Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cobra Effect

While colonising India, the British government became concerned about venomous cobra snakes causing a public safety issue in Delhi. To remedy this situation, they decided to use the people as cheap labour by offering a bounty if anyone brought in a dead cobra. They thought this would be a cost effective method of reducing the cobra population.

The strategy was initially a success, with a huge number of cobra snakes being killed for the reward. But then, something unexpected happened. People soon caught on that it did not matter where the cobra snakes came from, as long as it was dead. Therefore, they abused this loophole by breeding cobra snakes and then killing them for even more reward. The British government found out about this enterprise eventually and decided to scrap the program.

With no reason to have so many cobra snakes, the breeders decided to release the cobras. Ultimately, Delhi’s cobra population was now larger than when the program was initiated.

This is the cobra effect. Sometimes, an idea may seem novel and efficient, but human psychology can easily turn it on its head and make a problem worse than before.

A similar, but much more macabre, phenomenon happened in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828. At the time, anatomy was a hot new field of research, so human cadavers were in great demand by the universities, doctors and scholars. Due to a Scottish law stating that cadavers could only come from deceased prisoners, orphans and suicide victims, there was very limited supply. Following the economic laws of supply and demand, the price of a human cadaver rose more and more. “Body snatching” became a popular crime, where people exhumed corpses from graveyards and sold them for a profit.

Two men by the names of William Burke and William Hare took things one step further. The two ran a lodging house, where a tenant passed away suddenly, while owing rent. To cover the owed amount, they stole the body before the burial and went to Edinburgh University, where they sold the body to an anatomist named Robert Knox. On hearing that bodies were in great demand and that they would be paid handsomely for any more cadavers, they hatched a sinister plan.

They realised that since their “clients” did not care about where the body came from, they could easily source them through murder. Over the course of a year, they murdered at least 16 people at their lodge and sold their corpses to Robert Knox for dissection. Their choice method of murder was to wrestle down and sit on the victim’s chest to asphyxiate them (now called “burking”), as strangling, choking or using a sharp instrument would reduce the corpse’s value due to the damage.

The pair were eventually caught and sentenced to death. Hare was eventually released, but Burke was hanged and ironically, his skeleton was preserved and exhibited at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

Posted in Science & Nature

Cattle Mutilation

For decades, there have been case reports by farmers who found mysteriously dead cattle with strange, surgically precise wounds. Strangely, these corpses were split open and most of their soft organs (e.g. eyes, tongues, intestine, genitals) had been removed. Even stranger, the corpses were completely drained of blood.

The mysterious, mutilated cattle corpses set off a diverse range of conspiracies of what could have caused such a bizarre phenomena. The most popular theories included: alien experimentation (explaining the surgical precision and lack of blood and organs), sacrifice by cults, vampires and the El Chupacabra (a mythological vampiric beast).

Cattle mutilation became so well-known that during the 70’s, it was properly investigated by the FBI. Of course, no evidence was found of aliens and vampires. As with most supernatural phenomena, cattle mutilation could be logically explained by science.

It was found that the cattle had simply died of natural causes, with no foul play involved (other than the occasional psychopaths attacking cattle). But how could natural death cause the surgical wounds, the missing organs and lack of blood? The answer is obvious when one thinks of what happens to animals after they die.

Scavengers such as foxes and buzzards often feast on decomposing corpses, cleanly removing the soft organs before they rot away (organs are the first to spoil). As scavengers usually bite into the corpses, this does not explain the clean wounds. This phenomena is due to insects also feasting on the corpse – a key part in putrefaction. Insects prefer softer tissue such as organs and ragged wounds, so after the insects are finished, wounds often look extremely clean. Also, putrefaction of tissue leads to massive gas production, causing bloating. Once this reaches a peak, the cattle corpse bursts like a balloon, causing clean tears in the abdomen. Lastly, the flies that were involved in cleaning away organs lay eggs, which hatch into maggots. Maggots immediately eat away the dead flesh and organs, even sucking up the blood that pooled at the bottom of the corpse. All of these factors combined results in what appears to be a mysterious alien bovine autopsy.

Although this may sound crazier than Chupacabras, the theory was actually tested in 1979 by a sheriff who kept receiving complaints about cattle mutilation. He took a dead cow, left it on a field and filmed it for 48 hours. The video clearly showed each step described above, proving that cattle mutilation was simply Mother Nature’s cruel, vicious way of returning a corpse back to the soil.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


European explorers who visited the island of Papua New Guinea in the 1950’s noticed that the Fore tribe suffered from a strange disease. The patient would initially have headaches, joint pains and tremors. They then show signs of weakness and are unable to stand.  The shaking of limbs, a classic symptom of the disease, becomes progressively worse as the disease progresses (“kuru” is a Fore word for “to shake”). In the late stages, the patient shows other neurological symptoms such as uncontrollable laughter and emotional instability. By this point, their tremors and ataxia (lack of coordination) is so severe that they cannot sit without support. They may also suffer from inability to speak or swallow, become unresponsive to their surroundings, develop ulcers on the skin and become incontinent (cannot hold urine/faeces). Within 3 months to 2 years after the symptoms develop, the patient dies.

Kuru is exclusive to the Fore tribe and medical researchers were puzzled by the nature of this disease. It is incurable and takes more than 10 years to develop (from the time of infection). In 1961, Dr Michael Alpers discovered that kuru was spread due to a certain cultural behaviour within the tribe – cannibalism. The Fore tribe had a tradition of eating the corpse of a deceased tribe member at the funeral as to return their life force back in to the tribe. Of course, this involved the consumption of the brain as well.

It was discovered that kuru is caused by a strange pathogen known as a prion. Prions are misfolded pieces of proteins that cause disease by converting the body’s proteins into “wrong” proteins. These new prions then convert more proteins until the body is filled with deposits of such proteins. Prions mainly affect the brain and cause spongiform encephalopathy – meaning that the brain becomes sponge-like and full of holes. The most famous example of prion disease is mad cow disease.

After colonists took over Papua New Guinea, cannibalism was banned and kuru faded away. This was proof that cannibalism was what spread the prion from one victim to another. It was also discovered that women and children had a higher incidence as men would have priority in choosing what part of the body to eat first. As with lions, the men always chose muscles first and women and children would often finish the organs such as the brain. As prions are indestructible, it cannot be treated, cured or prevented (other than not eating brains). It also means that it transmits perfectly from a dead patient to an unsuspecting victim who is feasting on the infected brain.

A disease that causes the brain to disintegrate, causing limb shaking and inability to walk, spread by the ingestion of brains. Is it possible that zombies are caused by eating brains and not the other way around?


Posted in Psychology & Medicine


When a person dies, they leave a body. How does the body change after death? There are four main post-mortem events: algor mortis, livor mortis, rigor mortis and putrefaction. Forensic pathologists use these phenomena and an autopsy to determine the time of death, hearing out the final words of the deceased.

With death, all physiological functions cease. Therefore, the body produces no more heat and begins to cool (algor mortis), evident when touching the corpse. The rectal temperature is measured for an accurate reading. 
As blood is no longer flowing, red blood cells sink due to gravity. They sink to capillaries in the lowest point of the body, causing a purple-red rash on the skin of the area. This is known as livor mortis, or lividity. It appears first about 1~2 hours after death, and worsens with time. On the other hand, the other areas of skin become pale due to the lack of blood.
2~3 hours post-mortem, one can observe the jaw stiffening. This is called rigor mortis. It is caused as ATP is needed for muscle relaxation, and ATP production stops with death. This leads to the muscle becoming rigid, fixating on the position at the time of death. About 6~7 hours later, rigor mortis spreads to the entire body and completely fixes the body 10~12 hours later. After about 72 hours, rigor mortis dissipates and the corpse is limp again.

Putrefaction is the process of microbes decomposing the body – more commonly called rotting. After death, cells die from the lack of energy and are broken down by enzymes. As the immune system also ceases function, microbes easily infiltrate the body and begin converting organic material into inorganic material.
Microbes release gases as it digests the corpse, which collects and causes bloating. The main gases are carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulphide, producing the rotting smell, attracting insects to the corpse.
The key insects studied by pathologists are arthropods and flies. They can estimate the time of death from observing what species are present on the body, and at what stage of the life cycle they are at. For example, 0.5~1 hour post-mortem, flies arrive and lay eggs, which hatch into maggots at 10~24 hours, which becomes cocoons after 8~12 days, which hatch into adult flies at 12~14 days post-mortem.

There is no dignity in death. The rich, the powerful, the kind, the happy – everyone rots away by nature after they die.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Locked-in Syndrome

Imagine that one day, you wake up, but then no matter how hard you try, you cannot move a single part of your body. Trying to roll out of bed, lifting your arm, or even moving your fingers is impossible. You think it is merely sleep paralysis, but you soon realise that it is not as simple as that, or even a dream. No voice escapes your throat.
The only thing you can do is blink and roll your eyes around.

Welcome to the world of Locked-in Syndrome (LIS), a neurological condition where your brain has no connection to all the muscles in your body. The actual symptoms list is: quadriplegia, paralysis of most facial muscles, inability to speak, with complete preservation of cognitive function (sometimes sensation too). In simpler terms, a LIS patient’s mind is essentially trapped inside an unmoving body, with only the senses and eyes to interact with the real world.

It is caused by damage to a part of the brainstem known as the pons, which not only carries motor nerve fibres to the spinal cord (where it then carries on to supply the muscles of the body), but is also the origin of some cranial nerves. This explains the symptoms of paralysis, even the face (e.g. damage to the facial nerve, or CN VII). More specifically, the damage only affects the pons and not the brain itself, meaning that cognition (thinking), intelligence, memory and sensation (if the fibres are spared in the brainstem) are completely functional.
This can be caused by trauma, stroke, drugs, degenerative neuropathies, or anything that can selectively damage the pons.

Due to the nature of the disease, there are no treatment or cures for LIS. Prognosis is very poor and most patients are not expected to regain motor control. This can be very distressing news to LIS patients, as it essentially means that they will be trapped in a motionless, voiceless body for the rest of their natural lives, which could feel like eternity. Although over 90% of the patients die within 4 months, some continue to survive for much longer periods. To improve their quality of life, methods have been developed to allow the patients to communicate, such as Morse code (by blinking eyes) or alphabet boards. Technology is allowing even better options such as eye-tracking and brain-computer interfaces, where a machine tries to interpret a pattern in brain activity, trying to relate a certain action to a pattern. This may allow simple communication such as yes/no answers.

Because of the almost complete paralysis, even professional neurologists often miss this condition, diagnosing the patient as being in a vegetative state.
What would it be like to be trapped in your own body – or “living corpse” as described by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo – and not be able to tell others that you were still in there?