STRANGE BUT TRUE- Snagged: Prickly orange begat barbed wire


Q. Who originally put the barb in barbed wire? –W. Earp

A. Credit Mother Nature. Keeping livestock pinned within hedgerows of thorny plants is an old practice, especially where wood or stone for fencing is in short supply, says Steven Vogel in Cat's Paws & Catapults.

Commonly used last century was the Osage orange, a shrubby tree native to Texas and nearby areas, and a small industry grew up to supply seedlings for use farther north. But the hedges took years to grow, were expensive to maintain, and their grapefruit-size fruits inedible.

Enter Michael Kelly and his 1868 invention of a "thornywire fence" mimicking the Osage. As historian GeorgeBasalla noted, "Barbed wire was not created by men who happened to twist and cut wire in a peculiar fashion. It originated in a deliberate attempt to copy an organic form."

Q. Why do TV quiz show hosts seem so smart? (How can you appear likewise?) –A. Trebek

A. Because they have all the answers. People forget that they're just reading these off a card, says Rita Atkinson in Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology. Dubbed the "fundamental attribution error," this is everyone's tendency to take others' actions at face value, ignoring the underlying situation.

In one quiz-game experiment, volunteers were randomly divided into "hosts" and "contestants," then the hosts made up tough questions they themselves could answer (e.g., "What is the world's largest glacier?"). Naturally, few contestants got these right, but afterward, everybody involved rated the hosts as more knowledgeable!

There's an important carryover here to our everyday lives: "Research shows that men talk more in mixed-sex interactions and generally introduce discussion topics. One consequence is that women leave most such interactions thinking themselves less knowledgeable than the men, with bystanders of both sexes sharing the illusion."

Moral: Learn to steer conversations. Choose the topics. "Be the questioner, not the contestant."

Q. Could you warm up cold hands by lighting an imaginary fire under them? –S. Gawain

A. Don't sell the mind's power short. When Harvard relaxation researcher Herbert Benson heard of Tibetan monks who claimed they could warm their bodies through meditation "sufficient to dry wet towels placed on their shoulders," he went to take a look. He monitored the monks during a "heat meditation" called "g Tum-mo yoga," reports Rod Plotnik in Introduction to Psychology. Results? An incredible 9-12 degrees of warming, five times what Westerners achieve!

Benson's explanation is that the monks, after years of practice, can activate their parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calming responses (opposite of fight-or-flight), and dilate tiny blood vessels near the skin'ssurface. The monks' explanation: "During meditation, they gather winds scattered in consciousness and focus them into a 'central channel' that causes internal heat."

The approach holds promise for treating headaches, intestinal problems, and other stress-related conditions.

Q. Our big human brains presumably have survival advantage, but they come at a price. What's the price? –J. Jane

A. Mom's long pregnancy and tough delivery due to the big head, followed by a long period of infant dependency as the brain continues to grow, answers Mark Rosenzweig in Biological Psychology.

The energy-hungry brain, while only two percent of adult body weight, demands 15 percent of cardiac output and metabolic budget for a person at rest. More than half of the human genome is brain specs, with some 100 billion neurons and 100 billion glial cells woven into an "enchanted loom" of 100 trillion connections.

As for sheer size, elephants and whales are brainier (not T-rex), a shocking discovery a few centuries ago. Sowe humans invented "the index of brain weight as apercentage of body weight." This put us ahead of bigger animals, but still left us tied with mice and tiny shrews. So next we dreamed up the "encephalization factor"– brain weight divided by the seven power of body weight– and we shot smartly to the head of the class.

Q. Did getting shot in the head ever cure anybody of anything? (Do)

A. Some years ago, a man with a severe handwashingcompulsion became so depressed he shot himself in the head,and survived, and now his obsessive-compulsive disorder wasgone(!), says Clifford Pickover in "Strange Brains andGenius." "Physician's Weekly" reported that the bullet hadachieved the same result as a leucotomy–less radical than alobotomy–in removing part of the left lobe of the brain. "He hit himself in exactly the same spot a surgeonwould have in a leucotomy," said the reporting doctor, whowarned, "I wouldn't advocate people to shoot themselves tosolve their psychiatric problems." A millimeter higher orlower would have killed him. As it was, says Pickover, theguy went on to attend college and lead a normal life.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich atstrangetrue@compuserve.com, coauthors of "Can a Guy GetPregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So-Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press.