Flirty: Famous smile was a come-on


Q. All the world has wondered what's behind Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. So, what is? ­J. Roberts

 A. Flirtation is on her mind, says psychologist Paul Ekman in Telling Lies. Pictured in the da Vinci painting is the classic coy smile, one of a couple dozen types of smiles. This is a felt smile, nothing false about it, with the person first facing and gazing away from the target, then stealing a glance, just long enough to be noticed, then looking away again.

"One of the elements that makes the painting so unusual is that Leonardo depicted her caught in the midst of such a flirtatious smile, facing one way but glancing sideways at the object of her interest," Ekman says.

Q. How might a starving soldier get horse steaks from a horse without killing the horse? ­C. Biscuit

A. Well, actually the horse did die, but not for several days, says Frances Ashcroft in Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival. This is just one of the countless shocking tales of creatures– human and otherwise– in the throes of war and bitter cold.

The setting was the great retreat from Moscow in 1812, where the soldiers exploited the anesthetic properties of extreme cold to use their horses as a sort of "living larder." "We cut a slice from the quarters of horses still on their feet and walking," wrote senior sergeant August Thirion, "and these wretched animals gave not the least sign of pain."

The blood froze instantly, preventing hemorrhaging and death, and thus the horses lived for days. The soldiers' hands being too frozen for normal butchering, this was the only alternative– and anyway, death to the horses first would have meant meat too frozen to cut.

As with Thirion's horses, extreme cold may slow blood loss in humans, as was found during the Falklands conflict when many casualties inexplicably survived severe injuries, such as the loss of a limb, despite being unable to reach a field hospital for many hours, says Ashcroft. The mild hypothermia decreased their bodies' demand for oxygen and enabled soldiers to survive even with reduced blood volume.

Q. For Olympic marksmen, what's at the heart of a strategy to steady their shots? ­W. Tell

A. Amazingly, their heartbeat. Sports psychologists have found that top shooters squeeze the trigger between beats, says Dennis Coon in Introduction to Psychology. Apparently, the tiny tremor of the pulse is enough to send a shot astray.

Consider that the bull's-eye is about the size of a dime, at 165 feet away. Yet 50 bulls out of 60 shots (prone position) is not uncommon. Geometry reveals that the barrel's end must stay steady within a .006-inch tolerance! Learning of this, many competitors have begun using relaxation or biofeedback measures to tame their ticker.

Q. Dreams are loaded with action– flying, fleeing, falling, spinning. What's missing from them? ­S. Freud

A. In spite of lab dream accounts such as "I was naked, revolving at 45 rpm record speed. I had a hole in the center of my head. Spinning, spinning and spinning...," dreamers never report nausea or motion sickness, says Harvard's J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain.

While vision is paramount, sound is often missing or scant: "Then I heard something in one of the toilet stalls." Sensations of heat, touch, and taste are rare.

Pleasure and pain are also uncommon– pain's absence being all the more surprising in that most dream scenarios would seem to call for it.

Finally, dreams mostly lack visceral punch. Hobson recounts one from his own dream journal: "She is taking me to the woods to see the wild pigs. She carries two buckets of swill, saying, 'You must not feed them by hand. Rather, throw out the swill and wait.' Sure enough, they come– great, huge, grunting pigs, loving the swill. The scene shifts to a dinner table with her family present and roast boar (huge, juicy, brown) on the sideboard."

Yet through it all, no stink! Far worse, when Hobson sat down to dream-dine on succulent ham, totally absent were the fragrances of clove, madeira, pineapple. And not a single taste of dream wine!

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at