Posted in Science & Nature

Death Pose

When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.

For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.

It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.

It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Agonal Breathing

When a person is on the verge of death, they may show a very strange pattern of breathing. They will begin gasping for breath, take deep laboured breaths, begin to make strange noises and possibly have some muscle jerks (which may look like a seizure). The breathing makes it look as if the person is taking a deep breath and sighing, while gasping every now and then irregularly. This is called agonal breathing and it is most likely caused by an oxygen-starved brain sending weak signals to try kick up the respiratory drive for more oxygen.

Agonal breathing is not uncommon in cases of cardiac arrest. It is important to note that agonal breathing is not an efficient form of breathing and thus it cannot be said that the victim is “breathing” when this occurs. Because it looks like the patient is taking deep breaths, bystanders may be fooled into thinking that they have been resuscitated and have begun breathing again. But this is not the case and the patient is still clinically dead. Ergo, one should not stop CPR even if the patient begins taking deep breaths and sighs. The presence of agonal breaths usually indicate a better outcome for the patient.

(Link to video examples of what agonal breathing looks like: http://emsbasics.com/2011/04/21/what-it-looks-like-agonal-respirations/)

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Lazarus

In the New Testament of the Bible, there is a scene where Jesus resurrects a man by the name of Lazarus back four days after his death. This “miracle” is of course a fictitious event, but nonetheless, the name Lazarus has come to symbolise resurrection after death. For example, there are two actual medical conditions named after Lazarus, both related to death.

The first is called Lazarus phenomenon, where a person who is declared to be clinically dead spontaneously returns to life. This is an extremely rare event that has only been recorded in about 30 cases. In most of these cases, the patients had suffered a cardiac arrest, with all attempts at resuscitation (e.g. CPR, adrenaline) had failed. Sometime after the person was declared clinically dead (usually around 5~10 minutes), the person’s circulatory system would suddenly start on its own and the person would be “resurrected” (quite literally). In one case, a 61 year-old woman was declared officially dead after her heart stopped and her vitals did not return after continuous resuscitation. At the morgue, however, she was found to have a pulse and breathing on her own. She later sued the hospital for the neurological and physical injury caused by oxygen deprivation during her death. There is even a case report of a patient who returned to life two and a half hours after dying (although he died again 3 weeks later).

Of course, the Lazarus phenomenon is not a miracle. In most cases, it is hypothesised that when resuscitation is attempted then stopped, there is a rare chance of the relieving of pressure causing blood to fill the heart, causing a sudden expansion and kickstarting the electrical circuit. Other factors that may influence this is hyperkalaemia resulting from ischaemia and high doses of adrenaline given to the patient during resuscitation having a delayed effect.
Because of this rare “complication” of death, doctors are advised to observe the patient for about 10 minutes after declaring them dead. Just in case.

The second is called Lazarus sign and it occurs not in dead patients, but brain-dead patients. Brain-dead patients are immobile as their higher functions such as cognition and motor functions are destroyed. However, there are rare cases where the brainstem is somehow stimulated, triggering a reflex arc from the spinal cord. This reflex is seen as the patient suddenly raising their arms and dropping them on their chest in a crossed position, much like Egyptian mummies. As the spinal cord is not usually damaged in brain-dead patients, this reflex arc is possible, similar to a knee jerk reflex. The Lazarus sign should not be misinterpreted as a sign that a brain-dead patient is conscious, as it is an involuntary movement. However, it has been mistaken for the resuscitation of a patient, or in some cases, as a miracle.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

How To Feign Death

Usually to check if a person is dead, one checks their pulse and breathing. If you want to fake your death properly, you must be able to stop both of these. You can easily hold your breath, but how can one stop their own heart? The answer lies in a ball.

If you wedge a tennis ball, squash ball, baseball or any small but firm ball in each of your armpits and squeeze tightly, the pulse at your wrist will disappear. This pulse is the radial pulse, and the radial artery is a branch of the brachial artery further up the arm. If a ball is squeezed in the armpit, it compresses the brachial artery, stopping the blood flow to the radial artery and obliterating the radial pulse. Most people who are not medical professionals tend to use the radial pulse for taking a pulse, so this method can be used to make it look like you do not have a pulse. But as this trick only causes the radial pulse to disappear, it is ineffective if the other person takes the pulse at another site such as the carotid artery or femoral artery. However, if you can control the situation and the person checking to see if you are alive is not a doctor or nurse, then it is quite a useful trick to use.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Hypothermia

A person’s body temperature is always maintained between 36.5~37.5°C. This is because enzymes, which are crucial in all physiological reactions in the body, work most efficiently at this temperature. As physiology is essentially a series of chemical reactions, it is heavily dependent on temperature. If the temperature falls, chemical reactions occur slower and vice versa. When body temperature falls below 35°C, metabolism becomes too slow and it poses a risk to the person’s health. This is known as hypothermia.

How does hypothermia affect the body? Hypothermia is categorised into three classes depending on the severity.

  • Mild hypothermia (32~35°C) leads to the slowing of bodily functions, tremors and difficulty in walking. The patient’s speech is impeded and other neurological symptoms such as decreased judgement skills and confusion start to appear. Also, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate rise.
  • Moderate hypothermia (28~32°C) causes paralysis of muscles and extreme fatigue (they may complain of being sleepy). As blood (carrying heat) is rerouted to major organs, the skin (especially lips and extremities) become white or purple and very cold. Neurological symptoms worsen with amnesia, memory loss, severe confusion and delusion beginning to show. As sustained hypothermia leads to the tremors stopping, one should not take the lack of tremors as a good sign. Heart rate becomes irregular and arrhythmia may occur.
  • Severe hypothermia (20~28°C) leads to chemical reactions becoming so slowed that physiological functions that support life decline dramatically. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all lower to dangerous levels and the heart and lungs may stop functioning. As the patient’s major organs begin to shut down, they enter a state of unconsciousness and eventually, clinical death.

As you can see, hypothermia is a highly dangerous situation that can kill. There are some other fascinating facts about hypothermia.

20~50% of hypothermia death cases are associated with paradoxical undressing. This is a strange phenomenon where the person begins to take off their clothes due to confusion and a lack of judgement from the hypothermia. One theory suggests it is related to the cold damaging the hypothalamus (which controls body temperature), causing the brain to think that the body temperature is rising. Whatever the reason, it is extremely dangerous as it worsens the hypothermia.

As explained above, severe hypothermia leads to death. But interestingly, hypothermia also protects organs. This is why organs for transplanting are transported in ice. Similarly, there are examples of people who “died” from hypothermia recovering with no brain damage. Because of this, medical professionals traditionally say: “they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead”. In fact, if there is something wrong with the patient’s circulation and there is risk of damage to their organs (such as in surgery), sometimes the patient’s body temperature is forced down with ice water injections and cooling blankets, known as protective hypothermia.

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Posted in History & Literature

Spy

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu dealt with the topic of spies extensively in his book The Art of War. He believed that information and intelligence determined the flow of war and spies were a vital element. Sun Tzu talked about five types of spies.

  • Local spies (鄕間): Use the enemy’s people
  • Internal spies (內間): Use the enemy’s officials (like a resident spy)
  • Double spies (反間): Use the enemy’s spies to feed the wrong information
  • Dead spies (死間): Has a possibility of betraying, so use them to spread misinformation, leading the enemy to persecute them
  • Living spies (生間): Use agents that can gather intelligence and return safely back to report their findings, the most useful type of spies

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Zombie

Clairvius Narcisse died in Haiti on May 2, 1962. In 1980, he returned to his hometown. Alive.
How did a man who was dead and buried come back to life?

According to Clairvius, he was cursed by a bokor (sorcerer) to become a zombie but returned home after the curse was undone. The sorcerer had enslaved him in a sugar plantation for 16 years and many others were working as “zombie slaves” until they revolted, killed the sorcerer then ran away.
Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis studied and investigated this case extensively. According to his research, most “zombies” were placed in suspended animation to fake death and were then (often after being buried) put under psychosis by the sorcerer. Many Haitians believe in the ancient African religion of voodoo, where one legend says that when a sorcerer curses a person, they are revived after death to become the sorcerer’s slave. Thus, Haitians strongly believe in the legend of zombies. In reality, the sorcerer was using drugs to zombify people and Davis used his expert knowledge in botany to deduce what the chemicals were.

The so-called zombie powder was a combination of tetrodotoxin (TTX, blowfish poison) and datura (from the poisonous plant Datura stramonium). The TTX simulates death due to its paralytic effect and datura is a powerful hallucinogenic that causes the person to confuse reality and fantasy (dissociation). Also, it may cause memory loss which allows the sorcerer to easily manipulate the victim. Long-term maintenance of the datura dose could allow the sorcerer to enslave someone for a long period of time. However, the zombification is not the same as perfect mind control and more like a strong hallucination or hypnosis (as seen as the above mentioned revolution).

As it involves the handling of poisons, only an experienced sorcerer could give the right mixture of doses while avoiding the lethal dose. Although science has advanced greatly, there are still many things we can learn from magic and sorcery. The reason being, magic and sorcery are simply undiscovered science.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Schroedinger’s Cat

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger, a famous quantum physicist, devised a thought experiment in an attempt to explain the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics (which posits that the state of every particle can be described by a wave function, and that the process of calculating its position determines it). It goes as follows:

A cat is placed in a box with a sealed vial of poison that is set to release when a radioactive material has decayed. As the time taken for the decay varies (roughly 50:50 chance), it is unknown whether the vial has broken after an hour if the box is closed. This also means that it is unknown whether the cat is alive or dead. To solidify this variable reality, one must open the box, whence the cat is determined as either alive or dead. 

This experiment may be hard to understand for a non-physicist, but it is still a fascinating thought experiment. This is because there are many times in life where one cannot know the outcome of something unless action is taken. Ergo, if you want a state of uncertainty, do nothing; if you want a set answer, take action. This is a particularly useful answer to someone questioning whether they should start a relationship with someone and are unsure of the outcome.

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