If you’ve ever stuck a finger down your throat to make yourself throw up, you’ve triggered your gag reflex. It’s one of the many automatic responses in the body designed to keep us alive, similar to the way you jerk your hand away when touching something hot without even thinking about it. Also known as the pharyngeal reflex or laryngeal spasm, the gag reflex activates when certain objects touch the roof of the back of the mouth, the back of the tongue, the area around the tonsils, the uvula, and the back of the throat. It’s basically a goalie for your mouth.
This reflex starts in most humans from day one. In the first months of a baby’s life, the gag reflex is hypersensitive, rejecting anything the brain perceives to be too chunky for an infant’s stomach to digest. The reflex diminishes at around six months, when the baby starts to eat more solid food, and as we get older, the gag reflex becomes less important to our survival: Instead, we rely on an area of the brain in the medulla that detects noxious, potentially dangerous substances. Since many of these have a bitter, unpleasant taste, we have evolved specialised “bitter” taste buds to detect possible poisons, and vomit if we ingest them.
For various reasons, some people work hard to train themselves to suppress their gag reflex. This takes years of practice: In most cases, it involves identifying the exact spot in the back of the mouth that triggers the reflex, then using a toothbrush to scrub that area for ten seconds at a time. “You basically need to shove something back there at least a dozen times a day, seven days a week,” explains professional sideshow performer Albert Cadabra, who swallows swords professionally at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in New York City. As to why you would do this? Dan Meyer, who set a Guinness World Record by swallowing 29 swords in St. Augustine, FL., explained simply, “This is my calling in life.”
Professional eaters are also often assumed to have no gag reflex, although again, it’s normally a case of their overriding it with continuous training rather than being born without it. In a speed eater’s oesophagus (the tube that leads from your mouth to your stomach), the muscles almost become paralysed after swallowing, suppressing the gag reflex so the food isn’t vomited back up. That’s why, when announcer Paul Page said of world champion competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, “It doesn’t look like Kobayashi has a gag reflex!” he was unwittingly doing Kobayashi a disservice. In the words of Buzzfeed writer Matt Kiebus, who quickly discovered the limits of his own gag reflex while attempting to compete in last year’s Nathan’s Hot Dogs competition: “Competitive eaters are true athletes.”
Obviously, when it comes to gag reflexes, we had to mention the elephant in the room. Adult movie star Summer Nyte apparently set a world record on April 1, 2005, when she performed oral sex on 249 men in a 14-hour period. It can only be assumed that strong gag reflex suppression played its part in this achievement.
All that said, there are those who never have to train to stop that reflex. A recent study revealed that around a third of people have no gag reflex at all: Some babies, apparently, are born without it, while others simply never develop it. If you’re not sure whether you have it or not, we recommend continuing to chew your food until you’re certain.