This is not going to be one of my ‘explore a fascinating phenomenon’ posts. Nor will it delve into the amazing history and evolution of our species. No. Instead, this post will be more of a rant and has the potential to become both offensive and insulting, although it will not be my intention. After all, I hate causing offence.
On how to begin
Ok, now with the warning done, I’m sort of at loss as to how to begin. I would have liked to tell you all how liberal I am, and how much I appreciate the issues plaguing anyone who’s not white, rich, straight and male, but how can I do that without sounding like I’m making and excuse? Or – even worse – sounding like one of those racists who always start each statement with “I’m not a racist, but..”?*
So I shan’t make any such statement. If you know me, you’ll probably know my beliefs and opinions; goodness knows I’m stating them often enough. If you don’t, then you’ll make up your own mind and nothing I’ll say will change it anyway.
Civilising the human race
In the old days, we had little regard for the less fortunate minorities. Derogatory labels and prejudice was common and viewed not only as the norm but as the way is should be. After all, if everyone is saying and doing the same things, it must be ok, right?
But as our society progressed and evolved, we became more and more aware of how what we said and did was perceived by others. This led to the replacement of a lot of terms and labels to less offensive or at least less negatively charged versions. We called this new concept Political Correctness and it was a tool we could use to make sure that our society got rid of racism, sexism and any other offensive -isms. It was a Good Thing.
So now that we had civilised ourselves and made ourselves aware of how our actions affected others, all should be well, right?
Well.. The problem with revising your behaviour is that once you start it’s very difficult to stop. And how far should we go before we’ve gone too far? There was a story in the Swedish press the other week about a school that had forbidden the use of gingerbread men – both as a condiment and as a character in the traditional Lucia procession - due to potential racist undertones. The kids that had their heart set on dressing up as gingerbread men were disappointed and the Swedish press had a field day with political correctness gone mad. Eventually, the decision was revoked, and the kids could dress up in brown clothes without being accused of racism.
Stories like this fuels the latent xenophobia that seem to be flourishing in most western countries. It seems to be more prominent in countries with high level of immigration like USA, Germany, France, UK, Denmark and Sweden, but it’s present almost everywhere. And with this in mind there’s perhaps no surprise to find that political correctness is viewed as a tool by which the government is trying to destroy the last remnants of the nations cultural history.
But perhaps there’s more to this than just racist/cultural paranoia? Perhaps political correctness is in fact hiding something darker?
Let me exemplify: In many western countries we have stopped using the term Christmas holiday and replaced it with Winter holiday or something similarly neutral. This is arguably in order to make people of non-Christian beliefs feel more comfortable. But if I were to travel to Malaysia or China and even settle down and live there, would I really be all that offended and insulted if they didn’t change the term Ramadan to Diet month? Or Zhonghe to Pancake day? No. I would want to respect their culture and traditions, and as long as they didn’t have a ‘Hate all westerners’ holiday in which they’d burn effigies of my people and ridiculed my culture, I would only see their cultural history and traditions as enriching and fascinating.
So why are we paranoid about our own cultural rituals? Why do we feel the need to rename and water down our main yearly holiday? Who do we think we’re offending by calling it Christmas? Why would people from other cultures feel oppressed by the tradition of a Secret Santa**?
Aren’t we in fact just showing that we think we’re so much better than other people? That we have no issues with handling other cultures, but the poor sods that come to our countries do? That they are somehow less capable of accepting the fact that we have our own traditions? If so, isn’t that really just blatant arrogance on our part?
And in any case, it’s been a long time since the main message of Christmas was a religious one. Sorry all religious people, but Christmas is the holiday of spending and giving and receiving gifts. And eating too much food, obviously.
So I won’t be inclined to start calling my Christmas break Winter holiday. Or Secret santa Secret snowman. I will call it as I see it - it’s ‘Christmas’, dammit.
* For the record, I’m not a racist. At least not consciously. We might all be a bit racist subconsciously, but I’ve covered that topic in my post The economy of racism. (Side note: don’t you also find the phrase “I’m not a racist, but..” really annoying? And it’s completely invalidates the point the person is trying to make, which can be proved by replacing the word ‘racist’. You don’t hear many people say “I’m not a pedophile, but..”
** I don’t like Secret santa, but that’s not because I’m an atheist. It’s because I’m really lousy at buying presents. Also, I’m antisocial and don’t appreciate enforced social interactions.
Ok, it’s been a long time coming, but here’s finally my post on chocolate. And, to no surprise perhaps, I will approach the subject scientifically.
But before we dwell into the amazing scientific properties of chocolate (and there are many, believe me), let me just state – for the record, if you like – that I love chocolate. I just adore it. I will try to not let that affect my judgement when writing this post. I will fail.
First, let us get some myths out-of-the-way: chocolate will induce headaches and migraines. It also ruins our complexion by giving us numerous spots. In addition, it affects our sex drive by acting like an aphrodisiac. It will fill us up with the ’love drug’, causing the consumer to become ‘loved up’.
None of the above is true. Chocolate, instead of being the cause of migraine attacks, actually reduces them. And no links have been found between chocolate and bad skin. If anything, sugar seems to be the bad guy there, so by eating dark chocolate you will reduce the risk of sugar-induced spots. And no, chocolate doesn’t act like an aphrodisiac or love-drug. Even though it contains some small amounts of beta-phenethylamine, it will be metabolised into inactive compounds before reaching our blood stream in anything but trace amounts. Sorry.
The chemistry of chocolate
Chocolate, as in the ground-up mass of the fermented and roasted seeds from the cacao plant, contains no sugar. It does however contain a delicious cocktail of organic compounds that have a range of pleasant effects on us.
First we have the previously mentioned ’love drug’ beta-phenethylamine. Unfortunately it’s not present in high enough concentrations to give any effect, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.
Then we have both tryptophan and serotonin. Tryptophan is known as the ‘drowsiness drug’, and affect our sleepiness. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter directly manufactured in the body from tryptophan. Drugs that raise the level of serotonin are used to treat depression, anxiety disorders and social phobias, so if we were to get high enough concentrations of serotonin and tryptophan from chocolate, it should work as an anti-depressant, even though this has yet to be verified.
Add to that theobromine, which is known as a blood pressure reducing drug. It is also known to prevent coughing better than codeine. In addition, Theobromine acts as a mild stimulant, and should work particular well together with coffee.
Better than love?
It’s been shown that letting chocolate melt in your mouth gives you a higher levels of pleasure than kissing. The after effects also lasts for several minutes longer.
So perhaps there’s something to this aphrodisiac myth after all? Is there something in chocolate we don’t know about yet?
Well, no. That’s unlikely. More likely is the possibility that the act of eating chocolate in itself is responsible for the pleasure. The taste and texture in combination could be responsible for the prolonged effect.
So the custom of offering a box of chocolate to the object of your affection is probably just what it looks like: giving something people seem to like to the one that you like. Can’t hurt, can it?*
Chocolate’s evil twin – the white ‘chocolate’
White chocolate is an abomination and should not be allowed to be sold. At least not as chocolate. I’m sorry, but there it is.
First it’s the appearance of it. White chocolate looks like something left in the windowsill all summer and then rediscovered in the autumn, all pale and sun damaged. Appetising? I don’t think so.
Then we have the smell. It smells more like butter than chocolate, and who’d like to eat butter? No one, that’s who.
And for the taste? It just tastes of sugar and milk. Not like chocolate at all.
And finally the chemical content: being manufactured from cocoa butter and no cocoa solids (I told you it smelled like butter, didn’t I?), it contains none of the ‘happiness’ compounds found in chocolate proper.
But let us end this post on a positive note, washing away the dull and boring taste of that white ‘chocolate’.
There’s a surprise in store for us chocolate lovers: we might win the Nobel prize.
Dr Franz Messerli, curious about the benefits of flavonoids found in chocolate, wine and green or white tea, started to plot chocolate consumption against the per-capita share of last year’s Nobel prizes. The result was a surprisingly strong correlation, as can be seen in the graph to the right.
It would appear that if people consume more than 2 kg of dark chocolate per person and year, the likelihood of their country winning a Nobel prize starts to increase.
Chocolate is our friend
It would seem that not only is chocolate not really bad for us, it’s actually benefitial; it provides several health benefits and well as improving our mental capabilities.
So, rather than being our guilty pleasure, chocolate should be revered as a health food**. Yes, chocolate is indeed our friend.
* I guess it COULD hurt if the person you’re giving it to can’t eat chocolate for some reason.
** These finding almost exclusively relate to dark chocolate, not milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contain less sugar and fat, and have a natural shut-down mechanism that prevent us from eating too much of it.
Have you ever experienced this: you’re watching a game show on telly, and one of the contestants are to be randomly chosen to take part in a special question round or something. Just as they’re about to announce who it is, you get this premonition of who it’s going to be. And a second later they say the exact name you were thinking of.
It seems to happen a lot to me, and it’s a little unsettling – like an ahead-of-time echo or a déjà vu or something. It’s also annoying, as it only seem to work if I couldn’t care less (I don’t like game shows).
Now. I would like to make something perfectly clear: I do not believe in paranormal premonitions. If what I experience actually does happen and is not just my brain playing tricks on me, there must be some kind of logical (or at least quantum mechanical) explanation for the phenomenon.
So what is this thing? Is it even theoretically possible to experience things that haven’t happened yet? Well, yes. Sort of. Time is the fourth dimension after all, and as such it has a reach beyond the ‘here’-point, both ‘backwards’ and ‘forwards’ in time. Just as an apple still exists even if we’re not at its location in space, it also exists when we’re not in the same location in time. In theory at least, we could potentially sense the apple from a different place in time as well as space.
An additional threat to causality of events (i.e. the notion that what I do now will have effects in the future but not the past) is the concept of quantum entanglement. It states that if atomic particles have been in physical contact with each other they become entangled, and whatever happens to one is immediately reflected in the other – even if they would happen to be light years apart. In a way, they are transmitting information across not just space but also time.
The concept of entanglement is of limited use in trying to explain the phenomenon of time echoes, though, as I can’t see how any atoms in my brain would have become physically entangled with any of the game show contestants’ atoms.
Or perhaps there are no time echoes at all. Perhaps I just predict what the game show host is about to say. Perhaps it’s just old-fashioned human mind reading?
I’m not so sure. If I was that good at predicting what people were about to say, surely I’d have a career as a powerful and successful politician by now? Believe me, if I had that sort of capability, I’d taken over the world and you’d all be my subjects kept in check by my army of kill-bots. But you aren’t and I haven’t so I’m not.
The illusion of consciousness
In my example above, watching the game show, I suddenly just ‘know’ what will happen within the next second. So is this a time echo? Am I sensing what will happen before it actually does happen?
Perhaps not. Ignoring the whole ‘time is relative’ and ‘what is now, anyway?’ maze, it could instead be related to the illusion of our conscious minds. “Illusion?” I hear you say. “Didn’t you write a post on the origin of consciousness a little while ago? Surely consciousness really exists.” Yes, it does. We are conscious and we express free will, but there seem to be a slight lag in our brains from when the sensory information is processed to when we become aware of them. In other words, it takes a few hundred milliseconds for us to realise we’ve seen or heard something, even though the brain has received the information from our eyes and ears.
This delay could be the explanation to the time echo we sometimes experience. If we were to accidentally tap into the received information before we become aware of having acquired it, it could then feel like déjà vu when we do become aware of it, a fraction of a second later. “Woah! I already knew that!” our conscious mind would say. “That’s so weird!”
In fact, there are several medical conditions that can lead to experiences similar to déjà vu. So perhaps I should really go see a doctor and have a brain scan?
But I don’t know. It doesn’t really feel like déjà vu. It’s not like I – on hearing the results – suddenly realise I already knew them. It’s more like I just know, with absolute certainty, what the results are going to be. Sometimes I even get the chance to say it out loud, if the premonition happens several seconds in advance.
Surely it can’t be actual supernatural premonition though? Not only don’t I believe in that, but I also know for a fact that I don’t have any superpowers. I’m no medium in contact with the ‘other worlds’.
A while back I came across a study called Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Now, I would generally discard studies that don’t seem scientific, but this one I found on the New Scientist web site and the web article linking to it incredulously stated – even if cautiously – that they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. The results seemed to stand.
So what were the results? Well, in a comprehensive study of some 1,000 students, Dr Bem conducted standardised psychological tests (like Avoidance or Priming) but with a twist: he ran them backwards. So instead of letting the students learn that clicking on the left part of the screen will probably produce negative imagery, he measured the effects of the students knowing in advance which half of the screen would produce negative imagery.
And the tests showed a statistically significant result with a mean effect size of 0.22. It’s small but important, because if it can be verified (by replication of the results), it would hint at a tendency for us humans to be able to predict future outcomes ahead-of-time.
How this could possibly work from a physical point of view I don’t know, but the evolutionary advantage of being able to sense negative (or erotic) stimuli in advance would obviously be immense. It doesn’t seem to work for more than a second or two ahead-of-time, but even that would be a major advantage and could mean the difference between life and death. It’s the proverbial ‘spider-sense’.
So even if I can’t really find an explanation to this phenomenon, I can’t ignore it. I do experience something, even though it’s of limited practical use to me. I’ll just have to continue knowing in advance who’s gonna win whatever inane game show I happen to watch on telly by mistake, and live with the fact that I’m a weirdo.
Oddly enough, I’m sort of ok with that.
There are some weird goings on in the world of robotics. Not long after robots have learned how to walk on two legs, they’ve taken to mimic us humans in both appearance and behaviour. Robots are getting more and more human-like.
That’s not the weird part though. The weird part is the instinctive and very strong negative response those robots evoke in us humans. Why is that? Shouldn’t robots that looks more like us be seen as more friendly and attractive?
Close but no cigar
Let me give you a few examples:
Repliee Q2 is an actroid from Japan. She is a stationary robot, which means she can’t walk about, only sit in a chair and move her arms, head and change her facial expressions. Her face has been designed to be able to mimic all the basic human expressions like fear, happiness, anger and curiosity. Cameras capture the activities of humans in her vicinity and trigger her response. If you smile, she will most likely smile back.
She’s utterly terrifying. Her hair and skin texture is very realistic but her movements and expressions are only vaguely human. The combination of her life-like appearance and machine-style motions will make a possessed clown-puppet wielding a bloody butchers knife comforting by comparison.
By contrast, Disney’s WALL•E is a different story all together. Although not a real-world physical robot, he does evoke a human response in anyone watching the film. How is that possible? After all, he’s just some caterpillar tracks and grasping claws fitted to a metal box and a couple of video cameras welded on top.
The reason he appears so loveable is that he behaves as if he had real human emotions and aspirations. We can identify with him, even though his appearance is so different (he doesn’t even have a real face). His behaviour humanise him, just as it does for cartoon bears, lions and other fable-like characters.
The same effect can be seen in computer games. Crysis, although now considered quite an old game, was revolutionary in terms of graphical fidelity.
However, even though the game sported an all but photorealistic quality, most of the characters portrayed display the same uncomfortable effect as the actoids: their appearance is very life-like, but their body language and facial expressions are not.
The overall effect is that of a plastic animatronic puppet, pretending to be a human being.
Compare that with Alyx, one of the main characters in the award-winning game series Half-life 2. Being a much older game than Crysis, it doesn’t feature the same advanced graphics, and its characters are less photo-realistic.
But its saving feature is the animations, both in terms of body movements and facial expressions. It feels like there’s a real person with you in the game, not just a pile of polygons and animation scripts.
I guess there’s no coincidence that Alyx has got a huge following online, with countless fan sites and several depictions of a slightly *ahem* carnal character.
The uncanny valley
Scientists have – of course – given this effect a name: uncanny valley. It’s expressed as a graph with human likeness on the x-axis and familiarity on the y-axis:
In the graph you can see how the human likeness at first increases with the familiarity of the robot, but when they almost perfectly resemble a human being the familiarity drops drastically. It’s not until they’re virtually indistinguishable from a real human that the familiarity start to rise again. The effect is even more pronounced when the robot or puppet moves.
I find this fascinating. Why do we have this dip in likeability as robots become more and more like us?
Human pattern recognition
Us humans are rather bad at multiplying large numbers. We also pretty much suck at parallel-reading vast amount of texts, flawlessly performing repeating tasks and quickly cross-referencing search terms. Overall, we’re just a bit rubbish.
But, on the other hand, we excel in one thing: pattern recognition. We’re awesome at picking out recurring events and detecting cause and effect in complex chains of events. In addition, we’re eerily good at picking out who’s just a bit different. Without fault, any group of people will almost instantly identify and isolate individuals with minor deviations in appearance or who behave in non-regular ways.
I believe that is what might cause this uncanny valley effect: we see something that looks like a person, but that person behaves in an odd and non-human manner. This triggers our pattern recognition circuit and we immediately identify the robot as an imposter.
Ok, so far so good. We’re obviously very good at picking out discrepancies in human behaviour. But why should those discrepancies trigger such a negative response?
Analysing the negative response, it seems to consist of both fear and disgust. It’s the same response we would have to someone suffering from some horrific and disfiguring disease like leprosy or elephantiasis. Combine that with an unfamiliar behaviour and you got the worst possible scenario: a potentially contagious illness that affects the brain and behaviour of the patient. Obviously such a person should be avoided at any cost.
And interestingly, people are very reluctant of touching actoids – in fact, they often take several steps away from it and shield their children. People behave like it would be highly contagious and potentially dangerous.
Fear of the odd
Humans are social creatures. This means we live in close proximity of each other. Large number of individuals living in close-knit groups is the perfect breeding ground for contagious illnesses. In order to minimise the risk of becoming ill, we’ve learned to fear what we don’t understand: people with strange and scary appearances, or people who behave in odd ways trigger our disease alarm system. And I believe this is why we have the phenomenon called uncanny valley – when robots or puppets become life-like enough to be confused with real human beings, but they don’t behave quite like human beings it gives the signal that something is wrong.
So the fear of the odd is a defence mechanism. And the poor actoids are just caught in the cross-fire of the arms race between humans and pathogens. Ah well, not to worry. Soon we will have robots that not only look like us but also behave just like us. Then we will have left the uncanny valley far behind us. The future is bright. And robotic.
My friend Amy recently had a book of hers published. (You all know Amy, don’t you? Amy – everyone. Everyone – Amy. There.) It’s not just any book either, but a book of poetry no less. It’s called ‘Out of True’ and you can – and should - pick up a copy here (for your bookshelf) and here (for your Kindle, iPad or smartphone).
It’s a marvelous book, wonderfully written and full of Amy-thoughts. Many of the poems reflect on love, but it’s not a squishy feel-good collection. Instead it’s full of wonder, pain, sorrow, joy and anger – just like life itself.
In one of her poems (‘The science of this’), Amy describes the brain as a chemical device and how this make us believe we’re attracted to someone or even in love by drugging us with endorphins, dopamine and the like:
“So listen: I don’t love you. My brain’s just telling me I do. And my heart’s still beating. On and on and on. There’s some poetry in that, somewhere. I’ll let you know when I find it.”
In another (‘Fever’) what it would feel like to spontaneously combust:
“They will find perhaps a foot, a finger, the curve of an ear. My clothes will still be plump with my shape. They will blame suicide, smoking. They will not think to blame you.”
In yet another (‘One honest man’), she encounters Diogenes:
“If you see him, let him know his fucking lantern isn’t doing me any good. It burned holes in my good sheets, and I want my Maglite back. I have a search to continue.”
I could go on quoting her all day, but I shan’t. For that you need to buy her book. And you really do need to. Trust me on this one.
Where to buy:
It’s dark and rainy. You’re sitting in your car, blasting down the highway at speed. As you’ve been driving for hours, you start to drowse off. A sudden jolt of the car instantly brings you back. “Crikey!” you say to yourself. “What if I’d aquaplaned? I’d be dead for sure!”
A couple of minutes later you see flashing lights ahead of you through the pouring rain. As you get closer you see police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck standing along the road with emergency personnel working on a turned-over people carrier. Apparently, someone else wasn’t as lucky as you. The smashed-up family car is lying on its side, windshield broken and a children’s toy thrown out onto the wet tarmac.
Horrified, you slow down and peer through your rain-stained side window to see if you can spot any injured or dead people. A covered stretcher next to the ambulance indicates that it was indeed a fatal accident. As a police officer in a flourescent raincoat wave you on, you leave the scene feeling both shaky and excited.
A morbid interest
Why are we find horrible accidents and chilling murder stories to fascinating? Shouldn’t we shy away from these things? After all, we don’t really want them to happen to us or our loved ones.
My previous blog post on Spontaneous human combustion highlights this phenomenon, as it got quite a lot of attention and comments. We are, it seems, morbidly macabre.
But you know me; I can’t leave things at being just an interesting phenomenon. I want to know WHY it’s a phenomenon. So I’m donning my thinking-cap and set out to solve the mystery of the lure of the macabre.
If I think about it, it won’t happen
Perhaps our fascination in the macabre is simply down to us preparing for horrible things? A way of rehearsing how to handle future accidents? After all, it would be a value in being prepared for the worst. And, as a bonus point, anything we think about will never happen. So perhaps we’re even shielding us from it happening at all?
No, that doesn’t quite fit. We’re not exactly known for our long-term planning abilities. We’re more a ‘Give me what I want and give it to me now’ kind of people. And even if it does indeed feel like things we think about never happen, it’s just a form of superstition.
Curiosity prepared the cat
Another idea is that we’re just naturally curious, and we feel drawn to unusual events in order to understand them and prepare ourselves better. And that could be true, I guess. We sure are curious.
But it doesn’t explain the thrill and excitement we feel. Also, we don’t seem to be all that curious about things, generally speaking. More curious about people we know, perhaps. Or people we think we know (a.k.a. celebrities).
The rollercoaster effect
It could instead be that we’re fascinated by accidents and murders because of that nice feeling we get when we realise it’s not happening to us, and that we’re all safe after all. Perhaps it’s just a relief thing?
Nah. The thrill we get doesn’t feel like relief; it’s more like that tingly feeling we get when standing next to a steep abyss, looking down. You know, that feeling of danger and excitement.
No, I believe the real reason we’re so macabre is that we don’t always feel like we’re living in the real world. In todays shielded society we’re cushioned from evil and our everyday life is free from death, accidents and illness. This is very far from the everyday world of our ancestors.
In the old days, life was hard, short and brutal. We saw horrible accidents, death and deforming illnesses on a daily basis and life was real enough. Even though life is better today – safer, softer and longer – we might miss the feeling of being real, the feeling that it all somehow matters. When exposed to an accident, we get that adrenaline rush that makes us feel alive.
So that might be it – a longing for reality; a reality abstinence if you like. We’ve evolved being exposed to horrible dangerous things and the lack of them make us feel less like part of the world. It could be that accidents make us real.
Warning (I seem to have a lot of warnings on my posts of late, don’t I? This warning is one you might want to adhere to, though. No, seriously.): The following post contains stories and imagery that some readers might find upsetting and/or nightmare-inducing. Read on or not as you see fit.
You’re sitting in your favourite chair late one night, feeling somewhat heavy and dull. An annoying headache is throbbing away behind your eyes and you decide to try to sleep it off. You rise from the chair to go to bed, but immediately find yourself engulfed in blue flames! You open your mouth to scream out in pain and horror only to see your own breath catch fire as well. As you feel your lungs burning you start to suffocate and finally – mercifully - lose consciousness. Within 40 minutes your body has been turned to a pile of smoldering ashes, only leaving your legs intact.
It’s a horrific scenario and it feels like it’s come straight out of some horror movie, but spontaneous human combustion is actually a rather well documented – if exceedingly rare – phenomenon.
Documented cases through history
The first known case happened in 1470, when the Italian Polonus Vorstius caught fire after having enjoyed some wine. In more modern times, a few rather sensational cases have been recorded and thoroughly studied:
1st July 1951, Florida. The mailman, delivering a telegram to Mary Reeser, found the doorknob to the apartment hot to the touch and notified the emergency services. On entering the apartment, they found Mary Reeser’s charred spine with her liver hanging off it in a pile of ashes. Her legs had been left unscathed.
5th December 1966, Pennsylvania. A meter reader who had let himself into the house found the charred remains of John Irving Bentley’s leg in a pile of bones and ashes.
15th September 1982, London. Jeannie Saffin rose from her chair and was instantly engulfed in blue flames. Her family watched helplessly on as she roared while her synthetic cardigan melted onto her body.
22nd December 2010, West Galway. Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old diabetic was found burned beyond recognition in his home. The coroner recorded the death as spontaneous human combustion.
In total, some 120 cases have been documented throughout history.
A plausible cause?
So what could be the cause of these gruesome events? A common factor seem to have been that many of the victims had been heavy drinkers, something that have triggered theories of the victims’ bodies had been soaked in alcohol and therefore inflammable.
However, experiments have failed to reproduce the recorded results, with combustion taking as long as 12-24 hours. Also, getting animal tissue containing high amounts of alcohol to ignite has proved to be difficult.
But there’s another factor to take into consideration: many of the victims were obese and could therefore have been suffering from type-2 diabetes. In fact, Michael Faherty was diagnosed as a diabetic by the coroner. Diabetes can cause ketoacidosis, where body fat is converted into ketone bodies and acetone among other things. And as it happens, severe cases of alcoholism can also cause ketoacidosis.
But so what? What about if both diabetics and alcoholics might suffer from ketoacidosis? What’s that got to do with spontaneous human combustion? Well, in extreme cases, acetone can dissolve into a person’s body fat, making it extremely flammable. And acetone vapours will be emitted from the skin, concentrating in pockets under the person’s clothes. As acetone will readily ignite by tiny sparks (like static sparks from wearing synthetic fibres, or airborne sparks from open fires), it’s possible for people to spontaneously burst into flames – blue flames, since acetone burns with a bright blue light.
There is another group of people who can also suffer from ketoacidosis: dieters. When starving your body, and your inbuilt store of blood sugar is consumed (usually within 24 hours), fatty acids will be used to produce ketone bodies and acetone – a metabolic procedure known as ketosis. Whilst only rarely leading to full-blown ketoacidosis, where the concentration of keto acids reaches life threatening levels, it’s still a plausible risk. In fact, there might be cause to warn people on harsh diets from wearing synthetic fibres on dry days (or even brushing their hair) to avoid sparks from being generated. Just in case.
But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much? Spontaneous human combustion is incredibly rare. With just 120 odd cases recorded, you’re several 100 times more likely to be hit and killed by lightning. Still.. I can’t hurt being cautious, and if you smell acetone on your breath (or someone else’s breath for that matter) stay away from open flames and have some fruit to restore your blood sugar. After all, no diet is worth bursting into flames like some demonic vampire for.