Thursday, December 12, 2013

On Picking One's Nose

Explanatory note: The following essay was written for a creative writing class I took last Spring. I posted the first couple paragraphs back when I was writing it, but here it is in it's full glory. It's long, and at times fairly gross awesome. I definitely understand if tl;dr. It doesn't really fit the constraints of the blog post genre (no pictures. sorry), but at least it's something to post while I'm busy finishing up grading my students' work.

“The doctor said I wouldn’t have so many nosebleeds if I kept my finger out of there.”
-Ralph Wiggum

I pick my nose. It’s true. Writing that down, I feel like I’m at some sort of Nose-Picker’s Anonymous meeting or something.

“Okay everyone, the first step to healing is to acknowledge that you have a problem. So all together now…”

*Gestures wildly as if conducting a Gospel choir*

“I’m a nose-picker.”

The truth is I don’t really see picking my nose as a problem. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who will go out of his way to make a scene when picking. When I’m in public and the need arises, I pick and discard as discreetly and quickly as possible, and I wash my hands at the earliest possible opportunity. When I’m in polite company and I find obstructed my ability to breathe nasally, I excuse myself to the restroom and exercise the polite, tissue-aided pick my mother taught me. See, I may pick my nose, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have class about it.

That said, I will readily admit that when in the privacy of my own company there is little more satisfying than a deep cleanse. The pick that you have to go for with the gold-mining, brain-scratching eagerness usually reserved for the very young and the very old. The deep pick that’s crusty on the surface nearest the outside world, but that’s connected to enough of the still moist and mildly gelatinous buildup within that as you pick and it comes trailing out of your nose, it feels like it’s coming from a place deep enough on the inside that you question for a moment if you’re not pulling out something actually important. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as picking out that long, stringy glob of snot and feeling it tickle the top of your throat on its way out.

I realize that was a disgusting image, so I’ll give you a moment to stop retching before I continue.

I understand that nose picking is a social faux pas and that most people perceive it as mildly disgusting at the least. We’ve all stopped at the stop light and seen the guy in the next car over with his finger buried one knuckle deep and digging. Whenever that happens, our collective reaction is at best amusement, and at worst, and probably much more frequently, disgust and revulsion. But here’s the deal, everybody does it. Everybody. We all, at some point or another, have been that guy in the next car over. Some may claim they don’t pick, but those people are liars. So why is the picking of the nose such a big deal to people?

To better understand the issue, I did a little background research to see how the general public perceives nose-picking. By general public I mean that erudite and unshakably trustworthy class of individuals who publish things on the internet. And when I say “I did a little background research,” what I really mean is that I did what any self-respecting Generation Y-er would do, I asked Uncle Google.

I typed “picking your nose” into the search bar, and this is what came up:

The results honestly shocked me. I expected to find a more vehement denunciation of nose-picking in the titles and short descriptions of the web pages brought up, but apparently the issue goes beyond mere disgust and is much more complex than I’d anticipated. Not only is nose-picking not universally decried (only 3 of the 10 results’ titles refer to nose-picking negatively), 4 of the 10 either suggest or expressly state that it’s a desirable (“awesome”) and healthy practice. The other 3 seem to remain neutral. Just from the landing page on Google we can start to see that nose-picking may not be an irreconcilable evil as I’ve been led to believe. I decided I needed to investigate this further, and Oprah’s article “Do You Pick Your Nose?” was the first one that caught my fancy.

This was a bit off strange for me. Normally I’d start with the Wikipedia page to get a solid grounding in the history of nose-picking, its various modes and methods, but this time I only had eyes for Oprah. But why? I’m not an Oprah groupie, and I’ve never even seen her show. I know that she seems to be the cultural, ethical and social maven that many in America turn to for moral direction in their lives, but I’ve never counted myself among that population. But there was something unignorably compelling about learning what Oprah had to say on the subject. So that’s where I began.

It got off to a really bad start. The article began by saying, “After his groundbreaking revelation about S-shaped poop, Dr. Oz inspired Americans to look in their toilets. Now, he's back to help viewers figure out what's normal when it comes to health and hygiene.” Not really knowing anything about Oprah or Dr. Oz, I was a little bit skeptical that someone who occupied his time studying S-shaped poop would really be a credible source. An entertaining source? Unquestionably, but I was looking for the real good stuff. I wanted the hard-hitting investigative science that would vindicate my habits. Despite my misgivings I decided to forge on ahead. And I’m glad I did.

Oz’s research was fascinating, which probably isn’t surprising to those who actually, like, know about him. I’ve since looked into Dr. Oz a bit more and learned that my doubts as to his credibility were thoroughly unfounded as he is a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor at Columbia University. The fact that he’s interested in and studies poop shapes just makes him awesome on top of being credible medically.

According to Oz’s research, the average person goes to the nose for a pick 5 times per hour. Yes, you read that right. We each pick our noses an average of once every 12 minutes. Now it bears noting that his definition of a pick is probably broader than most. He counts any hand-to-nose contact, even something innocuous like a brush, as a pick. Now you might be inclined to disagree with such a broad definition, but if Seinfeld has taught us anything, it’s that the nose brush and/or scratch can very easily be perceived as a full on pick, so we might as well define it as such.

Now while the picks per hour statistics are interesting, I want to know what that means on a larger scale. What does 5 picks per hour actually mean?

I’m assuming that Oz is only counting the waking hours of the day, so if we assume that the average person gets 8 hours of sleep per day (my own experience makes me inclined to refute the accuracy of this number, but since the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours, we’ll stay optimistic and say that most people do as their told), a five pick per hour average means that we are performing 80 picks per day.

Considering Dr. Oz’s very broad definition, we need to ask how many of our picks are actually productive in bringing substance to the open air? Even if only 3% of picks are productive, an arbitrary percentage picked at random but one that I’m inclined to believe is inordinately low, that means we’re picking productively 2.4 times per day. Each and every one of us is retrieving from the dark, moist recesses of our noses 2.4 boogers every day. Every person you pass on the street: 2.4 boogers per day. Every person standing uncomfortably close to you on the subway: 2.4 boogers per day. Every mountain-climbing Nepalese Sherpa: 2.4 boogers per day. Every blow gun-hunting Amazonian native: 2.4 boogers per day. Every person you’ve ever seen, read about, or heard of: 2.4 boogers per day. Genghis Khan, Madam Curie, the Wright brothers, Nelson Mandela, Queen Victoria, and Mother Teresa all picked their noses 2.4 times per day. Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses: 2.4 times per day. If Dr. Quinn, medicine woman were real, she would have been picking her crusty, dried out old west nose 2.4 times per day. This changes the way I see everyone around me, but should it?

While I have no qualms admitting that I’m a nose-picker, there’s a skeptic in me that questions the accuracy of those numbers. The rate just seems so high. So now I’m wondering, how did Dr. Oz perform his research?

That’s the kicker. Throughout the article there was never any mention of his research methodology, and there were no citations of any studies. So I’m forced to imagine how it was conducted. What likely happened is Oz went to a park in a big city where he could get an accurate representative sample of the population. Once in place, he people-watched. A true scientist, however, would never sit back and let his observations come to him, so his was likely an active and pursuant form of people-watching. It’s probable that he spent several days, perhaps weeks, following people around for hours, notepad and pen at the ready, making a checkmark every time he saw a pick. Inherent in this scenario is a fair amount of leaping behind bushes and trees anytime a subject turned around to see if anyone was following. This is the only conceivable way Oz could possibly come up with his 5 picks per hour standard.

My skepticism led me to decide that the best course of action at this point is for me to replicate Dr. Oz’s research to ascertain whether his results were in fact accurate. So I did. Kind of.

See I live in a relatively small city and there was still snow on the ground at the time of the investigation, so following Dr. Oz’s exact large city, park-based research methodology wasn’t possible. Instead, I went to the BYU campus library to conduct my study. I chose the Periodicals section because of its reputation as the place to go if you actually want quiet. I wanted to observe those of the more studious and thus stereotypically serious population, because I assumed they’d be less likely to pick than the ragtag group of flirts up on the fifth floor. Then again, if the folks up on the fifth floor really do spend their time flirting, as per common belief, maybe I should have gone there after all.

At any rate, I identified and approached a likely looking subject, an attractive young woman whom we’ll call Madeline, sitting in a plush chair with her feet propped up on the table in front of her. I sat down facing her, opened my laptop onto my lap, and proceeded to observe, as unassumingly as possible. As she read Greenblatt’s The Swerve, I sat watching for anything that might qualify as a pick. After about a minute, I started to feel like a creep. Probably because what I was doing was creepy, but also because I was fairly certain that Madeline could tell that I was staring at her. Oh the sacrifices we make in the name of science!

I suppose I probably should have pretended to type on my computer or, frankly, do anything other than stare fixedly over the top of the screen. But I didn’t. I just stared.

Luckily the minute’s observation yielded productive results. In the 35 seconds or so before she seemed to realize that I was watching her, Madeline casually brushed her nose with the back of her hand. The brush turned to a linger, and for just a moment the tip of her fingernail sat motionless just inside her nostril.

Maybe she was just enraptured by The Swerve and didn’t realize what she was doing, but conscious or not, according to Doc Oz’s definition, it was a bona fide, though unproductive, pick. Now for this to really be a quality observation I should have probably gone over and talked to Madeline and inquired after her nose-picking habits – for all we know she may be a nose-picking aficionado and thus a nonrepresentative outlier for my study – but I had just spent the last minute staring at her, which she noticed, and, like I said, I already feel like a creep, so I didn’t. Hopefully posterity can forgive me my social inhibitions.

This extensive research (and believe me when I say that minute spent staring felt plenty extensive), leads me to believe that Oz may be more right than I was giving him credit for. People probably pick more often than they even realize. You’ll remember that at the outset of this essay I asserted that everybody picks, but frankly I hadn’t imagined just how frequently everybody picks. 80 picks per day. It’s astounding.

Knowing Oz’s numbers may in fact be accurate, I began to wonder just how many boogers are we collectively removing from our noses every day? Earlier we posited that 3% of picks are productive, resulting in 2.4 boogers removed per person per day. So just how many boogers is that?

According to, a real time world statistics website, there are in the world currently (April 2013) 7,109,152,210 people and counting. That means that every 24 hours (8 of which we’re not even counting though I imagine there are several hundred thousand unconscious sleep-picks every night going unaccounted for here) 17,061,965,304 boogers are being introduced to the world. 17 billion plus boogers every day.

But what does that mean?

To better understand how many boogers this is, let’s take raisins as a point of comparison. I feel like raisins are appropriately comparable in terms of consistency and squishiness. Additionally, as I was working out the math, I was eating raisins, so the comparison allowed for helpful hands-on research.

So how many boogers are there in a raisin? To answer that we need first to know, what is the average size of a booger? There have definitely been times when I’ve picked my nose and the resulting product has been a glob of mucus as big as or much bigger than many of the raisins I’m eating right now. In fact, the biggest booger I’ve ever produced was much, much bigger. You say you’d like to hear that story? I’d be happy to oblige.

Several years ago I had surgery on my nose to correct the effects of a deviated septum and two broken noses that had gone unset. To fix my nose the doctor broke it (again), cleaned away the superfluous flesh and cartilage, and then reset the nose with two splints (one up each nostril) each approximately the length and circumference of your forefinger from the tip of the fingernail to the second knuckle. Two weeks after the surgery, I returned to the doctor’s office, and a nurse removed the splints. And this is where the boogers come in. As the nurse removed the splints, each came out bearing two weeks’ worth of snot and a handful of blood clots in tow. Once the splints were removed, I glanced down at the nurses little collection plate, and there sat a glob of inner nose gloop – and I swear I’m not exaggerating – roughly the size of a golf ball. The glance turned to a wide-eyed, fascinated/horrified stare. As I pondered the mass and relived that singular experience of having so much matter slip and slide and gag its way out of my nose, I felt my vision start to flicker and my face flush. If not for the timely arrival of a Snickers bar and a glass of orange juice I’d have been out cold.

While this experience is proof that some nose picks can be quite productive (I’m guessing 25 raisins worth of booger sat in that plate), boogers of that size are clearly the exception rather than the rule. Boogers on the whole tend to be quite a bit smaller.

So back to our question: how many raisins are in a booger? I think we can safely say that 2.4 boogers squished together would be approximately the size of 2/3 of a raisin. A quick search tells me that 1 raisin = approximately 1 gram, so 2.4 boogers = 0.67 grams. Each of us is introducing 0.67 grams of booger into the outside world per day. That doesn’t really seem like too much, until we remember that there are 7,109,152,210 people on Earth. Collectively, then, we the inhabitants of planet Earth are producing 4,763,131,980.7 grams or 4,763,132 kg of booger. Let me write that number outside of paragraph form so that you can really appreciate it:

4,763,132 kg of booger.

For those of us too lazy to think in metric, that comes out to 10,500,896 lbs. of booger. That’s 636 full grown (8 ¼ ton) African elephants. So now we know what 17 billion boogers is in terms of mass, but what about volume?

Here’s where I need to admit that I’m not very good at doing these kinds of measurements and conversions. Mass was fairly simple, but as I looked on the internet about how to measure volume, I realized I was a little out of my depth. So I turned to social media to ask my more learned friends how they would go about measuring the volume of a booger. The results were interesting, to say the least.

My brother David, a genetic researcher and professor at SUNY Oswego, was one of the most “helpful” respondents. He gave me a couple of options:

“Measure the volume of a bathtub. Submerge a booger. Measure the new volume of the bathtub. Subtract… You could also embed the booger in paraffin wax, make sections with a microtome and lay them on a glass microscope slide. Depending on the colour of the booger, you may wish to stain it for protein to increase contrast with the embedding medium. Take photos of the serial sections and write a Matlab or ImageJ script to calculate the circumference and therefore volumes of the various sections (taking thickness into account of course), add them up and Voila!”

Naturally. Now why didn’t I think of that? Another friend of mine Jonathan, a graduate student studying Mathematics Education, was similarly helpful:

“Volume's a tricky thing for such a substance as dried nasal mucus. Best to use fractal geometry to be safe in order to be as accurate as possible. Unless you wish to grossly approximate, which is snot [sic] the same thing. Then just go with some statistical methods, find your booger of best fit.”

Again, I can’t believe I was ignoring such an obvious solution. The whole issue was further complicated by my friend Dan who commented, “are you talking wet or dry? if you hypothetically had a jar of boogers saved over time, the volume at time of extraction would be greater than after storage.” This was another problem I hadn’t taken the time to think through properly.

I decided that I was most interested in the booger at the moment of extraction with all of its moisture still intact, and that the most effective method of calculation (not to mention the only one that I actually understood) was my brother’s third option: “It might be easiest to roll [the booger] into a sphere between 2 fingers. Then you could 4/3(pi)r^3.” However, because I was interested in the moist booger, I figured that rolling it between two fingers would remove much of the moisture, dramatically changing my calculations. In discussing this problem with my friend Ben, a mechanical engineer working for a biomedical company, we decided that my previous point of comparison, the raisin, would probably work equally well in determining volume.

I took a raisin, cut 1/3 of it off (again 2.4 boogers = 2/3 raisin), rolled it into a sphere, and measured. The radius of the sphere came to 5 millimeters or 0.005 meters. The volume of 2.4 boogers then comes to 0.000000524 meters3. If 7,109,152,210 people are each producing 0.000000524 meters3 of boogers every day, that means we are collectively producing 3,725.19 meters3 of boogers every day. That may seem shockingly low (especially compared to nearly 5 million kilograms), until you realize that 3,725.19 meters3 equals 3,725,190 liters of booger, which in turn equals 984,091 gallons of booger. That comes out to about 1 and ½ Olympic-sized swimming pools full of booger.

The main takeaway I’m getting at here is that we produce a lot of boogers. It would be pretty cool if we all got together and disposed of our boogers collectively so that we could fill swimming pools full of boogers. Or, how awe-inspiring and humbling would it be to stand at the edge of a field and see 636 life-sized booger elephants standing in rows as a representation of one day’s worth of humanity’s collective nasal waste.

Unfortunately we don’t, and probably can’t. But this leads us to question how all these gallons, liters, grams, kilograms, elephants and swimming pools full of picked booger being disposed of.
There are probably as many different disposal methods as there are people disposing. We would like to think that they are all disposed of sanitarily, with tissues and handkerchiefs and the like, but that is simply not the case. All too often these boogers that we are picking are disposed of via much less savory means. For example, speaking from personal experience, when I’m in my car and the need arises, I often pick, roll down the window, and flick it out into the great unknown. When I do this I can’t help but wonder if my boogers ever land on other cars’ windshields, and if so, what do those drivers think when they see my booger? Do they assume they are just bug splats, spray a little washer fluid on them and wipe them away without any further thought? Do they see my boogers for what they are, actual boogers? Sometimes I imagine my booger splatting on the windshield of a germ phobic and weak-stomached man. (Think What About Bob?) As he recognizes what it is that just hit his windshield, he starts to feel more than a bit queasy. Luckily he is on his way to the doctor’s office anyway to have some odd lumps in his throat looked at, but even so he only just barely makes it to the waiting room bathroom in time before he spews his breakfast into the public toilet. These kinds of thoughts make me feel really bad for flicking my boogers out the window, so with the next pick I make more of an effort to flick it to the ground rather than up into the air out of respect for other motorists.

The pick and flick is surely a method enjoyed by many, but there is another disposal method that is much less desirable. I’m talking, of course, about picking and eating. I will readily admit that, unashamed nose-picker though I am, the thought of picking and eating is repulsive to me. When I see my nieces and nephews picking their noses and eating the removed products I can’t help but to tell them to stop, it’s nasty. Repulsive though it may be, you’ll have noticed that several of my earlier search results alluded to the fact that science has shown that eating the boogers you pick may, in fact, be healthy for you. I looked into this a little further and found that most claims of this sort are referencing the work of Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a well-respected Austrian doctor. In describing his research in this area, Dr. Bischinger said, “In terms of the immune system the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine."

The thought of eating boogers reminds me of last winter. Now before you get all uneasy about where I’m going with this, just trust me. Last winter was an especially bad one for me because it seemed like I had a cold of varying degrees of strength for 3 months straight. When I have a cold I will often get sick of blowing and wiping so often that I eventually resort to snorting and swallowing the snot. It’s disgusting in the highest degree, but after days of rubbing my nose raw with tissues, it always seems like a good idea. At least it seems like a good idea right up until I feel it slowly oozing its way down my throat, coating everything it touches. But sometimes it really is the only way.

Just last December I was at a dinner party with some friends while in the throes of a cold. All dinner long I was wiping and blowing as quietly and discreetly as possible. After the main course, I excused myself to the bathroom to really excise my mucous. I stood in the bathroom with a tissue in hand, but I couldn’t bear to wipe my poor nose again, so instead I snorted and swallowed. My nostrils, perhaps due to the surgery, are unusually large and capacious, and this particular round of snot had been building up for some time. What I mean to say is this was a huge, gag-inducing wad of snot. But I did what I had to do and swallowed the monster before returning to the party. Returning to my seat I found that dessert had been served while I was gone, lemon meringue pie.

Eating the pie was, to put it lightly, a mistake. The consistency of the lemon filling matched with precision the consistency of the snot I’d just swallowed, causing me to dry heave where I sat. Even thinking about it now I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to eat lemon meringue pie again.  

I recount all of this to say that contemplating the eating of boogers invariably makes me think of that oozing, cold-induced stickiness dripping down my throat, and it awakens my gag reflux ever so slightly. While slight, it’s enough to discourage me from eating boogers, even if they’re already picked and available for consumption. Healthy though they may be, I would probably have to do some serious mental rewiring before I could bring myself to participate in this diet.

I feel like that last paragraph is a bit of a cop out. How can I write an essay on nose-picking, defending it against the disgusted naysayers in society, when I practice similar naysaying myself with regards to eating the picked? In effort to overcome this inherent hypocrisy, I interviewed an admitted and proud nose-picker-then-eater to try and better understand the allure. Here follows a transcript of the interview

Me: So, you like picking your nose?

Interviewee: Yeah

Me: Do you do it because it’s healthy?

Interviewee: No, I just do it.

Me: Do you realize you’re doing it, or do you just do it?

Interviewee: Most of the time I just do it.

Me: Do you do it to make a statement about our culture and society and it’s overly oppressive strictures on what constitutes true decorum?

Interviewee: No.

Me: Why do you do it, if not for the health or societal concerns?

Interviewee: I dunno why I do it; I want to.

While that interview didn’t actually take place, outside of my own mind that is, the imaginary conversation I had with the 5 year old version of my niece seems instructive to our conversation here. While her answers may lack the outward complexity of thought that one might rightfully expect from a more mature individual acquainted with the world and its evils, there is a certain ineffable beauty in the simplicity of her answers. She doesn’t pick and eat for any other reason than wanting to. She takes no thought for what others think, and no thought for what mercenary ends might come of it. She picks; she eats. She does it because she wants to. How many of us authentically do what we want, taking no thought for external concerns? The simple act of my imaginary niece picking her nose and eating the remove (as she is wont to do in not so imaginary situations) indicates to me that she possesses that higher order self-acceptance and self-assuredness craved and actively sought by multitudes of persons decades her senior.

Self-help books by the dozens have been written to help more mature and world-savvy adults recapture this ability to embrace the essence of their identities and live fuller and more enriching lives, but maybe the answer all along has been, quite literally, right under our noses.

Charles Lamb, in introducing his essay on ears, wrote, “Mistake me not, reader –nor imagine that I am by nature destitute of those exterior twin appendages, hanging ornaments, and (architecturally speaking) handsome volutes to the human capital.” The nose and its contents, much like Lamb’s ears, are as much a part of “the human capital” as are any other of our body parts and appendages. Is it right for us to view them as less than the integral part of our “selves” that they are? Accepting our noses and the boogers found and mined from within them, acceptance to the point of willingly (eagerly?) consuming the byproduct of a successful pick, very well may prove the key to unlocking the unbounding happiness that we all seek and yearn for. If such a euphoria might be birthed from that top of the throat tickle, the picking of the nose could well lead society into a golden age of peace, prosperity and advancement in every field.

And who are we to stand in the way of progress?


  1. Mr Dunn. To woo words the way you do...

  2. Just as entertaining as it was last spring. Is the Charles Lamb bit at the end new material? I don't remember, but his introduction to his ears essay is genius, and I think you've employed it well in your essay here :)

    Cheers! I hope all is well.