Where am I? The eyes have it


Q. Pose this one to friends sometime: Point to the part of your body where you feel "most located." Where will this usually be? ­Ach Q. Lus

A. Most people, after puzzling a moment, will point to their eyes. This is "startlingly consistent," say Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher in Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Psychologically, the self seems centered right between the eyes, the "mirrors of the soul."

Wisconsin ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Baske, who gave emergency treatment to some of Madison's street people, noted that psychotics bent on destroying themselves almost invariably go after the eyes: Some glue lids shut with rubber cement (so no one can see their souls). Others use industrial solvent to rinse out impurities (blinding themselves). A few, like Sophocles' Oedipus, resort to tragic self-gouging.

Q. Can you imagine circumstances where the loud dripping of plain water into basins set beneath your bed frightens you to death? Clue: You're blindfolded and strapped to the bed. ­M. deSade

A. In 1936, in India, recounts Nobel Laureate Bernard Lown in The Lost Art of Healing, an astonishing experiment was conducted on a prisoner condemned to die by hanging. He was given the choice instead of being "exsanguinated," or having his blood let out, because this would be gradual and relatively painless. The victim agreed, was strapped to the bed and blindfolded.

Unbeknownst to him, water containers were attached to the four bedposts and drip buckets set up below. Then after light scratches were made on his four extremities, the fake drip brigade began: First rapidly, then slowly, always loudly. "As the dripping of water stopped, the healthy young man's heart stopped also. He was dead, having lost not a drop of blood."

Dying of fright can occur in one of two ways, explains Dennis Coon in his Essentials of Psychology, Exploration and Application. The stepped-up heartbeat and other physiological reactions of the "fight-or-flight" response can kill directly; or "parasympathetic rebound" can be deadly, where the body works to calm itself and goes too far the other way, and actually stops the heart.

Cases abound of soldiers dying of fright in savage battles, or of people dying at other very emotional times. Voodoo deaths also pay testament to the amazing power of the mind over the body.

Q. Classic puzzle: A bookworm eats straight through a 10-volume encyclopedia from the first page of Vol. 1 to the last page of Vol. 10. If each volume has 1000 pages, and the set is shelved in the usual order, how many pages does the bookworm eat through, ignoring covers, title pages, etc? ­R. McClintock

A. Left to right is the usual shelving order, so the ravenous worm eats through only the front cover of Vol. 1 and only the back cover of Vol. 10. That leaves 1000 x 8 reading pages in Volumes 2-9, or 8000 pages. But since these are printed front and back, the 8000 converts to only 4000 physical pages wormed through. It's a matter of semantics whether the worm ate through the first and last pages themselves, which would push the count to 8004 (4002).

Q. In Shakespeare's day, it was the custom for young men to play the parts of women on stage. But wouldn't audiences have laughed to hear deep-voiced males intone female lines? And if very young boys were used instead, wouldn't they have been too emotionally immature for the demanding personae? ­G. Paltrow

A. While boys' voices nowadays break at age 13 or 14, written records of Bach's choir in 1744 show this happening much later, at 16 to 18, says R. McNeill Alexander in The Human Machine.

And a century and a half before that, in Shakespeare's time, the onset of puberty was probably later still, so 18-year-old males playing women may not only have sounded their parts but– with smooth beardless skin– looked them as well.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at StrangeTrue@Compuserve.com.