Friday, September 18, 2009

Link Proliferation: Bad reviews, jumping Frenchmen, zombie math equations, and more.

Does "It's Better If You Don't See the Monster" Really Count as a Scientific Hypothesis?

The Science Daily site runs a story on a test that links voluntary eye closing to an increase in the scariness of scary music.

Here's the science:

In her new study, Prof. Hendler found that the simple act of voluntarily closing one's eyes — instead of listening to music and sounds in the dark — can elicit more intense physical responses in the brain itself.

Prof. Hendler's research suggests that, when our eyes are closed, a region in our brain called the amygdala is fired up. The experience of scary music becomes more emotionally and physically intense. And the converse of the scary music effect may be true: happy music could produce a joyous effect when our eyes are shut as well.

Listening to sounds with our eyes closed seems to wire together a direct connection to the regions of our brains that process emotions, says Prof. Hendler. "Music is a relatively abstract emotional carrier," says Prof. Hendler. "It can easily take one's subjective personal experience and manipulate it. Our new findings, however, suggest that the effect is not only subjective. Using a functional MRI (fMRI), we can see that distinct changes in the brain are more pronounced when a person's eyes are not being used."

According to the article, volunteers in Hendler's lab were subject to "spooky Hitchcock-style music" though it doesn't specify what songs were used.

Before There Were Bloggers

Over at Quigley's Cabinet, there's a nifty post comparing the critical reception of Shelley's Frankenstein to Stoker's Dracula. Guess which one got panned and was dubbed a "tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities"?

Notably, Quigley points out that the critically drubbed book was an instant success while the well-received tome had to wait decades before popular opinion caught up.

Doing the Math, Zombie Style

Remember Robert "with a question mark" Smith?, the mathematician that showed that every hero ever depicted in a zombie movie is doing it wrong (hole up and aim for peaceful coexistence) and every kill-happy douchebag ever depicted in a zombie movie was doing it right (hit fast, often, and hard)?

For those who weren't here last time we covered this work of this oddly monikered mathematician, Smith? used analytical tools meant to predict the spread of diseases with latency periods to model zombie doomsday scenarios and formulate a response. The solution: Humans need to go on the offensive ASAP and press the attack until every zombie is dead. Smith? and co. call this strategy "impulsive eradication."

Though this flies in the face of just about every zombie work out there, a new article about Smith?'s theory drops the formula he used and some nice numbers.

Here's Smith?'s formula, where S = susceptible humans, Z = zombies, R = removed elements:

Get that? In plain English it states that, in a zombie crisis, if Z can be kept well under S, then a loop of zombies being removed rapidly depletes the value of Z. As Z approaches and surpasses S, the number of zombies grows rapidly and the number of humans shrinks faster and faster.

How fast? From the article:

If an infection breaks out in a city of 500,000 people, the zombies will outnumber the susceptibles in about three days.

So, as grimly as it plays in Romero's Night, the strategy that you should just arm every National Guardsman and redneck you can find and tell them to shoot every zombie they see is, mathematically speaking, the best strategy.


Over at the Fortean Times, there's a review of the new tome Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour.

This book is basic a giant compendium of large groups that freaked out in some way or other. The review includes a few nice entries from the dictionary:


Alabama: 21 September 1973

On 21 September 1973, 57 of 120 members of an Alabama marching band either fainted or felt ill shortly after performing at a high school football game. The incident occurred on a hot, humid evening after band members had travelled 100 miles (160km) to reach the away game. The game was particularly exciting as the favoured visiting team lost 7–6. The band successfully performed their seven-minute half-time routine, remaining on the field in a kneeling position while their counter­parts from the rival school performed. When the rivals’ drill was completed, the visiting band briefly stood to attention, marched to the grandstand, and were seated, when without warning a girl fainted. Over the next 10 minutes, five other girls suffered a similar fate. During the following 20 minutes, the girls rested on benches and several were sent to the hospital. During this period, many more band members reported feeling sick. Many of those affected seemed to be over-breathing, felt a tingling sensation in the limbs, and developed a choking sens­ation. Some also reported stomach pain or cramps, dizziness, nausea, and weakness. 

CONTEXT During an exciting football game, a group of musicians in a marching band were apparently dressed too heavily for the warm weather conditions. This appears to have triggered minor dizziness and fainting, which in turn generated extreme anxiety in other band members who subsequently succumbed to mass hysteria.

A second wave of symptoms occurred as band members were boarding buses after the game. Over the next three days, 10 more girls were stricken, with five experiencing relapses. Tests ruled out food poisoning. Heat stroke was also eliminated as the cardinal symptom, and fever was absent. While heat may have played a minor role, according to Dr Richard Levine of the United States Public Health Service who investigated the episode, mass psychogenic illness was the primary culprit. Levine states that “the discipline of a precis­ion marching drill, the discomfort of wearing heavy clothes in a hot environment, the excitement and disappointment at losing a close game – suggests that the setting… was appropriately tense for mass hysteria to occur.”


Dolagobind Hamlet, Orissa, India: July–August 2004

Between July and August 2004, at least a dozen schoolgirls began to exhibit fainting spells. Upon regaining consciousness, they would behave like cats, meowing, walking on all fours, and clawing at their faces. The school, in the remote hamlet of Dolagobind in Orissa, India, was temporarily closed. The first sign that something was amiss was on 26 July, when Sasmita Mohapatra, a Class 10 student, fainted during prayers. Later that day, two more students fainted in a similar manner, only to regain their senses and start acting like cats. On other occasions, they would act like cats and then faint. School headmistress Manjubala Pande told journalists that the following day “some six–seven girls started crying, fell down on the floor making sounds like those of a cat. We immediately informed others in the vill­age but after the faintings and behaviour repeated, we were forced to shut the school.” The girls were between the ages of six and 12. Each of the school’s 75 students, including the affected girls, were then taken to a nearby hermitage where they were told to recite Vedic mantras in hopes of ridding them of the evil spirits. Other cleansing rituals were also being organised. Similar outbreaks were reported at other area schools. Pande told the Indian News Agency: “They get normal after a few hours.”

CONTEXT Possession states are a form of psychological defence mechanism against pent-up stress and reflect cultural beliefs. In modern India, cats are symbols of bad luck. In some places they are believed to be the incarnation of witches.

Soon after the strange outbreaks at Dolagobind Girls’ School, other schools within the region reported mass outbreaks of fainting, though there were no specific descriptions of meowing or other cat-like behaviour. Other outbreaks were reported at schools in the Oupada section. Over a two-day period, no fewer than 20 students from a variety of classes lost consciousness. Some were taken to the Iswarpur Primary Health Centre after complaining of nausea and vomiting, but were examined and soon released. Panic swept through the school – and the region – amid rumours that the same evil ghost or ghosts responsible for the closing of Dolagobind Girls’ School the previous month were at work again.


Mhondoro, Zimbabwe: June and July 2002

In July 2002, a phantom goblin scare swept through the St Mark’s Secondary School in Mhondoro, Zimbabwe. The headmaster of the school, which is operated by the Anglican Church, reportedly fled the school and was hiding out amid claims by parents that he was in control of tiny creatures who were sexually harassing both girls and female teachers. Commotion surrounding the hysteria forced the school’s temporary closure. The community was in an uproar over the accusations and angry parents were turning up at the school, demanding to see the headmaster.

Several students and teachers told journalists that they had also been beaten by “invisible objects”. In all, at least 30 stud­ents said they had been attacked. One teacher, who did not want to be identi­fied for fear of being victimised, said that some of the students were possessed by evil spirits: “I witnessed one incident when a student went into a trance… He was demanding meat, threatening that after finishing with the students, the spirits would attack the teachers next. We are living in fear here.” The outbreak coincided with mid-term exams.

The strange turn of events left the school’s assistant headmaster in the “hot seat”, having to deal with the community. Somewhat “shell-shocked”, he was reportedly referring inquiries to the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. He also insisted that his name not be published in the newspapers, citing Public Services regulations. In trying to put on a “brave face”, he was quoted as saying: “Everything is now back to normal and I understand lessons have resumed.” Despite the reassurance, his words did not seem to be taken seriously and the situation seemed to be far from normal.

The first signs of trouble began six weeks earlier when some students claimed that “mysterious beings” were harassing them in their hostels at night. The creatures were known as zvikwambo and mubobobo in Shona, and tokoloshe in Zulu. According to one student: “About 30 students have been victims of the attacks and we can’t bear spending another night at this haunted place... A friend of mine was bitten on the arm after she wrestled with a ghost which wanted to sleep with her.”

Several of the school’s female teachers were said to be thinking about quitt­ing their jobs. Just like their students, the teachers said they were being sexually assaulted at night by strange creat­ures. A statement issued by some of the teachers read in part: “Sometimes we get up in the morning to find the bedd­ing mysteriously wet and we suspect foul play.”


Maine, USA: 18th /19th centuries 

The phrase “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine” refers to a famous condition in the annals of neurology and cross-cultural psychiatry, the origin of which remains contentious. In the north-eastern United States, along the northern fringe of Maine and New Hampshire, and in the adjacent Canadian province of Quebec, small pockets of people, especially in isolated communities and lumberjack camps, exhibit dramatic responses when suddenly startled. These include a combination of jumping, screaming, swearing, flailing out and striking bystanders, and throwing objects that may be in their hands. The most extraordinary feature of these displays is “automatic obedience” – briefly doing whatever they are told. “Jumping” is (or was) especially prominent among residents of French-Canadian heritage, and in Maine, hence their nickname the “Jumping Frenchmen” of Maine. There are two main theories to account for “jumping”. Some consider it a nervous disorder of probable genetic origin; others interpret the condition as a social phenomenon. 

CONTEXT The “Jumping Frenchmen” phenomenon was unique in the context of the environment of isolated logging communities in the north-eastern United States and Canada during the 18th and 19th centuries, and may have originated as a formalised response to “the kicking horse game”. 

The “Jumping Frenchmen” first gained public attention in 1878, when promin­ent New York neurologist George Beard boarded a train to the Moosehead Lake region of Maine to see the phenomenon first-hand and wrote up his observations in an 1880 edition of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. He encountered numerous “jumpers”. One 27-year-old man sat in a chair while holding a knife that he was about to use to cut tobacco. Sudd­enly he was struck hard on the shoulder and ordered to “throw it”. The knife flew from his hand and struck a beam. He again forcefully commanded the man to “throw it”. Beard wrote: “He threw the tobacco and the pipe on the grass at least a rod [16ft 6in/5m] away with the same cry and the same suddenness and explosiveness of movement.” Beard noted that the condition appeared to run in the family, began in childhood, lasted a lifetime, and was rare in women. Beard described the jumpers as physic­ally and mentally strong. He speculated that jumping was caused by temporary degeneration from exposure to their rustic environment, but made no conclus­ions about racial heredity, or a diminished capacity to make rational judgments.

Interest in “jumping” was rekindled in the 1960s and led to a debate as to whether it was a disorder or habit. Reuben Rabinovitch, a Canadian neurologist, wrote in 1965 about his childhood experience with “jumping”. He said that while growing up in Quebec, the exaggerated reflex was common to all of the children in his village. Each spring, lumberjacks came out of the woods and set up camp nearby, sharing their food, music, and entertainment. In this way, Rabinovitch was exposed to “the horse kicking game”, in which children snuck up on their victim and suddenly poked them while making the neighing sound of a horse. The “victim” then jumped up in the air and flailed out while blurting out a horse cry. A vital part of logging camps, the horses were often temperamental, and the lumberjacks could be badly hurt from being kicked when entering a stall. Typically, one lumberjack would sneak into the stall next to his intended victim’s horse and wait. When the victim arrived, the prankster would “reach over and sudd­enly and violently poke his victim and give vent to the loud neighing cry of an enraged horse. This would most often frighten the victim into jumping away from what he thought was his own horse about to kick him.” Dr Rabinovich’s anecdote sugg­ests that social and cultural factors were import­ant in the development of “jumping”.

Dr E Charles Kunkle, a Maine neuro­logist, also emphasised the influence of learned roles in analysing the game reported by Rabinovitch, noting that this game involved subjects who, when start­led, were “expected to produce a formalized response of jumping violently, flailing out, and shouting angrily, often imitating the cry of a kicking horse”. Kunkle felt that this represented a “socially condit­ioned reflex, reinforced by example and by repeated stimulat­ion” and a “part of regional folklore”. As a physician, he was able to talk to and examine 15 jumpers. Kunkle said that jumping seemed to develop and flourish in “relatively closed and unsophisticated communities and in entirely masculine work groups”. 

In 1986, two Canadian neurologists, Marie-Helene Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Sainte-Hilaire, and psychologist Luc Granger, published their study of eight jumpers in the region of Beauce, Quebec, where men traditionally worked as lumber­jacks across the border in Maine. In six of those examined, the symptoms began with their work as lumberjacks. One man, when startled, “would run, swear, throw an object he was holding, strike at bystanders, or obey commands”. He said that one time he “jumped from a height of 10ft (3m) after a sudden command”. The researchers noted that all eight subjects would scream, most would throw an object in their hand or strike out, and half briefly obeyed commands shouted at them immediately after being startled, such as “jump”, “run”, or “dance”.

Is “jumping” nature or nurture? Some scientists believe these symptoms occur in rare individuals suffering from a dysfunct­ion of the human startle response known as hyperstartle, with local culture shaping the response. Others think it is more common and akin to a regional habit. It appears that “jumping” resulted from a set of social conditions that may be related to other examples of hyperstartle. There is probably a genetic predisposit­ion to excessive startle in the general population, but this does not explain the prevalence of “jumping” in isolated Maine commun­ities. While certain medical condit­ions can cause excessive startle, jumpers have no known conditions, suggesting a social and cultural linkage. Rabinovitch suggested that as lumberjacks were confined to the northern woods from autumn to spring, they invented distractions in their isolation and boredom involving the only contacts available, men and horses. The jumping syndrome then grew out of the lumber camps and moved to surrounding towns and vill­ages. “Jumping” appeared to die out with the passing of the traditional logging camp. Tractors replaced horses, lumberjacks became less isolated, and the incidence of “jumping” declined. Experts have noted that even severe “jumpers” lost their exaggerated responses as they were removed from the continual stimuli, which suggests an origin in operant conditioning in a closed community. According to the principles of operant condit­ioning, acts that are reinforced tend to be repeated, while those that are not tend to diminish in frequency. 

COMMENTS: A plausible explanation for “jumping” is that it began as a local idiom that became institutionalised among a select group of people. If logging camp inhabitants lived with the knowledge that they might be surprised by a sudden “poke”, and exaggerated startle was the expected response, then this conditioned social reflex became a normal part of social intercourse.


Laredo, Texas: 1993 

In early March 1993, a newspaper hoax created excitement in Laredo, Texas (population 130,000), after the Morning Times of Laredo published a bogus account of a giant 300lb (136kg) earthworm measuring 79ft (24m) in length. The creature was reportedly found dead, draped across Interstate 35, tying up traffic. 

CONTEXT The incident highlights the influence of the mass media in the information age, and how susceptible society is to journalistic hoaxes. 

According to the story, entomologist Luis Leacky from Laredo State University had located a mucus trail along the Interstate, speculating that the creature had mutated from the nearby Rio Grande. Laredo police and US Border Patrol officers reportedly converged on the scene in rubber gloves, removing the mammoth worm with the help of two cranes and a large truck.

Local police were deluged with hundreds of calls from inquisitive residents as scores of people drove to the scene to glimpse the fictitious worm after the journalist who wrote the story, Carol Huang, wrote: “Because federal environmental guidelines do not outline the proper disposal method for large earthworm carcasses... authorities have left the creature in the Target store parking lot until Monday, when zoologists and EPA officials are expected to arrive from Washington.” Even before the store opened, a Target worker said that curiosity seekers kept asking if the worm carcass was inside the building. 

Huang, who was dismissed from her job the same day, said she wrote the account on her computer as a joke but was flabbergasted to see it appear on page 3A several days later. The news editor who allowed the story to appear, Thomas Sanchez, left his job shortly after the incident, but said the account ran “by accident”.


Ecuador: February 1949 

On the night of 12 February, a radio play based on HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds sparked pandemonium in Ecuador. A reporter on the scene said the broadcast “drove most of the population of Quito into the streets” as panic-stricken residents sought to escape Martian “gas raids”. The drama described strange creat­ures heading toward Quito after landing and destroying the neighbouring commun­ity of Latacunga, 20 miles (32km) to the south. Broadcast in Spanish on Radio Quito, the realistic programme included impersonat­ions of well-known local politicians, journalists, vivid eyewitness descriptions, and the name of the local town of Cotocallao. In Quito, rioting broke out and an enraged mob marched on the building housing the radio station and Ecuador’s leading newspaper, El Comercio. Rampaging mob members blocked the entrance to the building, hurling stones and smashing windows. Some occupants escaped from a rear door; others ran to the third floor. Groups poured gasoline onto the building and hurled flaming wads of paper, sett­ing fires in several locations, trapping dozens inside and forcing them to the third storey. As the flames reached them, the occupants began leaping from windows and forming human chains in a desperate bid to reach safety. Some of the “chains” broke, plunging terrified occupants to their deaths. Twenty people were killed and 15 injured. Soldiers were mobilised to restore order, rolling through the streets in tanks and firing tear gas canisters to break up the demonstrators and allow fire engines through. Damage to the news­paper building was estimated at 50,000. Help was slow to arrive, as most mobile police units had been dispatched to Cotocallao to repel the “Mart­ians”, leaving Quito with a skeleton police and military presence. 

The tragic events began with the sudden interruption of a regular music programme with a special bulletin – “Here is urgent news” – followed by reports of the invading Martians in the form of a cloud, wreaking havoc and destruct­ion while closing in on the city. “The air base of Marisal Sucre has been taken by the enemy and it is being destroyed. There are many dead and wounded,” the announcer said. A voice resembling that of a government minister appealed for calm so the city’s defences could be organised and citizens evacuated in time. Next, the “Mayor” arrived and made a dramatic announcement: “People of Quito, let us defend our city. Our women and children must go out into the surrounding heights to leave the men free for action and combat.” At this point, a priest’s voice could be heard asking for divine forgiveness, followed by a recording of church bells sounding alarms throughout Quito. Positioned atop the city’s tallest building, La Previsora tower, an announcer said he could discern a monster engulfed in plumes of fire and smoke, advancing on Quito from the north. It was at this point, according to a New York Times reporter, that citizens “began fleeing from their homes and runn­ing through the streets. Many were clad only in night clothing.” The panic was not limited to Quito. In some parts of the country, hundreds of terrified Ecuadorians fled into the mountains to avoid capture, believing, according to the radio, that the Martians had already taken over much of the country. 

COMMENTS The rioting, murder and public unrest is the most extreme reaction to a War of the Worlds radio recreation, exceeding even the original 1938 episode.

1 comment:

zoe said...

what a cool book! you should look in there for "penis panic." i swear.