STRANGE BUT TRUE- Lucky, indeed: How Lindy stayed awake-- er, alive


Q. How did Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh, piloting the "Spirit of St. Louis," manage to stay awake at the controls for his 1927 historic 33 1/2-hour, 3,600-mile (5800 km) first solo flight across the Atlantic? -Z. Rem

A. Probably he didn't. Racked by fatigue, he fell into a borderland state, dozing with eyes open. "At times I am not sure if I am dreaming through life or living through a dream"–quoted in Zen and the Brain, by James Austin.

 He described staring at the instruments for "an unearthly age of time," at once conscious and asleep, the fuselage behind him filled with "ghostly presences." These phantoms spoke in human voices, passing in and out through the walls. Lindbergh lost sense of being flesh; all substance and hardness left, past, present, and future merged. "I'm flying my plane over the Atlantic Ocean, but I am also living in years now far away."

 Many people experience this borderland routinely when slipping into sleep– "hypnagogic" hallucinations. These are not dreams but rather occur before the first dream, and are intensely colorful and vivid, says Austin. The person's eyes may still be open. More like snapshots than a movie, the images can be powerful, even scary, especially since open eyes may convince the hallucinator he or she is awake!

Q. Evolutionists have debated the existence of an "Eve," a common female ancestor to the human race going back 300,000-400,000 years, in Africa. How do biologists today go the Eve story one better? -A.

A. Most systematists now agree that this commonality can be taken much farther back, to all of the animal kingdom. "If we could trace all animal lineages back to their origin, they would converge on a common ancestor," say Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece in Biology: Sixth Edition. "That ancestor was most likely a colonial flagellated protist that lived over 700 million years ago in the Precambrian era."

 Precursors to this sponge-like creature were probably the choanoflagellates that arose about a billion years ago. Modern choanoflagellates are tiny stalked colonies of cells, about .02 mm high, looking a little like mushrooms atop a warped straw. Nothing fancy, nothing sexy, nothing photogenic– just an early stage in our long ancestry as members of the animal kingdom.

Q. At a bar, cover a friend's glass with your hat, then, "Bet you a buck I can drink that drink without touching the hat." He drops a bill on the table... -B. Jokester

A. Oldest sucker bet in the book, says Harry Anderson in his Games You Can't Lose. You duck your head under the table and commence with a loud "glug, glug, glug," then pop back up and wipe your mouth in satisfied fashion.

 "That's it. The drink's gone."

 "Noooooo," he says.

 "Oh, yeah. Check for yourself."

 When 99 out of 100 times he picks up the hat to prove his point, you grab the drink and down it.

 "You lose. I didn't touch the hat, you did!"

Q. Monkeys are known to have a strong fear of snakes. Is this inborn or learned the hard way, from being bitten?

A. Neither, says David G. Myers in Psychology. "Schooling" seems the key. When researchers raised young monkeys in a laboratory, the normal snake fear didn't manifest. But later when the young ones were placed with their wild-reared parents and peers, who were repeatedly observed refusing to reach for food in the presence of a snake, the strong fear rubbed off.

 The young monkeys learned snake-fear even just by watching videos of older monkeys. But when trick video-splicing made it appear older monkeys were afraid of flowers, the lesson didn't take. Seems monkeys are biologically programmed to learn certain fears and not others.

 As, likely, are we humans. We quickly learn to fear snakes, spiders, and cliffs– fears that helped our ancestors survive– but not cars, electricity, bombs, global warming, all of which are now far more dangerous. "Stone Age fears leave us unprepared for high-tech dangers."

Q. When schizophrenics hear voices, whose voices are they?

A. They're hearing their own voice but don't realize it, says Rita Carter in Mapping the Mind. What happens is they generate speech in one part of the brain, then experience it as auditory input in another part. Most people don't confuse the two because the speech production area of the brain signals to the speech recognition area that it is active. "This prevents one's own words being mistaken for those of someone else."

 Actually, this automatic distinction can break down even in normal people, as when a mourner reports hearing the voice of the deceased, or someone in a state of great excitement or stress hears apparently divine messages.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at

1 comment

Clever. If only I had a hat!