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How much control do we have over a gag reflex? Is it physical or mental?

  1. Sep 23, 2012 #1
    I was trying to drink a vegetable smoothie, which I really don't like, and I vomited twice in the process. My friend drinks it without issue. What's the difference here?

    My conscious mind really wants to drink the smoothie, but a few gulps in I feel an uncontrollable gagging.

    I'm curious how much this is mental vs. physical, or whether it's completely intertwined.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 26, 2012 #2


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    Most reflexes can be overcome with practice, including the gag reflex though as I don't have a problem with mine I've never had to get over it. Reflexes aren't "mental" in the sense that they (by definition) do not involve the brain itself. They are a product of a stimulus to the spinal cord initiating a motor response back at the same time as sensory information is sent to the brain. Overcoming them requires repition with conscious action to preemt and stop the reflex.
  4. Sep 26, 2012 #3
    I don’t suppose this is really a biological issue, I can only talk of my personal experience. Some years ago, because of acid reflux problems, I had the deeply unpleasant experience of undergoing a gastroscopy. The moment that thing touched my throat, it said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but get it the **** out of here’. The consultant kept telling me to just relax in increasingly impatient tones, but by the time it was over and I walked out, I looked as though I had been throttled. I trace my over-active gag reflex to that experience. Though everyone tells me that it is purely psychological, I find it impossible to fight. Now when I go for dental treatment, as soon as they start sticking various implements deep towards the back of my mouth, the urge to gag is over-powering and the more I fight it, the more the sense of panic grows. I did warn my dentist that I would be one of his more troublesome patients, and he takes it all very well, but it really is quite unpleasant for me.
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