particular phenomenon applies to only a select few. Photic sneeze reflex is a genetic quirk that affects only 10-35% of the population. It’s also more common in males than females, and most common with white people.

Is it bad for you?

Apparently you should be concerned if you’re a combat pilot or perform any other high risk occupation. MPs should be safe, but if you’re worried, antihistamines can help cure the problem, suggests Professor Jonathan Crowston, director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

How does photic sneeze reflex work?

There are a few different theories. One is that it is a congenital malfunction in nerve signals in the trigeminal nerve nucleus, the area responsible for sneezes. When the optic nerve gets overstimulated (i.e. by looking at bright light), the trigeminal nerve is triggered and you sneeze.

“What this means,” says Konrad Pesudovs, foundation chair of Optometry and Vision Science at Flinders University, “is that you have two nerves very close to another, like two electric wires, but the insulation is imperfect, so when you have a massive current in one nerve some of it ‘jumps’ to the adjacent nerve and an erroneous signal starts, which ends up triggering a sneeze.”

Another theory involves the sunlight causing eyes to water, with the resulting moisture then seeping into the nose, producing a sneeze.

“The reason we don’t really know the answer is that the photic sneeze reflex is a curiosity rather than a serious disease and we tend to focus our research resources into more serious problems. Perhaps mental health is one of these!” notes Pesudovs.

Well, if we’re focusing on mental health, let’s look at the benefits of sneezing for depression suffers. Are there any?

“It’s an interesting observation but there are no reports and I’ve never heard of sneezing helping depression,” Scientia Professor Philip Mitchell, head of the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales told Crikey. He’s also a consultant psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute.

“It’s unusual. The aspect of it that makes sense is that we know that sometimes bright light can help with depression. Whether that was one aspect of helping him, but the sneezing, there are no reports of it.”

But don’t the endorphins help?

“There’s an interest in endorphins and depression, but it’s more speculative than well rounded science,” says Mitchell.

So it was the sunshine that helped, not the sneezing?

“The only possible explanation I can come up with to help the depression is the bright light, particularly in the morning and in the evening. Bright light particularly helps with seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression which tends to come on in winter months. There’s good scientific literature around bright light exposure for depression,” says Mitchell.

In short, sneezing may not be the answer if you’re struggling to cope. But stopping to soak up the sunshine or even standing under a bright lamp of an evening may be one way to deal with dark days.