Why do we feel like throwing up when we see someone else vomit?

You went into a bar, indulged on a few shots of alcohol, then you saw someone else puking outside the vicinity. Suddenly, you also felt the urge to puke. That feeling also repeats when you another person vomiting after an intense rollercoaster ride. But what is the reason why do we feel so?

Truth to be told, no definite reason can be traced yet to explain why such feeling elicits from the given phenomenon. However, there are a lot of theories that describe why it occurs. Before doing so, it can be very beneficial to understand the differences between gagging, vomiting, and nausea.

While they seem related, those given terminologies don’t mean the same exact thing. Gagging is a reflex contraction of the throat muscles, but experiencing such does not mean vomiting or the actual act of puking will follow suit. Meanwhile, being nauseous is a psychological reaction brought by an array of triggers. With that, we can infer that gagging can either be a physical or physiological response. It happens when a ‘trigger’ is present such as seeing someone else vomit, or when an object reaches certain parts of the mouth.

Now, how does ‘infectious’ vomiting happens? As mentioned, there is no clear explanation for this occurrence though there are different theories about the response.

First, it traces down to an ancient survival instinct. Experts believe that it may be a defense mechanism of the body to combat food poisoning. During the cave-dwelling era, any meat devoured by an individual is most likely consumed by the entire group, without knowing that it may already be rotten. So, consequently, a person starts to get sick and puke. After seeing someone vomit, other members of the group vomit as well. If a person lost their meal, it’s a good idea for everyone else to throw up too. That way, the chances of surviving any sickness increases as they are able to release any harmful substance or toxin as well. Though, nowadays, humans who usually care for sickly people tend to care for weak people have become immune to the situation.

On the other hand, the second theory is called ‘sympathy vomiting.’ Scientists believed that the elicited feeling of throwing up is brought by mirror neurons, which allows us to feel empathy and replicate other people’s behavior. That is the same reason why yawns to be contagious, or you also feel like crying when a close friend cries up.

Lastly, the last hypothesis revolves around a person’s unpleasant memories or experiences associated with vomiting. Any smell, sight, or sound of vomiting may trigger some of the most in-depth experience of personally throwing up in the past. Such recollections lead to nausea and gagging. While remembering past experiences doesn’t always result in vomiting, there are instances in which it can force someone to vomit.

So, are there any remedies for it? Well, each of us has different levels of vulnerability to triggers. What you can do is determine what these triggers are, and avoiding them may help to prevent any urge to vomit. So, if you see someone else throwing up, try your best to go away from this person as such an event can instigate gastrointestinal upset. If you unfortunately gagged, listening to relaxing music or doing some calming breathing exercises can bring some needed relief.

More Readings:

Vomiting (Wikipedia)

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