6 Superstitions With Surprisingly Scientific Explanations
Don't get too excited; the face of a saint in your Cinnabon is probably just ooze from a frosting packet. It's scientists and historians' jobs to shed some light on the superstitions of the world, a set quota for ruined cherished beliefs.
Well, that's the idea anyway ...
The Bermuda Triangle Is Ocean Farts
Lloyd's of London doesn't believe in the Bermuda Triangle. However, if geologists have anything to say, inexplicable ship disappearance might just be real and mappable, hinging upon a scientific principle that sounds like it came from a child bully.
Methane produced in undersea vents rises to the surface, an exceedingly-common occurrence. The abrupt presence of a lighter-than-air (and water) gas causes any ship to capsize in the plume of methane. As the weight of the vessel stays the same, the water the ship is floating upon is rapidly displaced by gas, potentially explaining many a missing boat:
Flatulent blue whales have yet to be ruled out as culprits.
A discharge of gas could drop the bottom out from under the boat that passes over such a vent at precisely the right time, neatly dispensing with any fleeing survivors that jumped overboard as well. If not outright explaining the Bermuda Triangle, bursts of gas erupting from the earth's crust could just as easily explain some other highly dangerous naval anomalies such as the notorious "Witch's Hole" in the North Sea. With a name like Witch's Hole, what did we really expect but noxious gas?
Virgin Births Have A Non-Jesus Explanation
Spontaneous human reproduction is a supernatural event most commonly linked to, but not limited to, the virginal conception of Jesus Christ. This common trope has captivated the human mind for millennia and still manages to capture a few hundred American women's minds every year, presumably inspired by Mary's tale.
They'd be in good company because immaculate conceptions happen all the time in lizards, sharks, turkeys, pigeons, and possibly mammals. Though seemingly genetically impossible, a male child may be produced via an exceedingly rare but scientifically documented fluke of nature rooted in a chromosomal abnormality. Human females born as hermaphroditic chimeras are potentially capable of self-fertilizing their own eggs in complete separation from a mate.
All that's required is an operational set of testes and ovaries, rare but hardly undocumented in human beings. Still, maybe hold off on slipping the "Blessed-Mary-was-a-hermaphrodite" conversation starter into dinner chatter at Nana's house until we have some really hard data on human subjects.
Voodoo Hexes Can Be Pinned On Placebos
Unless you have +5 to being a dick, casting spells on an enemy is typically a last resort solution to one's problems. But with a little help from freshman psychology, anyone can kill that jerk who keeps stealing their parking spot (and, no, we aren't condoning that, as tempting as it sounds).
One small caveat: It has the be the right kind of jerk. Preferably one susceptible to fear and panic, who lives in a culture that takes such taboos seriously and allows a lot of free time to carve and nail pins into a wooden effigy.
Think of it as a very morbid example of the placebo effect in action. In the 1940s, an anthropologist hinted that the idea of a voodoo curse -- dubbed a psychosomatic death by those in the scientific field -- is very real. The dread of transgressing a spiritual boundary possibly fatal.
When the thought is implanted in a person's mind that they are going to die, stress levels in the body rise as if they were facing a real, tangible threat of danger. You only need to think you have a lethal form of cancer or severe radiation poisoning to "kill yourself" by the power of conviction. Unless you're a defecting Russian secret agent, then it's the polonium killing you.
Hallucinations Throw A Monkey Wrench In The Existence Of Foo Fighters
If fighting Nazi jetfighters weren't bad enough, Allied airmen also had to worry about unidentified lights buzzing them at Mach speed. Thus, the legend of the "foo fighters" was born. Half a century before the History Channel's Ancient Aliens meme, we were already attributing every inexplicable event to busy-body cosmic sightseers.
The WWII UFO craze and a lot of aviation-related visual anomalies can be chipped away by a rather mundane psychological process. The effect is generated by prolonged visual (or any sensory) monotony, which would explain why these extraterrestrial crafts left no damage, why aviation experts ruled out all known German technology, and why no radar could detect it. They weren't crazy.
The hallucination theory was initially disregarded because the pilots were not affected by combat fatigue at the time, but psych studies in the '50s showed pilots particularly vulnerable. There's even a cool name for it, "prisoner's cinema." Left to fester in darkness or a stark white, featureless landscape of sun-reflecting clouds, even the most cynical individuals demonstrated hallucinations.
Tellingly, the blind "see" hallucinations too. According to a Ganzfeld effect principle, the mind will substitute its own invented imagery when subjected to no external stimuli, as the human brain is too fragile and hyperactive to be left idle too long. Which kind of has us surprised that foo fighter sightings didn't make a comeback last year ...
Magic Healing Blood Baths Were Close To Something
Outside of vampires, Hot Topic customers, and Elizabeth Bathory cosplayers, a blood fetish is totally bunk. Right?
Don't look now, but Ms. Bathory may (or may not) have been on to something. Had she injected the blood into her body instead of taking a bath in it, mingling her decrepit, middle-aged blood with her victims' fresh plasma, it is possible that the new blood may have had some restorative properties. Scientific curiosity set aside, it would be nice if Madam Bathory at least asked for volunteers before raiding the countryside for serfs.
Anti-aging studies on mice indicate young bloodshot into older mice improves their physical and mental functioning. There is no conclusive proof to show the same benefits in humans yet (and that's not to mention a ton of other issues). Still, millionaires are investing in the idea, and at least one influential adherent with billions of dollars eagerly waiting to (figuratively) bathe in the life-giving essence of teenage virgins. Address, viewing habits, and 24-hour-a-day GPS coordinates aren't enough; now Silicon Valley wants your blood type too.
Bloody Mary Is A Sober LSD Trip
Due to a rather scary conjuring trick of your brain, the ghost-in-the-mirror illusion is more real than we care to admit. We shouldn't be shocked; this kind of illusion has been well-documented for dozens of generations.
The Troxler Effect takes place in our noggin when we stare at a single object too long. Whether Twin Peaks or Candyman, the man-in-the-mirror gag has legit science to support the numerous folklore.
All it takes is staring at a fixed point. The background begins to fade out of our vision entirely, generating a state of tunnel vision.
A corollary effect often includes the presence of images we are keen to see as meaningful patterns, typically interpreted as faces. Nowhere are we so transfixed on one image as when locked in a gaze with our own reflections. Psychologists, studying the Troxler phenomenon and excessive staring, compare the accompanying hallucinations to an LSD trip. 10 minutes in a poorly-lit room, and you'll probably see some weird stuff too. Just a heads up before you stain your underwear this Halloween.
Top image: George Rudy, Aleksei Isachenko/Shutterstock