STRANGE BUT TRUE- Flat head: Body modifications nothing new


Q. Can you imagine the list of body parts that in some culture or other at some time or other have been "modified" for ritualistic, religious, or cosmetic reasons? –G. Metro  

A. Nose jobs, ear jobs, tongue and ear piercings, tummy tucks, tattoos, belly button "beautification," guy and gal accentuations, foot fancifications, steroid resculpting of the musculature– these barely scratch the surface, or the skin in this case, which has itself prompted many a face job, derma-therapy, and depilatory application.

More culture-specific, says A.J. Jacobs in The Know- It-All, were the head flattenings practiced by certain Indian cultures. The desired flat-head effect was achieved by fastening the infant's skull to the cradle board, or by placing a bag of sand against the forehead. Over the centuries, cultures have also used bands to squeeze the skull into an hourglass shape. Teeth have been chipped, blackened, carved with relief designs or had pegs put in them. Padaung women wear a 15-inch brass neck-stretch ring that pulls four vertebrae into the neck. And among the Mayan Indians who considered crossed eyes beautiful, these were induced in babies by hanging an object between their eyes.

It's the human body as a work-in-progress (regress?).

Q. This human universal differs little from culture to culture or by age, gender, or ethnicity and is generally marked by obsession and "a state of need." More than an emotion, it's a primary motivational system with goal-oriented behaviors, associated with activity in the brain's pleasure and reward centers. Thwart satisfaction of this basic drive, and its "dark side" may appear, sparking inappropriate, even dangerous efforts to attain the goal, and culminating in feelings of depression and hopelessness. What is this singular interpersonal experience? –L. Nowak

A. Romantic love, as described by UVA anthropologist Helen Fisher in The New Psychology of Love. Like thirst and the need for warmth, it can rarely be extinguished until satisfied and is stronger than the sex drive or maternal instinct (which can often be redirected). 

"Few people whose sexual advances are rejected kill themselves or someone else, whereas rejected lovers in cultures around the world commit suicide or homicide," Fisher says.

Love's elevated brain activity, as shown by MRI, may help explain "frustration attraction"– why disappointed lovers begin to love their rejecting partner even more. When a reward is delayed, reward-expecting neurons actually prolong their activity, says Fisher. Frustration attraction may at first seem maladaptive, but its intense energy and extreme motivation can be useful biological tools for regaining a beloved. Provided, of course, that no one gets shot in the meantime.

Q. What's the uppitty English "up"-word been up to? –N.Webster

A. Meanings a-plenty or no meaning at all, says Richard Lederer in A Man of My Words. Think of call up, beat up, warm up, speak up, show up, crack up (a car or at a joke). Often the little word is superfluous, as when we light up a cigar or lock up the house. Looking up a chimney means one thing, looking up a friend another, looking up a word still another. Same when we make up a bed, story, face, mind.

Winding up a watch starts it, winding up a meeting stops it. Is holding up a partner on a tennis court a plus or minus? Paradoxically, we can walk up and down the aisle at the same time, or slow up and down. Really mixed up: a house doesn't really burn up but down, we don't pull up a chair but pull it along, says Lederer. Upshot: Don't give up, but do be up for "up"!

Q. One domain where you wouldn't expect "force equals mass times acceleration" to come into play is in brassiere design. But, oh, if you've kept up with developments... –J. Russell

A. Add together the obesity epidemic, estrogens in birth-control pills, plus popular implants, and the average bra size for women in the U.S. has gone from 34B to 36C in the last 15 years, says Anne Casselman in "The Physics of... Bras" in Discover magazine. A pair of D-cups weigh 15-23 pounds, like carrying around two small turkeys. Little wonder many women have given up exercising, further bumping up their size. Enter biomechanics experts who studied mammary motion by having test women run on treadmills. "In some cases, breasts can slap against the chest with enough force to break the clavicle (collarbone)," they say.

Bra designers have responded, analyzing breast sag (a complex issue) and sections: the 15-20 lobes include lobules, bulbs, ducts, plus size-determining fat, with ligaments seemingly the primary support. Hence the need for encapsulation bras, compression bras, sports bras, ones with gel and water pads, and with air bags that can be pumped up. One company has even worked on a "smart" bra for sensing movement and adjusting tightness and heft.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at