STRANGEBUTTRUE- Yogi's bearing: Slowing hearts and feeling the warmth

Q. Is it possible to stop one's heart briefly simply by visualizing this happening? –A. Taylor

A. Amazing claims have been made about the powers of Indian yogis to do just this, though these have never been documented, report Hans and Michael Eysenck in Mind Watching: Why We Behave the Way We Do.

But a study of 400 yogis did show a handful capable of slowing their heart beat to half its normal rate, and one was able to make his forehead break out in a sweat without moving a muscle. Two others managed to slow their metabolism to less than half their normal waking rates, five times as great a drop as occurs in deep sleep!

The famous Russian mnemonist Shereshevski, by visualizing himself first as asleep and then vigorously active, could vary his heart rate by about 40 beats per minute (with 70 beats being a normal rate).

"Even more dramatically, Shereshevski could raise the skin temperature of his right hand by imagining that it was on a hot stove," the Eysencks write, "while at the same time lowering the temperature of his left hand by imagining that it was holding an ice cube."

Q. Are there any developmentally disabled nonhuman primates? For example, a gorilla with Down Syndrome?" –D. Fossey

A. Many such examples exist in the scientific literature, says Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Primate Center of Emory University and author of The Age of Empathy. 

"I know cases of trisomy (three copies of a chromosome, instead of the normal two) of chromosome 22 in one chimpanzee and one orangutan," de Waal writes. "In both, the condition was associated with mental retardation superficially resembling Down Syndrome, which afflicts humans with trisomy 21." 

Also a chimpanzee named Knuckles, still alive in Florida, has cerebral palsy, and Azalea, a young rhesus monkey that de Waal knew personally, had trisomy of chromosome 18. She was clumsy in her locomotion and acted in a socially inept manner; she sometimes threatened dominant individuals, which in the strict hierarchy of rhesus society is a big "no-no." 

Interestingly, whereas other monkeys would get punished for such transgressions, Azalea was extremely well tolerated, as if the others knew there was something wrong with her and cut her some slack. The same consideration has been claimed for Knuckles, "a tolerance I attribute to the capacity for empathy in primates," says the researcher.

Q. When closely matched athletes compete, why does one win one day and another the next? Surely whoever is fastest or strongest will remain so, for a while at least. –M. Ali

A. Anyone belonging to a gym knows we all have "strong" and "weak" days, due to amount and quality of sleep, nutrition, etc., says Steve Gisselbrecht in New Scientist magazine. These factors can be regularized somewhat– but not viral infections and the like. 

Nowadays, most distance competitions are timed to a thousandth of a second, which usually provides enough margin to declare a winner, says physiologist Mike Rennie of the University of Nottingham Medical School, U.K. In fact, the athlete's mental and physical states, such as diet, fit of shoes, distance from the starting gun, will to win, are likely to account for more than 0.1 percent difference at the elite level.

The athlete's form is another variable, encompassing helpfulness of coaching, injury or illness, overconfidence or nagging self-doubts, plus cumulative stress and even simple luck. Almost all of these can be graphed as curves that add up to victory or defeat, says Jon Richfield of Somerset West, South Africa, who adds, "Yet most setbacks are at least temporarily reversible."

Q. How do you spell relief? "O-b-e-c-a-l-p" just might do it, marketed as a treatment for children's mild complaints. But is it safe? –B. Spock

A. As safe as a sugar pill manufactured to FDA standards, which describes Obecalp, whether the name is read forward or– did you notice?– backward: placebo, according to Rebecca Coffey of Discover magazine.

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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