Tail tale: What give cats their balance

Q. Cat lovers, what's the "tale of the tail" that would be most gratifying to physicists, kinesiologists and tightrope walkers carrying a long pole? –J. Fariello

A. A cat's tail, eight to fourteen inches long, is a balancing aid or balancing "pole," key to the phenomenal feline sense of balance, says Amanda O'Neill in Cat Biz.

Walking along the top of a fence, a cat maintains its center of gravity by adjusting the position of its tail, just as a tightrope walker uses a pole. Scientists who trained cats to cross a narrow beam observed that when the beam wobbled sideways, the cats instantly swung their tails in the opposite direction to keep their balance– but tailless cats tended to fall off.

Q. Why might a doctor pretend to deliver a baby that doesn't exist? How about the baby's twin? –V. Mary

A. When 32-year-old Jane K. walked into Dr. Monroe's office saying she was nine months pregnant, her abdomen was big and low, suggesting the fetus had dropped, and her breasts were swollen, says Vilayanur Ramachandran in Phantoms in the Brain.

It was 1932, money was scarce, and Jane had talked only informally with a midwife. Now she could feel the baby kicking, but the doctor was unable to pick up the fetal heartbeat with his stethoscope, and he observed Jane's navel was still inverted, not pushed out as it should be.

Dr. Monroe remembered reading about pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, in med school. A few women who desperately want to become pregnant will stop menstruating, lactate, get morning sickness. But how to break this to Jane?

"The baby will be born this afternoon," he told her. Later, after she awoke from the ether, he said, "The baby was stillborn. I did everything I could." Right there on the table, her abdomen subsided. Devastated, Jane would now have to go home and tell her husband and mother.

Then a week later she returned, belly big once more. "I've come back. You forgot to deliver the twin," she said.

Q. How good are you at reading lips? –A. Jolie

A. Probably better than you think, says Stanley Coren in Sensation and Perception.

Try this: Turn on a TV with someone talking directly into the camera, then have a radio blaring static in the background. Now close your eyes and adjust the static just to where you can't understand the talker. When you open your eyes, you'll suddenly be able to make out the words as lip-reading cues come to your aid.

Without this normally undetected visual assist, many of us would be at a loss at a loud party.

Q. On Niwot Ridge, in Colorado, at an elevation of 12,600 feet, a research station outhouse never needs servicing. What's the station administrator's secret? –A. Crapper

A. The place is licked clean on a regular basis by neighboring woodchuck-like marmots, says Anthony R. Ives, University of Wisconsin-Madison zoologist. This appears to be totally safe for the marmots but maybe not so for the humans. "During an undergraduate class outing,” Ives says, “one of the students was seen bolting from the outhouse with her pants barely up, yelling 'I felt whiskers!'"

Q. Which "professors" can be trusted and which maybe shouldn't be? Watch your tongue here! –L. Frye

A. You know that a professor is an educator awarded the highest rank in a university pecking order, from full professor on down, says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky. The verb "profess," however, means not only "to teach as a professor" but also "to take a vow, as in a religious order" or "to declare a belief or feeling."

Note of caution: "profess" can also signal insincerity, as it does in much of today's usage, including the following: "Though he is one of the world's most ruthless dictators, he takes every opportunity to profess his love of democracy.”

Therefore, suggests Davidson, use the verb mainly for that purpose, and be sure to make your meaning clear from the context.

Q. Ready for a "leading question"? Quick now: How do you pronounce the word spelled s-h-o-p, and what do you do when you come to a green light? –D. McNair

A. If you answered "shop" to the first and "stop" to the second, you've demonstrated "priming," or the wakening of associations, as William James referred to the process. This effect can happen when the brain does not have time to fully process the input, says David G. Myers in Psychology. In fact, much of our information processing occurs automatically, off the radar screen of our conscious mind, which wouldn't fall into the trap of saying "we stop at a green light."

Such priming may also help explain the allure of fast-food symbols, and bears on courtroom proceedings where interrogation and testimony are often replete with leading questions, having potentially serious repercussions.
Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich.