Friday, March 20, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #102: Why Do We Feel the Urge to Jump Off High Places?

A couple of days ago I said to the boyfriend, “Do you ever find yourself standing in a high place, and you feel the urge to jump off?”

He replied, “Ahhhh, stahhhp,” because he totally had. So I decided to look into it, and by “look into it,” of course I meant Google it.

Sigmund Freud explained urges like this one by theorizing that people have something called a “death drive” created by the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.”

The theory grew out of Freud’s efforts to understand the compulsion he saw in traumatized patients to revisit the traumatic experiences, such as in the case of World War I veterans struggling with what was most likely post-traumatic stress disorder. He postulated that the death drive must be what causes some people to continue re-experiencing traumatic events, whether through flashbacks, dreams, obsessive thoughts, or recreating the events over and over in their lives, even though the very nature of these traumatic events would go against the pleasure principle, his other theory that the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain is a driving psychological force. According to Freud, some people might commit suicide by jumping off a high place even though they’re not suicidal – because they looked over that cliff and just happened to succumb to the death drive.

That theory remains controversial, for some reason.

But in 2012, some researchers from Florida State University decided to investigate what they’ve dubbed the “high place phenomenon,” after some discussion in a lab meeting revealed that an unspecified number of them had felt the urge to fling themselves to their deaths. According to the NBC News column The Body Odd, the researchers found “no mention of it” in the psychological literature, so they decided to look into it, and when I say “look into it,” I mean perform legitimate, non-Google-related research.

Psychology doctoral student Jennifer Hames and team spoke to 431 college students and asked them whether they’d ever felt the urge to jump from a high place and also, if they’d ever thought of suicide. The researchers evaluated the students for symptoms of depression. They also assessed the students’ sensitivity to the symptoms of anxiety – people who feel the physical effects of anxiety more strongly are also more likely to perceive danger in anxiety-producing situations, like peering off the top of a cliff.

As seen here.
Image by Complexsimplellc from Wikipedia.

Thirty percent of the students said they’d experienced the urge to throw themselves to their deaths at least once. Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who had experienced thoughts of suicide were somewhat more likely to admit to having wanted to jump off a bridge. However, more than half of those who said they’d never felt suicidal had also experienced the urge to dive headfirst into the sweet embrace of death. So, if you’ve ever climbed to the top of a tall, medieval tower only to ponder what it would be like to hurl yourself onto the beautiful courtyard below, don’t worry – you’re perfectly normal.

The researchers hypothesize that when you feel the urge to jump from a stunning viewpoint, you’re really experiencing cognitive dissonance. You’re probably sensitive to the physiological symptoms of anxiety – a rapid heart rate, mild dizziness, and shortness of breath – and your brain will decide that you must be in danger. But at the same time, you know that you can’t fall – you’re not close enough to the edge, the place where you’re standing is sturdy, or there’s a six-foot-high barrier to discourage suicides, like there is around the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Pictured: The third most common type of suicide in France, apparently.
Image by Benh Lieu Song from Wikipedia

So, there you are, getting all anxious, even though you’re not in danger. Your brain puts this all together and decides that you must want to jump. The urge to throw yourself onto the sharp, craggy shoreline so very, very far below isn’t a self-destructive urge – it’s a misinterpretation of the survival instinct. If you’ve worried that your urge to go splat on the street like a gruesome tomato means that you secretly want to die, fear not – in fact, it’s the opposite.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #101: Why Do We Ignore Scientific Fact?

If you’ve never argued with a pigheaded, obstinate fool who refuses to acknowledge scientific consensus, you’ve never really lived. Or maybe, like me, you know somebody who was convinced the apocalypse was going to happen, and then when it didn’t happen, postponed it. No? Just me?

I thought of that because one of the articles I read about this phenomenon cited the Seekers, a cult of which I have written before, as an extreme example of folks clinging to their beliefs in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary. In case you forgot, they believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed by flooding on December 21, 1954, but that an alien spaceship was going to rapture them and save them from the end of days. When the apocalypse didn’t happen and the aliens didn’t come, the cult members rationalized that they had saved the world at the last minute through the strength of their belief, and I was like “Wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.”

So why, and how, do these people ignore and/or rationalize hard evidence? Like everything else in life, it has to do with feelings. When we first encounter new information or a new conspiracy theory, our emotional response to learning that officials on all levels of government have been replaced with lizards wearing human suits occurs so quickly that we don’t have time to think about it rationally. We’ll decide whether or not Michelle Obama is a reptilian based on how we feel about it, and then later, we’ll think of what sounds like a rational argument to support it. If it’s an argument that no one can really prove or disprove, like regarding the existence of God, for example, so much the better.

Now, imagine someone comes along and says, “You’re being ridiculous, reptilians aren’t real, etc.”

“Well, even if they aren’t real, it can still be my opinion that they’re real, even if they’re not,” you say.

“Your opinion is wrong.”

“Opinions can’t be wrong."

This is what happens inside my head every time someone says opinions can't be wrong.

That happens because, according to Arthur Lupia at the University of Michigan, we react to information that feels emotionally threatening as if it were a real threat, like a tiger or something. Of course, it’s not a tiger, but we retreat from it anyway, even if that means shutting down the conversation.

Of course, verifiable scientific facts are different, right? Of course they aren’t, go crawl back under your rock. People, unsurprisingly, decide whether or not a scientist is credible based on how much they agree with what he or she has to say. FFS. Since scientists never agree with each other (Two percent of scientists don’t believe in evolution. Who are these people?), it’s easy enough for people on both sides of an issue to decide that their scientists are right and the other side’s scientists are wrong and wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.

So that’s why 88 percent of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, but only 37 percent of the public does, for example. Something about GMOs threatens people, for some reason, and some, but not all, are using the opinions of the other 12 percent of scientists to back them up.

That’s not to say that people might not be compelled to change their minds about things. It makes sense that people who don’t have a particularly strong emotional attachment to an issue are more amenable to changing their minds about it. Some folks will also relinquish their most cherished beliefs to ally themselves with other members of their social group. Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan recently published research that suggests that thinking about a time when you felt good about yourself can help you come to a more accurate understanding of a loaded political issue. So, remember that the next time you get into an argument.

Put down the stick and think about the time you won the third-grade science fair.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fun Friday Facts THE HUNDRETH: Funny Breeds of Chickens

This is my ONE HUNDRETH Fun Friday Facts post, and I’ve been stressing out about that because I didn’t know what to write about, so I typed “funny breeds of” into Google and it helpfully supplied me with these chickens. I’m sure I remember that some of you keep chickens, so that’s a bonus. Also, this might be an appropriate time to warn you that there are nude animal photos up ahead.

The Onagadori chicken appears to be an honest to goodness, real live thing, despite my appalled insistence that no chicken could possibly grow tail feathers that are 12 to 27 feet long. Even as I write this, I’m still a little skeptical, because although there are some images on the Internet of these alleged chickens sporting these alleged 30-foot tail feathers, you can’t believe everything you read online, and I should know. The Wikipedia page for this breed shows a chicken with tail feathers that are admittedly rather long, but not abnormally so. 

Image by Tsunade13 from Wikipedia.

This chicken grows such long feathers because it takes them at least three years to molt. 
They inherit this trait from the Green Junglefowl, a paternal ancestor.

A great uncle or something.
Image by Stavenn from Wikipedia.

Like it’s fellow French breed, La Fleche, the Crevecoeur has weird little red horns.

Look at it, it's chicken Satan.
Image by Blaise.desaintjouin from Wikipedia.

This chicken is one of the oldest types bred in France, and it may be an ancestor of La Fleche. It comes from the town of Crevecoeur in Normandy, to the surprise of absolutely no one. They are mostly bred for show, though it was originally developed for its plump, juicy flesh. Its name means “broken heart.”

The Naked Neck is also know as the Turken because it looks like a cross between a chicken and a turkey. In fact, it is a cross between oh god and why.

Image by Demontux from Wikipedia.

The breed originates in Transylvania, so it’s also known as the Transylvania Naked Neck, a name that is not improved by the dubious addition of the word “Transylvania.” Nothing good for necks has ever come out of Transylvania. Wikipedia notes that the naked neck gene is dominant and “fairlyeasy to introduce into other breeds.” Maybe they should cross it with the long-tail one. That would be fun.

Now for a prettier one to cleanse your eyes. The Sultan chicken is a Turkish breed that knows it looks fabulous:

Image by Eunice from Wikipedia.

These birds were, again to the surprise of absolutely no one, once bred for the gardens of the sultanate. They have, as you can see, “a great deal of decorative plumage.” The male weighs just six pounds (2.7 kilos), while the female weighs about four pounds (2 kilos). The bantam version weighs an adorable 22 ounces (625 g).

The Araucana chicken comes from Chile, lays blue eggs, and won the 1987 World Beard and Mustache Championships:

The blue eggs have caused some to speculate that the bird was developed from pre-Columbian breeds. These breeds would have come from Polynesia, and would establish proof of contact between pre-Columbian South Americans and seafaring Polynesians. Research into the matter has been inconclusive. The Araucana chicken has passed its blue egg-laying abilities on to other breeds, including the Ameraucana (ha ha, it’s the American version) and the Cream Legbar. A mongrel chicken that lays blue eggs is known as an Easter Egger, and gets its blue-egg-laying abilities from the Araucana too.

The eggs aren't really that blue though.