Dazed & Confused | Whyzat?
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Q: Why do people sometimes get headaches when they eat ice cream?
A: Though it's popularly known as an ice cream headache, the sudden searing pain can be brought on when you eat or drink anything that's cold.
The headache occurs when a cold substance hits the soft palate in the back of the roof of the mouth, says Dr. Robert Smith, a founder of the Cincinnati Headache Center. "The effects are not injurious," he says, "but they cause a nasty pain and can slightly reduce the pleasures of eating ice cream."
The pain is generally felt around the temples and sometimes behind the ears or in the esophagus. It usually lasts only 10 to 15 seconds. People who suffer from migraines often report temporary migraine pain during ice cream headaches, and tension headache sufferers report their ice cream headaches feel more like ordinary tension headaches. Headaches of all types - including the ice cream one - are most common among people aged 20 to 40, Smith adds.
Ice cream headaches were first described by Dr. Daniel Drake, the founder of the University of Cincinnati medical school, in 1850. Nearly 150 years later, their cause is still not precisely known. But Smith has an educated guess. The nerve receptors in the palate are sensitive to cold, as well as heat and taste. Those same nerves are also involved in the constriction and expansion of blood vessels in the mouth, head, and brain. The cold stimuli in the mouth may cause blood vessels in the brain to expand -- and that could be what causes the pain.
A cure? "Of course, you could avoid ice cream, but who wants to do that?" says Smith. Instead, he says, don't eat ice cream in "big gobs." If you do get a sudden sharp pain while munching a cone, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth to help reheat the sensitive area.
Q: If our nominal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, why do we get uncomfortable in 80-degree heat?
A: Your body is a lean, mean, heat-making machine. All its functions burn energy and create heat, causing you to sweat. Maintaining a core temperature of around 98.6 is easy when the temperature outside you is at least 20 degrees lower than you are; the body's heat generation makes up the difference without overheating you.
But when it's above 80 degrees outside, your body has to expend more energy, pumping more blood to your skin to sweat away this extra heat. This puts a strain on your heart and diverts blood from other vital organs. "You can suffer kidney failure, heart trouble, even brain damage," says heat-stroke expert Dr. Jan Semenza (unfortunately, this doesn't excuse your behavior on spring break in Vallarta). Your discomfort is your body's way of telling you to go jump in a lake - so do it.
Q: Why do men's shirts, but not women's, button right to left?
A: It's all about gaining access to the chest. In the 17th century, when men started wearing button-up jackets, they buttoned them right to left in keeping with the pattern used for armor, which was designed to make it difficult for a right-handed opponent to thrust a sword into the seam.
Theories vary as to why the sides were reversed on women's shirts, according to Deirdre Donohue, the librarian of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps the switch made it easier for maids to dress their mistresses, or perhaps it helped mothers breast-feed with the left breast, located over a woman's heart and more comforting to babies.
Male tailors may have had something to do with it: If a woman's shirt buttons left to right, a right-handed man can get to her breasts more easily.
Q: Is cannibalism still practiced?
A: The occasional serial killer and Uruguayan rugby team excepted, human flesh just isn't on anyone's menu in 2000 AD. There is, however, a fairly recent instance of connoisseurs attempting to sample the other white meat, with fatal results for both dish and diner.
Beginning in the 1940s, the Fore tribe of New Guinea came down with a disease that baffled doctors - an ailment that made them shudder and shake, completely lose control of their nervous functions, and die. Their illness was diagnosed as kuru, a cousin of mad cow disease that people catch from consuming the brains of humans. Turned out the Fore were regularly snacking on their dearly departed relatives during burial rites ("There will always be a little bit of Grandma in all of us").
New evidence suggests that Neanderthals of Ice Age-era France and the Anasazi Indians of the 13th-century American Southwest enjoyed having their neighbors for dinner. "At one time or another, cannibalism has probably been practiced all over the world," says Bob Pickering, co-author of 'The Use of Forensic Anthropology. "But virtually all of it has been for religious reasons." And not because we're just so damned tasty.
Q: Why does almost everyone who has had a near-death experience report that they saw a bright light?
A: Sorry to disappoint those of you who thought you were about to meet Mozart, Michelangelo, or Dana Plato in heaven, but that's not a light at the end of the tunnel welcoming you to the choir invisible - that's just your brain having one final seizure before packing up and calling it a life.
In the throes of death, when the brain is deprived of oxygen and begins to shut down, it convulses with spontaneous electrical discharges that are fired through the visual cortex (the part of the brain that controls sight), thus creating the perception of light. Because there are more neurons at the center of the visual cortex than at its edges, the imagined light appears to glow most strongly in the center, producing the illusion of a tunnel.
But despair not, ye faithful: There is at least one documented example of a patient who "saw the light" in which there was no evidence of brain convulsions. "This is science's strongest argument in favor of the existence of the human soul," says Michael Sabom, M.D., the author of 'Light and Death'.
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