Wink, wink: Not everybody can do it

DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. Some people are not able to wink. This poses quite a nuisance when looking through a camera, etc. Were they dropped as a baby or something? Is there any way they can be retrained to wink? –Mr. Boh

A. "Voluntary unilateral eyelid closure" is ultimately controlled by the facial nucleus of the brainstem, says Columbia University neurobiologist Vincent Ferrera. However, the facial nucleus is not just a big uniform mass of motor neurons. It's organized into distinct parts that control different muscles, with those controlling the lower face receiving robust, lateralized input (right half from the left hemisphere, and vice versa) and the upper face receiving weak, bilateral signals.

This may explain why most people have better control of the lower face– for example the ability to affect a Dick Cheney-like half smile while finding it tough to raise just one eyebrow.

So the inability to wink is probably no different than the inability to raise a lone eyebrow and isn't necessarily a sign of brain damage. "As far as I know, there is no training that will somehow grow extra neural connections, but the reader is welcome to try," Ferrara says.

Q. In the great tug of war of human affairs, does the good or the bad have the edge? –K. Rove

A. Certainly you'll like someone who says 8 positive things about you more than someone who says 7 positives and 1 negative, a fact actually verified in studies, says David G. Myers in Social Psychology. "If 60,000 people tell me they loved a show but one blasts it, that's the comment I'll hear," says one musician.

Negative information tends to carry more weight because it grabs our attention, says Myers, the reason political campaigns use so much negative campaigning to focus voters on a candidate's perceived weaknesses and away from evident strengths.

From a biological perspective, the power of the bad prepares us to deal with threats of death or disability. In the struggle for survival, "bad can be badder than good is good." In everyday affairs, destructive acts harm more than constructive acts repair; losing money upsets us more than finding the same amount of money gratifies us.

And on and on.

Over the 20th century, going by "Psychological Abstracts," says Myers, there were some 90,000 articles mentioning depression, 73,000 anxiety, 11,000 anger. Meanwhile, only 4,600 mentioned life satisfaction, 4,100 happiness, 1,200 joy. Sums up psychologist Roy Baumeister: "To overcome the strength of so much bad, human life needs a lot of good."

Q. Hippocrates of ancient Greece used it to reduce fevers and relieve pain. It was originally isolated from the bark of trees of the willow genus and probably acts as a natural pesticide to protect the tree. Despite its bitter taste, it's similar in structure to isoeugenol, eugenol, and zingerone from cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It's also produced from the flowers of the meadowsweet plant (Spiraea ulmaria). The acetylated form of this molecule is effective and well-tolerated by the human body. What is it? –R. Dole

A. Combining the "a" from "acetyl" and the "spir" from "Spiraea ulmaria" yields "aspirin," today the most widely used drug for treating illness and injury, with over 400 substances containing it and over 40,000,000 pounds produced annually in the U.S. alone, say Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson in Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed the World.

Aspirin can lower body temperature, reduce inflammation and thin the blood. Small doses may prevent strokes and deep vein thrombosis, the condition known as "economy-class syndrome" in long-haul airline passengers.

 

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

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