Tee hee: Get someone else to do it

Q. Can you tickle yourself into a fit of laughter? –Elmo

 A. "I'm aware of no one who can do this," says

University of Maryland Baltimore County psychologist Robert R. Provine. Tickling is a form of communication, and your nervous system cancels out touch stimuli that you yourself produce. For ticklishness, stimuli must come from someone or something that is "non-self."

An element of suspense may also be at play: Where's the tickler going to tickle next? "But don't take my word for it. Get together with a playful partner and test for yourself which kind of touch tickles and which does not," Provine says.

Q. You wouldn't think a dead body capable of doing very much. Think again? ­B. Stoker

 A. Much folklore over the centuries traces to people's lack of knowledge of the natural processes surrounding corpses, says Paul Barber in Vampires, Burial, and Death:

* The classic theme of a sinner's hand reaching up out of the grave has its origins in common shallow burials of the past and the presence of scavenging animals that latch onto whatever body part can be dragged up, usually an arm.

* Pregnant women who die reportedly may expel the fetus a few days later, making it appear they were buried alive and gave birth in the coffin.

* The limbs of a lifted corpse can react in frightening ways once rigor mortis passes and they're free to "flail about" under the force of gravity.

* Chewing and suckling sounds are not uncommon in mortuaries and graveyards. "When a corpse bursts as a result of bloating, the emission of gases, body fluids, and maggots– present in astonishing numbers– may be audible." One 19th century gravedigger said he heard ghastly noises for three weeks following a shallow burial.

* A body may "cry out" when a stake is driven into the chest, not because it is a vampire coming to life but because this forces a rush of air past the glottis.

* The restless dead will rise in water as decompositional gases build up. One murder victim surfaced in a river despite encasement in a 145-pound cast-iron generator housing, "five pounds more than the body itself."

Q. When will a flying speck of paint no bigger than a grain of salt hit with the force of a bullet? ­A. Shepherd

A. When it's orbiting Earth at 18,000 mph amid thousands of tons of space litter including defunct satellites, exhaust particles, space station trash, and fragments of weapons tests, says Sharon McGrayne in 365 Surprising Scientific Facts, Breakthroughs, and Discoveries. A paint chip left a pea-sized cavity in the front window of the space shuttle Challenger on its second flight.

Radar and optical telescopes now track some 10,000 large objects, but there are another 70,000-150,000 untrackable fragments from 1 to 10 centimeters across, according to the Second European Conference on Space Debris.

An orbiting marble-sized object carries energy equivalent to a 400-pound safe falling off a ten-story building, says University of North Carolina astronomer Wayne Christiansen. "However, the safe would crush you flat like a bug, the marble would likely explode on impact, leaving a ghastly crater."

Q. When sleeptalkers get to talking, what's it all about? ­M.J. Oblinger

A. Some three-quarters of people have somniloquized at one time or another, from brief meaningless mumblings to pseudo speeches or dialogues lasting several minutes, says Dr. Michael Perlis in the Encyclopedia of Psychology. There may also be laughing, crying, humming or groaning.

Things can get so loud neighbors call to complain, adds psychologist Jodi Mindell. Triggers are emotional stress, illness, fever. Other sleep disorders often are present.

Stories of nocturnal mutterings usually provoke mirth or mild embarrassment, but sometimes damaging confessions can be extracted by suspicious spouses, though these would hardly hold up in court, says Harvard's J. Allan Hobson in Dreaming as Delirium.

At times the talker seems out of character, as when electrician Frank M. surprised his new bride with his "foul tongue that led a life of its own when he was asleep." Dr. Hobson advised using a bedside recorder to monitor frequency, and soon Frank returned beaming. "This tape recorder you prescribed is wonderful. The swearing has stopped." But the doctor hadn't really "prescribed" anything– just assessing the problem.

"I had unwittingly used the power of suggestion on Frank. He had responded positively to the social pressure of a monitoring device."

Finally, psychologist Arthur Arkin told how the mother of mathematician L.E. Dickson once solved a school geometry problem in a dream, then spoke the answer in her sleep. Next day in class her eavesdropping sister got the credit; Dickson's mother (awake) had no idea how to solve it.

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