Just kidding!: Escaping the psych ward


Q. Imagine you were somehow mistakenly committed to a psychiatric hospital. Would the staff catch it? Would you be able to talk your way out? ­K. Kesey

A. When Stanford researcher David Rosenhan and 10 colleagues got themselves committed by faking hearing voices, then behaved completely normal after that, none of the staff was suspicious, says Dennis Coon in Introduction to Psychology, 8th Edition. But other patients detected the ruse, remarking, "You're not crazy, you're checking up on the hospital" or "You're a journalist, aren't you?"

Because the pseudo-patients were seen by staff in the context of a mental ward and labeled schizophrenic, anything they did, even just taking notes on a clipboard, was viewed as part of their "illness."

As for talking your way out, "it should be clear that it would be quite futile to say, 'Look, this is all a mistake. I'm not crazy. You've got to let me out.' The response might very well be, 'Have you had these paranoid delusions for long?'"

Eventually all 11 were discharged, their psychoses said to be "in remission." Health professionals later couldn't believe the findings, so Rosenhan did follow-up studies. In one, another hospital was alerted that pseudo-patients would try to gain admission. Among 193 candidates during this period, 41 were labeled as "fakes" by at least one staffer, another 19 were "suspects."

Yet in fact Rosenhan had "never sent any patients– fake or otherwise– to this hospital!"

Q. How much speed can a snowy mountainside avalanche get up? Could it overtake a fleet downhill skier? ­A. Lowe

A. Such a skier might top 100 mph, but snow avalanches have been known to reach 200 mph– amazing for all the tonnage involved! Upon rare occasions, an avalanche will sweep down like a freight train across a valley floor and up the opposite side a way, says Ruth Kirk in Snow. Pressures near 10 tons/sq. foot have been recorded.

Popular belief is that mountain animals instinctively save themselves. But mountain goats get killed by avalanches all the time, says Utah Avalanche Center's Bruce Tremper, and "I've seen a number triggered by sheep, moose, deer, etc. The instinctual feel idea is mostly myth," he adds.

Really doesn't take much to set the train a-roaring– a slicing skier can do it, a snowmobile, a sudden warming. When an avalanche gets going, usually more like 60-80 mph, says Evan Stevens, also of the Utah Center, the blocks of snow break apart on the way down, then when these blocks stop moving, they instantly set up like concrete, locking victims in place.

"If someone is completely buried in an avalanche, it is almost impossible for them to dig themselves out. Luckily, the devastating avalanches are less likely, but it takes only a small one to kill someone."

Q. Space Agency officials don't like to talk about it, but what might become of astronauts lost in outer space? –Hal

A. Dead bodies in a sealed spacecraft with atmospheric pressure like Earth's would likely start decomposing fast, says Dr. Kenneth V. Iserson in Death to Dust. No craft is totally airtight however, so leakage would occur, and the bodies would eventually be exposed to the vacuum of outer space. Rapid exposure would cause a body to disintegrate, possibly even explode, but slow exposure would put it into a deep freeze, halting decomposition.

Without insects and small animals to disturb it, the corpse would remain intact, drying out over time to become a freeze-dried mummy adrift in the heavens.

Q. Could you swim from the U.S. to Russia nonstop? ­S. Boykewich

 A. Easy, if you're geared up for cold water and can do a few miles. In the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska lies Little Diomede Island, part of Alaska. Two-and- a-half miles west, across the international boundary, lies Big Diomede Island, part of Russia. A chilly swim even in summer, but not impossible– it's been done.

Yet however mighty your swimstroke, you wouldn't arrive officially until the next day, due to crossing the international dateline.

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