Playing a gag
Q: I’ve heard that for some of his stunts, Harry Houdini first had to master control of his "gag reflex." What was the point of that? –L. Lovelace
A: To free himself from chains, padlock, and handcuffs, the famous illusionist and escapologist needed to hide a key that would go undetected during searches of his clothes and person. So he half-swallowed one beforehand and then regurgitated it when he was unobserved, report psychologists Hans and Michael Eysenck in Mind Watching: Why We Behave the Way We Do.
Since uncontrollable gagging is the common response to having something caught in one's throat, few people suspected this as a potential hiding place. "Houdini's real trick was that he had learned to control his gag reflex. This he had achieved by practicing for hour after hour with a small piece of potato tied to a length of string."
Q: If somebody puts a voodoo curse on you, might it kill you? –P.D. Duvalier
A: If you think it might, it might.
In Essentials of Psychology, Exploration and Application, 6th Ed., Dennis Coon tells of a terrified young woman admitted to a hospital because she believed she was going to die. A midwife had predicted that the woman's two sisters would die on their 16th and 21st birthdays, and that the woman herself would die on her 23rd birthday.
Her sisters had died as predicted, and now it was three days before her 23rd birthday. Then the following day the woman was indeed found dead in her hospital bed, "an apparent victim of her own terror."
There are other cases of people dying of fright, such as soldiers in particularly savage battles, or of people being stricken at very emotional times, such as Louis Armstrong's widow suffering a heart attack during a memorial concert for her husband just as the final chord of "St. Louis Blues" was played.
Such victims may die in one of two ways, says Coon:
Physiologically, the intense arousal causes a sharp rise in blood sugar, the heart beats faster, digestion slows or stops, blood flow to the skin is reduced. These "fight-or-flight" reactions generally increase the chances of survival in an emergency, but in an older person or someone in bad health, they can kill.
And if the initial emotion doesn't prove fatal, "parasympathetic rebound" might: following heightened arousal, the body works to calm all the accelerated processes and, in doing so, may go too far. Even in a young, vigorous person, the counter-slowdown may actually stop the heart.
Thus voodoo, like all terrors, can get you coming or going.
Q: Millionaires are a dime a dozen these days. But there still aren't many billionaires. What's the difference between the two? —D. Trump
A: If you went on a feverish spending spree amounting to a dollar every second, 24 hours a day ($86,400 daily), it would take you only 11 1/2 days to blow a million, but nearly 32 years to kiss a billion goodbye.
Q: Imagine you stumbled into a time warp and back onto a Mesozoic plain. Could you outrun a dinosaur? –J.J.-Kersee
A: By analyzing footprint remains and estimated weights of large dinos, zoologist R. McNeill Alexander, in his book Animals, concludes that a 37-ton brontosaur may well have been about as athletic as an elephant. Elephants can't gallop or jump but can run at least 10mph, and probably more.
The much lighter horned-dinosaur Triceratops, at seven tons, may have been able to gallop, but probably not as fast as a buffalo, speculates Alexander.
A really fast human can run at about 27mph very briefly, 22mph averaged over a 100-meter race. But most of us run a lot slower than this, so fleeing a pursuing dinosaur would have been an iffy proposition, depending on one's physical condition, the type of 'saur and terrain, and whether the beast recently had lunch.
(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org)