Category Archives: Mistery


Imagine being able to remember everything or feeling no pain. Four people with extraordinary abilities reveal how their superpower has shaped their lives Michael Segalov

Edited By Alex Santiago

‘I’ve never felt physical pain’: Jo Cameron, 72, Whitebridge, Scotland

‘It was only when I was 65 that the fact I can’t feel pain came to light’: Jo Cameron.
‘It was only when I was 65 that the fact I can’t feel pain came to light’: Jo Cameron. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

I can understand why it took so long for anyone to notice. It makes sense that the quiet, happy person in the corner gets ignored. It was only when I was in hospital for an operation on my arthritic hand – aged 65 – that the fact I can’t feel pain finally came to light.

I’d only recently had a long-overdue hip replacement. “This will hurt more than the last one, you’ll need more painkillers,” the hospital anaesthetist had told me. I offered to bet any money it wouldn’t when I looked up at him with a smile.

He came to see me after the procedure and I wiggled my hand in his face, proudly. “No painkillers,” I said, grinning, “and no pain either.”

Down in London, I went for tests at University College Hospital. In the experiments, my husband was used as the standard – they even took a biopsy from his leg. The researchers found an abundance of a substance called anandamide in my body – so much that I never experience anxiety, fear or pain. Instead, my genes make me happy and forgetful – finally, an explanation for why it feels like every other week I lose the keys to my car.

Before then I’d just assumed I was clumsy, although when I thought about it properly, lots of things began to make sense in retrospect. This explained why I often get undressed and see bruises that I’ve no recollection of acquiring; why during childbirth, after some serious pushing I felt nothing more than a considerable stretch. It’s why the only way I know if I’ve burned myself while cooking is when the aroma of meat reaches my nostrils. I’m a vegan, so what I’m smelling is actually my own scorched flesh.

There was even the time we went on a backpacking holiday in eastern Europe. On the first morning I fell over and went head first into a huge concrete slab. I lost my front teeth and gained a black eye – there were cuts all over my face. The family thought we’d go home, but I just whacked on my sunglasses, wrapped a scarf around my mouth, made a rule there would be no pictures of me and we carried on. They all must have just thought I was trying to be strong for them as a mum.

‘I have an abundance of anandamide in my body, so much that I never experience anxiety, fear or pain.’
‘I have an abundance of anandamide in my body, so much that I never experience anxiety, fear or pain.’ Illustration: Lucas Varela/The Observer

My happy gene also makes me incredibly positive: I’m wired to look on the bright side of life. I may not feel pain, but I see it on the faces of people around me, on television. And when something sad happens in my life, of course it affects me, it’s just that the sadness doesn’t consume all I do. A few minutes later I’m thinking practically, whirring into action.

That’s not to say I’m complacent. I’m outraged by injustice and can empathise with those having a tough time. But I’m practical. Vote! Protest! Do something! But don’t be a worrier, on leaving Europe or climate change or anything, really. My attitude is why waste time being a nervous wreck?

I’m pretty certain my father had the same condition, although he’s no longer with us, so it’s impossible to be sure. He never complained about his war wound, and was very open-minded. There was no curfew in the evenings or restrictions on outings with boys. This British Army major would even skip alongside me on the way to school. When a brain haemorrhage killed him – without a word of warning – he just dropped down dead where he was stood.

Once my test results were back, I told the research team that, of course, I’d help them. I’m no neuroscientist, but if they can isolate this gene and reproduce it to help suppress pain in others, the scientists hope to develop a natural form of pain relief. It makes me so pleased to think what the impact of that on other people might be. What’s inside me might be the secret to alleviating the suffering of others, an alternative to often addictive drugs. The funding has come through – the next phase begins in 2020.

At first, the research team thought I was the only person in the world like me, but since my story went public, 80 people from across the globe have come forward to say they think they’re the same. Their bloods are being tested right now, and I’m hoping they’re correct. I’m 72 now, and it’s already taken us seven years to get this far. This could take decades. I might be an optimist, but I’m realistic – at some point they’re going to need some younger volunteers.

‘I’m the fastest human calculator’: Scott Flansburg, 55, Scottsdale, Arizona, America

‘Say a number, any number…’ Scott Flansburg.
‘Say a number, any number’: Scott Flansburg

Pick a date, any day in your life, and I can tell you what day of the week it was. Say a number, any number, and I can multiply it all day. I’m a Guinness World Record holder – the fastest human calculator. I’ve held the title for more than 20 years.

I was just a regular nine-year-old pupil when my teacher wrote a list of two-digit numbers for the class to add together. My teacher could tell I wasn’t paying attention as she explained how numbers are carried over, so she decided to make an example of me by picking me out and sending me up to the board. The standard way to find the total of lots of numbers is to line them up and work downwards right to left, if you can remember. But I assumed that you could do it in the same way you read a sentence – from left to right – and found I could.

By the age of 10, my maths teachers were letting me come up with ideas rather than trying to teach me. I could see all these patterns and started discovering methods of multiplication that worked.

In the end I dropped out of high school. I never made it to college – I signed up to the Air Force instead. I served four years in Japan, and two in America. Then, in 1988, when my military supervisor’s son was struggling in school with maths, I was drafted in to help. I spent an evening showing the child some tricks and shortcuts, giving him a hand.

The next morning I got a call from his teacher: “Who are you,” they asked me, “and what have you done?”

I’ve had an MRI scan, the doctor said he’d never seen a brain like mine

Scott Flansburg

From then, things escalated pretty quickly. I started to speak to classes fairly often, and after a reporter saw my mathematical skills firsthand and filed a story, I was invited on to television – I did the rounds.

I’ve had an MRI scan. The doctor said he’d never seen a brain like mine. It’s almost as if it has a different set of wires. There’s a part of the brain called Brodmann area 44, or BA44, and mine is naturally four times the normal size. I’ve met a few other people with similar abilities at competitions: Yusnier Viera, Gerald Newport and Lee Jeonghee.

For me it’s all about arithmetic, sums and numbers. I never went on to study higher level maths. I spend my life working to inspire kids to engage in the subject at that basic level, the point at which so many disconnect. That’s also how I keep myself interested – for me there’s no mental challenge in the arithmetic everyone else has to think hard for; it’s all about thinking of new and exciting educational ideas.

My skills used to be useful for companies. Investors, for instance, would want me to look for patterns in their trades. But since the advent of the super computer I’m a little less helpful to them. I’d have been more useful, I think, if I’d been born hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

My next big thing is to get the rest of the world to use the calendar I’ve invented. I’m all about efficiency, and right now the way we measure time is a mess. Sure, we have no control over the fact there are 365 days in a year, but there’s simply no way to make that divide neatly into 12. Forget October, November and December – if you ask me, there should be 13 months in a year, each lasting 28 days, plus a zero day to kick each year off. I’m going to try and convince the world to try it out in 2023, the next time my calendar matches up with yours.

‘I can play any piece of music I’ve ever heard’: Derek Paravicini, 40, London

‘Being blind, I’d never even seen anyone play the piano, but I could copy tunes note for note’: Derek Paravicini.
‘Being blind, I’d never even seen anyone play the piano, but I could copy tunes note for note’: Derek Paravicini. Photograph: Marios K Forsos

Like most children, I spent my early years surrounded by music. I’ve always been blind. I was born extremely prematurely, so it is through sound that I experience the world. I had a nanny who looked after me and she tried everything she could think of to interest me. Then one day, when I was 18 months old, she had a brainwave, and retrieved a toy organ from the loft that someone had once bought in Woolworths.

Of course, I don’t remember, but what my family found I could do with it was amazing. Without any help from anyone, I could play the music I’d heard, from Cockles and Mussels to the hymns that my family sang in church. Being blind, I’d never even seen anyone play the piano, but I could copy these tunes – and their accompaniments – note for note.

It became obvious pretty quickly that my musical brain was wired up in an extraordinary way and, once my parents purchased a piano, I’d use everything, from my hands to my head and my elbows, to play what I could hear in my head. They soon realised that my fingers would need help to catch up.

Aged four, at a school for the blind in south London called Linden Lodge, I met Adam Ockelford, who was the music teacher there, and he decided to take me under his wing. He started out by teaching me at home. He tells me I didn’t take kindly to being told what to do. I’d push him out the way and so he’d pick me up and place me in the corner of the children’s room where we practised. He’d play a tune while I found my way back to the piano and then I’d repeat what I’d heard, just like that.

I loved practising and worked really hard, every day before breakfast and in the evenings. I first appeared on TV when I was only eight, in 1987, on the Derek Jameson Show. The next year, I hit the big time, playing the Pink Panther for Terry Wogan on UK national television, with an audience of millions. Suddenly, media from all over the world were interested.

As a teenager I’d often get frustrated and angry, and furniture would fly. But Adam helped me channel all those emotions through music and we would improvise together for hours. Today, playing the piano isn’t just my vocation, it continues to be the key to my emotional wellbeing as well.

It’s hard to explain, but any time I hear a piece of music it goes straight into my memory and stays there. I never forget a piece once I’ve heard it. My musical brain works really fast, too. When I listen to a piece, I can copy it straight away, less than half a second behind. Nobody knows how many songs I know – I certainly don’t. But it must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pieces.

For me, playing the piano is as easy as breathing. At a gig in a school north of Manchester a few years back I fell asleep when I was accompanying my friend Hannah Davey, the classical and jazz singer, but I carried on playing. And there doesn’t seem to be a limit on what I can learn. I memorised a full piano concerto with 11,000 notes just by listening, and played it with orchestras on the South Bank in London and in the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, California.Advertisement

In fact, I do lots of concerts, from schools to some of the world’s great concert halls and arenas – from Taiwan to Las Vegas. I love to entertain people – the bigger the audience the more I like it. And I’ve never been nervous when I perform. I just know I can do it.

People are mystified, because part of the show is when I ask the audience for requests. They can choose anything they like. As long as I’ve heard the music before, I can reproduce it, even if I’ve never played it before. If I haven’t heard it, I just ask them to play it on their phone and then I’m off. Think of a song right now and I’ll be able to play it, whatever it is.

I’m much more than a musical memory machine, though. A Japanese TV company played me sounds once, very quietly: the rattle of a key in the door, a bus going past, birdsong. My heart rate jumped every time. I feel the impact of each sound emotionally. And in real life, I hear everything around me in a musical way, including words I don’t understand. So I just tend to repeat them, as though they were musical notes.

I’m a person of extremes: playing the piano I find easy, but I can’t, for instance, read or write, and, aged 40, I still don’t reliably know my left from my right, so I need help with virtually all everyday tasks. But that doesn’t matter, because I’m a great people person. I love my family and friends from all over the world.

I think that’s the main reason I like playing the piano – it’s my way of keeping in touch. It’s rare, if ever, that I’ll sit and play just for myself. Music is what helps me connect with others; it has become my identity. I’m Derek the piano player, the entertainer. I’m Derek, the musician.

Based on an interview with Derek Paravicini and Professor Adam Ockelford

‘I can remember everything. My brain has no capacity to forget’: Rebecca Sharrock, 30, Brisbane, Australia

‘I can remember every minute of every day in the finest of detail’: Rebecca Sharrock.
‘I can remember every minute of every day in the finest of detail’: Rebecca Sharrock

I remember it like it was just yesterday, the morning of 6 July 2014. It was a warm, sunny day in California – Mum and I were walking from our motel to Disneyland. I can hear the sound of laughter and music right now, the sweet smell of sugar in my nostrils as everyone rushed giddily around.

My memories from the evening of 5 July 2005 are just as clear. Aged 15, I was at a concert with my sister. An usher was rude to her while I had a little meltdown. Each time I think of it the feelings of depression, anxiety and embarrassment are triggered. I’m transported right back there.

In fact, I can remember every minute of every day in the finest of detail, and each time I experience the emotions I felt afresh. That’s what life with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM, is like. It means, in short, that I have this ability to remember everything, but that also means my brain has no capacity to forget.

At 15, I was diagnosed with autism. When that happened it was no great surprise. A year later I was told I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but my parents and I knew there was something more. And then we saw a segment on a TV news show about HSAM. My mum recognised it in me instantly. From a very young age I would talk to her about things that had happened years before, right down to the back-and-forth of specific conversations. She always said: “Rebecca, live in the present,” while I’d always focus on the past.

‘I’ll be honest, it does get annoying. I get headaches and it causes anxiety.’
‘I’ll be honest, it does get annoying. I get headaches and it causes anxiety.’ Illustration: Lucas Varela/The Observer

I can basically remember all the way back to the beginning, just after my first birthday, being held in my mum’s arms. From then on it’s every conversation, every day out, every celebration. It’s mostly entirely useless, though – like what I had for breakfast, or the most mundane of thoughts. All these memories are in chronological order, so I can work backwards or forwards. If I go back to the days before I really understood calendars, I use the image of my birthday cake and its number of candles as a reference to start. I even remember dreams – those from the first 20 minutes of sleeping. When I had my first at eight months it was quite a shock.

I’ll be honest, it does get annoying. I get headaches and it causes anxiety; I have to listen to music every night as I fall asleep or else I’m constantly having random flashbacks. For a long time I saw it as a curse. Slowly, as I’ve grown a little older, I’ve come to appreciate what my brain gives me. I can memorise lines, which is great for public speaking. That’s what I want to make my career, sharing my experiences with people across the world. While the sentence structures of foreign languages take some getting used to – I’ve been learning a few so I can travel – the words all just stick right away.

Soon I want to put my life down on paper, the moments – big or small – that hold significance. I hope to look at how each affected my life and my future in a way few people can. And I’m starting a business, a support group for other people with autism to overcome obstacles and find their passion.

Nobody is quite sure how my brain can actually hold all this information. It’s why medical researchers from Queensland to California are so keen to poke around up there. They’re attempting to discover which part of the brain is responsible for long-term memory, in the hope of finding ways to help those who are affected by Alzheimer’s, brain damage or strokes. I spend a lot of time having my brain scanned. In the initial tests I was asked to work out which day of the week random dates had been throughout my life. I’d be asked random questions and then to recall my answers five months later.

I’ve spent 90 minutes in an MRI scanner that showed how the conscious and subconscious parts of my mind are more strongly connected than usual. Now they know what my brain can do, they’re more interested in studying its biology. The scientists have already discovered that the memories of people with HSAM usually get clearer with the passage of time, which is the opposite to how most people experience them.

My stepdad’s father passed away a few years ago. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and seeing him go through it all spurred me on to do all I can to help find a cure. I like to joke that people like me are human lab rats, although we’re human lab rats who are very well cared for and loved.

When I’m bored, I sometimes take myself back to a time when I worried about everything and anxiety crippled me. I think about what the 14-year-old me wished for her future, and it makes me truly appreciate the small things I now take for granted – the things I’ve achieved that might otherwise seem mundane. I think about what I thought my life might look like – and I’m proud of just how far I’ve come.

• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

Since you’re here …

… we have a favour to ask. Millions are flocking to the Guardian for open, independent, quality news every day. Readers in all 50 states and in 180 countries around the world now support us financially.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, American democracy has a chance to reset. The new administration has a historic opportunity to address the country’s deepest systemic challenges, and steer it toward a path of fairness, equality and stability.

It won’t be easy. Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency has ended, but the forces that propelled him – from a misinformation crisis to a surge in white nationalism to a crackdown on voting rights – remain clear threats to American democracy. The need for fact-based reporting that highlights injustice and offers solutions is as great as ever. In the coming year, the Guardian will also continue to confront America’s many systemic challenges – from the climate emergency to broken healthcare to rapacious corporations.

We believe everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity. That’s why we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. In these perilous times, an independent, global news organisation like the Guardian is essential. We have no shareholders or billionaire owner, meaning our journalism is free from commercial and political influence.

If there were ever a time to join us, it is now. Your funding powers our journalism.

ten famous mysteries solved

Explaining the unexplained: 10 famous mysteries solved

Author Rebecca Northfield

Edited By Alex Santiago

The most famous supernatural phenomena can be explained by science. Or can it? Well, yes, it can.

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

This picture captures one of the most famous ghosts in Great Britain, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Or does it?

It has been said the Brown Lady haunts Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England. She is supposedly the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of Robert Walpole, who is regarded as Britain’s first Prime Minister.

The image was taken by Captain Hubert C Provand, a London-based photographer working for Country Life magazine, and his assistant, Indre Shira. They were taking photographs of Raynham Hall for an article, and had just taken a shot of the Hall’s main staircase.

Allegedly, Shira saw “a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman” coming down the stairs, and the duo snapped a picture under his instruction. The later negative showed the ‘Brown Lady’, which was published in Country Life in 1936, along with Shira and Provand’s written account of events.

Critics claimed Shira put a greasy substance on the lens to create the figure, or moved down the stairs during an exposure. There is also a theory of double exposure upon detailed examination, as well as one picture being superimposed over the other due to a patch of reflected light at the top of the right hand banister appearing twice.

The magician John Booth said the ‘Brown Lady’ could be duplicated by natural methods. By covering fellow magician Ron Wilson with a bed sheet – like a last minute Halloween costume – and instructing him to walk down a staircase, the faked image looked very similar to the Lady.

It is also said the ‘Brown Lady’ closely resembles a standard Virgin Mary statue that is found in a Catholic church.

The public were bamboozled by cheap camera trickery. Good effort, though.

Bermuda Triangle

The infamous region of the Atlantic Ocean, which earned its reputation due to claims of planes and ships disappearing between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Miami, Florida without a trace, turned out to be not as scary as it seemed.

Bermuda triangle

In 1975, Larry Kusche, a research librarian at Arizona State University, found some disappearance claims were either exaggerated or wholly false. Additionally, the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t actually have an unusual number of shipwrecks or plane crashes when compared to any other areas that experience similar traffic. To explain the mysterious absence of wreckages, the strong current of the Gulf Stream is powerful enough to wash away any evidence of destroyed ships and planes.

Coast Guard records also proved that many disappearances were down to human error, boat failure and other natural sea-based problems. Also, it would be strange for there not to be vanishings due to the colossal size of the triangle.


Ah, some stacked, Neolithic stones. Wonder what this could be?

Stonehenge is a circle of old stones in Wiltshire, England. Carbon dating makes it between 4,000 to 5,000 years old, so it puzzled many when you look at how advanced the architecture is, given what kind of tech was available back in the day.

Slave labour and even alien activity populated the theories about how the mysterious rocky collection came to be.

We may never know what the structure was used for, but to disprove the notion that its construction was somehow magical, Michigan carpenter Wally Wallington built a Stonehenge replica in his garden, on his own, using only what was available to humans back then. This proved at least the possibility that the celebrated stone circle was pretty much a doddle for even an ancient group of builders if they were tech-​savvy enough.

Sailing stones in Death Valley

At California’s Death Valley there are hundreds of trails from large, rough blocks of rock in the aptly-named Racetrack Playa. It clearly means the stones are moving, but nobody pushes them, and no one has seen them move. Ooooh.

Supernatural theories for the phenomenon include the rocks being remains of a UFO crash, mysterious ‘unseen hands’ that move the rocks, or magnetic fields of some kind.

So what was the best way to figure out how these creepy rocks were moving? Fit them with GPS units, use time-lapse cameras and study the weather, obviously.

Scientists figured out that although Death Valley is blisteringly hot in the summer – its highest recorded temperature stands at 56.7°C – during the mild winter, rain collects to form a shallow lake, which subsequently freezes into thin sheets when the temperatures drop at night.

In the morning, the sun warms the ice, which breaks into small plates. If a plate is under a rock – which can weigh over 300kg – wind and flowing water slowly pushes it. A rock can move 224m in the winter, leaving a trail in the mud.

Flying rods

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s probably a moth.

In photographic and video recordings around the world, a strange solar entity – lines of light dashing across the sky – would sometimes occur, with no clear reason why. A common interpretation of these rods was – you guessed it – an incident of the paranormal, or tiny alien life forms. Adorable, right?

Jose Escamilla is a spokesperson for the rod aliens, as he claimed to be the first to film them back in 1994. The location? Roswell, New Mexico, no less. This guy has gone on to lecture on the subject, as well as make more videos of the tiny ‘aliens’. So it must be true?

Alas, this totally plausible theory wasn’t paranormal. It was, well, normal.

Tonghua Zhenguo Pharmaceutical Company in Jilin Province, China, thought Escamilla’s claims were poppycock. With huge nets and surveillance cameras, they captured the spooky rods doing their thing. When they checked the nets, there were no aliens. Just moths and other flying critters.
The rods were actually motion blur – ‘afterimage’ traces of bugs and wingbeats – caught on camera. It’s an optical illusion, and is more likely to occur in interlaced video, where slower recording speed makes moths look like aliens.

Ley lines

A weird connect-the-dots moment occurred in 1921, when archaeologist Alfred Watkins noticed that many ancient sites seemed to line up in a too-straight-to-be-a-coincidence way. He called them ‘leys’, and later, ‘ley lines’.

This sort of finding doesn’t go unnoticed by believers in the supernatural. They think where the leys intersect there are pockets of concentrated energy: deep and mythical power which can be harnessed. There’s one line, from Ireland to Israel, that connects seven locations linked to St Michael.

Sadly though, it all seems to be bogus, and the lines pass through the sites by chance. Watkins himself believed ancient Britons used landscape features as navigation points.

The Nazca Lines of Peru

Discovered in the 1930s (when we could finally fly high enough), the Nazca Lines are massive white geoglyphs – some being 275m across – made from shallow lines dug into the ground. The whole area is about 190 square miles (500km²). They are thought to have religious significance to the Nazca culture.

Given that aeroplanes are thought to have been in short supply between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., how could the Nazca people see what they were doing?

Author Jim Woodman thought it could have been done by using a basic hot air balloon and shouting directions to the diggers below. To test the theory, Woodman made a functioning balloon with materials they would have had back then. The only problem is there is no proof the Nazca people even knew what a balloon was. Popped that theory.

However, wooden stakes at the site, carbon-dated to the Nazca period, have given researchers a hunch that people at the time may have drawn long ropes between stakes to make the lines. So Dr Joe Nickell and three assistants – including an 11-year-old – used the method to make a giant bird. And it only took them a few hours.

Mystery solved.

Ball lightning

Ball lightning is a potentially dangerous atmospheric electrical phenomenon. It’s reported as looking luminous and spherical, and can vary in diameter – from pea-sized to several metres long.

Ball lightning doesn’t happen very often, so it hasn’t been recorded under natural conditions.

It is said to occur during thunderstorms, but it lasts a good deal longer than your usual split-second lightning. Early reports noted that the ball explodes and leaves a sulphurous odour.

I know we’re all about explaining the unexplained here, but the cause of ball lightning remains unclear; scientists can only really theorise about how these little devil balls are created.

The best explanation comes from a team of Brazilian scientists back in 2007. They passed large amounts of electricity through a silicon wafer, which created a vapour. When it cooled, the vapour condensed into an aerosol which glowed when recombined with oxygen, leading to little balls of electricity bouncing around like jumping beans. Because of this, the Brazilian scientists reckon the ball lightning phenomenon occurs when bog-standard lightning strikes quartz-or-silica-rich ground – like sand. The theory has gained such traction that other scientists are rumoured to have agreed. Shocking.

Spontaneous human combustion

Have you ever been so angry that you feel like you’re going to burst into flames? Well, these people look very much as if they did. Spontaneous human combustion was first described in the 1600s: someone would burn to death without an obvious source, the head and trunk being reduced to ash. All that would remain would be the leg or legs, poking out from the remains. Quite horrific.

However, investigation into this frightening phenomenon has shown that exploding fiery humans combusting into dust was actually widely exaggerated.

People are, it turns out, mostly made of water, so the likelihood of us actually randomly bursting into flames is negligible. If you look at images of supposed spontaneous combustion, victims were often near a source of flame, like a fireplace. One further explanation would be the person’s clothing being set on fire by a candle or cigarette. Old age or physical condition justified why the victim couldn’t put out the fire or move away from it. Clothing acts as a sort of wick and when the skin breaks, fat from the body is fuel to prolong the burning. How pleasant.

Corpse candles

The name is a bit gross to begin with. Rather like spontaneous human combustion, but more manufactured.

It’s not how it sounds, though.

Back in the day, when you were transporting your dead loved one to the cemetery across the gloomy marshes, a flame or ball of light would float just above the Earth, seeming to travel with you to and from the burial ground. This was aptly named the corpse candle, following you in your time of deepest grief.

Mystery and folklore surrounded this strange occurrence – many associated the corpse candle with pesky spirits of the dead, or other supernatural wanderers like stillborn and unbaptised babies that were in limbo between heaven and hell. How depressing.

Science has determined that the creepy corpse candles were in fact luminescent barn owls that had fungus growing on them, or, more likely, methane gas made by rotting organic material, which is usually found in swamps and marshes. The gas can produce a low-temperature ‘flame’ through chemiluminescence.

So instead of seeing an attentive spirit, you’d be witnessing the Earth doing a glow-in-the-dark fart. You’re welcome.


Meet The Mites That Live On Your Face

May 21, 20199:20 AM ET


Edited By Alex Santiago

It might give you the creepy-crawlies, but you almost certainly have tiny mites living in the pores of your face right now.

They’re known as Demodex or eyelash mites, and just about every adult human alive has a population living on them.

The mostly transparent critters are too small to see with the naked eye. At about 0.3 millimeters long, it would would take about five adult face mites laid end to end to stretch across the head of a pin.

“They look like kind of like stubby little worms,” says Michelle Trautwein, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Demodex face mites got their name from the Greek words for “fat” and “boring worm,” but they’re not really worms at all. They’re actually arachnids — related to ticks and, more distantly, to spiders.

Michelle Trautwein, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, tested more than 2,000 people and found DNA evidence of face mites on every single one of them.

Trautwein studies our relationship with these microscopic stowaways by looking at their DNA. Her findings suggest that people in different parts of the world have different face mites. “They tell a story of your own ancestry and also a story of more ancient human history and migration,” she says.

But before she could tell that story, she needed to find the mites.

“We use a little spoon and scrape it across the kind of greasier parts of someone’s face, which isn’t as bad as it sounds,” Trautwein says.

Once the samples have been collected, she takes them to the lab to look at the genetics.

Trautwein has tested more than 2,000 people, including tourists from all around the world that make their way to the California Academy of Sciences. And she’s found DNA evidence of face mites on every single one of them.

“No one is thrilled at the initial notion that they have arachnids on their face,” Trautwein says. “But people are often curious — even in their revulsion.”

But how could these creatures live on so many people and still go unnoticed?

Our skin is mostly covered by a thin layer of peach-fuzz called vellus hair, with a few notable exceptions such as the palms of our hands and feet. The shaft of each one of those tiny hairs grows out of its own follicle.

Face mites — Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis — spend their days facedown inside your hair follicles, nestled up against the hair shaft, where you can’t see them.

face mite

They eat sebum, the greasy oil your skin makes to protect itself and keep it from drying out. The sebum is produced in sebaceous glands, which empty into the hair follicles and coat both the hair shaft and face mite.

That’s why the greasiest parts of your body, such as around the eyes, nose and mouth, likely harbor a higher concentration of mites than other areas.

The mites live for about two weeks. They spend most of their time tucked inside the pores, but while people sleep, they crawl out onto the skin’s surface to mate and then head back to lay their eggs.

Since they live inside your pores, you can’t scrub them off by washing. It’s basically impossible to get rid of all of your face mites.

So how does Trautwein find and study a particular mite? With glue.

“I actually put glue on a glass microscope slide and stick it onto a person’s forehead,” she says. “Then I slowly peel it off. I look under a microscope for mites that are stuck in the follicles that stick up from the thin layer of skin that got peeled off.”

“It can be pretty addictive and exciting,” she adds. “It’s sort of a meditative process of looking through this microforest of follicles and hairs and looking for just the right potential movement or shape.”

It seems our immune system is able to keep their numbers in check, but some people can experience problems with the mites.

“When you tell patients that they have face mites, first of all, they freak out,” says Kanade Shinkai, a dermatologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Since face mites live inside your pores, you can’t wash them off. But for a majority of people, they’re harmless.

Shinkai occasionally treats patients who have an overload of face mites, which results in a condition called demodicosis.

“There is a very particular look to people suffering from demodicosis. We call it the Demodex frost,” she says. “It’s sort of a white sheen on the skin. And if you look really closely, you can see [it] coming out of every pore. If you scrape those pores, you can see it frothing with little Demodex face mites.”

The condition is relatively rare and is often connected to a decline in the immune system, such as receiving immunosuppressive drugs after transplant surgery, chemotherapy orimmunodeficiency diseases such as AIDS.

Demodicosis can also be triggered by local suppression of the immune system, like using itch-relieving hydrocortisone cream on the face.

It usually comes on fast. “Patients almost universally describe this explosive development of like pustules like whiteheads on their face. It’s really dramatic,” Shinkai says. “And what’s really dramatic about it is that they’re often fine the day before, and then they develop it overnight.”

For the vast majority of people, though, face mites are nothing to worry about. While some studies have found loose connections between Demodex and diseases like rosacea, the evidence hasn’t shown a strong link.

“What’s really confusing is that if you go into your office and scrape everyone’s face, you would find Demodex probably on everybody,” Shinkai says. “And people who have low burden of Demodex may have no or very severe disease and vice versa.”

Trautwein also sees face mites more as a source of interest than of fear.

“They’re not dangerous in a broad sense because we all have them and most of us seem to be cohabiting quite well with them,” Trautwein says. “We mostly share them within family units, and it seems like you are probably initially colonized soon after birth, most likely by your mother, traditionally speaking in human history.”

Looking at your mites, researchers such as Trautwein can usually tell something about your geographical ancestry — what part of the world your ancestors came from.

“Face mites are definitely the species of animal that we have the closest connection with as humans, even though most of us don’t know about them or ever see one in our lifetime,” she says. “We still have this very ancient and intimate relationship, and it seems clear that we’ve had these face mite species with us for all of our history. So they are as old as our species, as old as Homo sapiens.”


Susi Ferrarello Ph.D.

Lying on the Philosopher’s Couch

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ferrarello.jpg

The lion raised as a pet in the house.

Edited By Alex Santiago

Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permssion

“Sex” — this word is everywhere and can mean anything.

A few days ago, I was in a cafe and I heard a guy saying to his friend: “Hmmm… your coffee looks sexy.”

A coffee, seriously?

As an Italian, I’m always impressed by such expansive use of this word. I still remember the sense of panic I felt when a colleague of mine used this word during a lecture I gave at a conference. He described my paper as “sexy.” What? I blushed and smiled nervously.

Now I know. This word is nearly synonymous today with all that is spicy, juicy, vital, dynamic.

The etymology

Yet if we look at its origin, this very “sexy” word was born in a dusty bureaucratic office.

“Sex”, sexusin Latin, comes in fact from the verb secare, “to divide or cut,” and is related to “section,” or that which is divided. Latin used this word to point to the quality of being male or female in order to group the population and make the census.

Thus, the contemporary use of this word is relatively recent. D.H. Lawrence seemed to be the first to use this new sense of the word, in 1929.

1000 ways to say “I want you!”

So then what are the words that the Greeks and Romans used to indicate sexual love?

For sure, Greeks, more than Romans, were not at a loss for words when it came to saying, “I love you,” or in this case “I want you.”

They used the verb agape to indicate a spiritual, unconditional love; stergo to mean affection; phileo to indicate a kind of a mental love relating to friendship; or finally, erao for intimate love—yes, that kind of love accompanied by passionate desire and longing.

It is so fascinating! In the Greek world, Eros stands for nature. Eros is that natural power that impinges on human existence and calls us to what our natural body needs in order to be in harmony with nature, or better, to be one with Nature.

A case in point is the satyr.

The satyr, half man and half animal—as Aristophanes described him—was gifted with boundless sexual energy that he tried to satisfy in any possible way, with animate and inanimate erotic (so to speak) “partners.” If you happen to wander into a museum somewhat yawning and bothered by your back that keeps on aching, pay closer attention to their pictures. They are a cold shower.

Those vases were the adult magazines of antiquity. Greeks liked them so much that on one of these vases, kept in Palermo (V, 651) you can see a group of satyrs mating with amphoras and pots themselves. Lissarague, a philologist, explains this somewhat questionable choice, saying that the wine amphora was the necessary accessory of the kōmos (a ritualistic drunken procession) and the symposium. Wine and sex are what make a satyr happy! Thus the famous saying “Afrodite kai Dionysos met’allelon eisi,” “Aphrodite and Dionysus are with each other.”

Certainly, satyrs loved women as well. Women, though, did not return the affection. (This explains the amphoras.) As MacNally wrote, the relationship between satyrs and maenads (the followers of Dyonisos, who were, by definition, a little bit wacky) started out friendly between 550 and 500 BC, and then, like many friendly relationships, “changed” between 500 and 470, becoming clearly hostile after 470. Maenads, according to Plutarch (Virtuous Women 12.249 e-f), were inviolable—I guess, especially if it was a bunch of half-goats coming on to them.

Well, satyrs did not get discouraged: They loved men too, of course. And in this case, they were more successful. Unlike the rest of Greek society, they were not worried about the difference in age. It did not matter if the guy, the beloved one, was younger (in fact, as a rule, they preferred this way) than they (the lovers). There is a cup in Berlin (1964.4)—another “adult magazine,” that shows a group of five satyrs in a full erotic frenzy.

To their defense, satyrs were not alone in this consuming desire. There were human beings that shared that devouring hunger. The most well-known were philosophers and poets.

They both despised Eros but found it irresistible. In his Erotic Essay Pausania named these refined class of gentlemen “monsters of appetite.”

Socrates and sex

In particular, the clique of Socrates and his followers had a lot to say on the topic.

Xenophon, the second most famous disciple of Socrates, relates a conversation the philosopher had with him about a super sexy young boy. Socrates was irritated with him because he was using his beauty to exploit people, in particular Socrates’ favorite disciple, the young Critobolus. The boy stole a kiss from Critobolus, and after that Socrates was so “philosophically” furious that he warmly invited the boy to leave the city for one year. His kiss, mumbled Socrates, was as poisonous as the bite of a spider and he commanded Xenophon to avoid him at any cost.

Socrates, agreeing with Plato and Aristotle, considered erotic pleasure fun and necessary, but it was to be handled carefully. Pure sex is meant for the beasts, or half-beats—the satyrs again. Satyrs were invented to make people see how clumsy a man was who had been completely converted to nature. The bestial passion—as Aristotle, the super-balanced thinker who fell desperately in love with the virile king, Alexander the Great (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives) said—is “slavish and brutish.

Sex, a creeping thing

Sappho (a wonderful female poet) called eros a “creeping thing.” She knew very well what erotic love was. There is one lyric of hers, “Glittering-Minded deathless Aphrodite,” in which she wrote:

“If she runs now she’ll follow later,

If she refuses gifts she’ll give them.

If she loves not, now, she’ll soon

Love against her will.”

“Love against her will.” Pretty clear: Do you love someone? Just wait. None can withstand the passion of being loved. Love is stronger than anything. Some centuries later in Inferno, V, 103 Dante will write “Amor ch’ha nullo amato, amar perdona;” adding three lines after “Amor condusse noi ad una morte certa” v. 106. “Love is Nature and Nature is Death. This is the equation. You cannot resist your nature, but somehow you have to find a way to do it.”

In the Phaedro Plato’s metaphor of the two horses is a sort of manual to learn how to succeed in this attempt. For Plato, our life is always driven by two horses, the black and white, our passion and our reason. We cannot drive just one of the two horses, or our trajectory would be crippled. Our task is to determine the right balance, or as Aristotle put it, ‘the golden mean.

“Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness”

As Prodicus (a sophist of the Vth century) said: “Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness.”

Love between animals was still considered cool, and the love with vases was still fine, but when it comes to women, be careful! Women’s love was considered insane, destructive, dangerous. “The memorable disaster,” Hesiod writes.

Do you know what the gods’ punishment was for men after Prometheus gave them the gift of fire, which was stolen from the immortals? It was the gods’ creation of woman and her desires! I am still laughing. I think this can give us an idea of how much the Greeks were frightened by women!

According to Hesiod, after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, Zeus set about his terrible revenge, the creation of the woman in the “likeness of a bashful maiden.” Three other gods schemed in this plot. Athena taught her the housework art of needlework and weaving (boring). Aphrodite gave her Persuasion and the power to arouse “cruel longing and limb-devouring cares.” (Now it begins to get interesting!) Finally, Hermes, the god of thievery and deceit, gave her a “bitch’s mind and deceptive character…lies and wily words.”

Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission

The nightmare was ready. This beautiful scary creature, this “sheer trap,” Pandora, was created as the ancestress of the “race of women,” the “plague to men who eat bread” (Hesiod, Op. 105-120). Pandora, the prototype of women, is the pure Nature, untamable and attractive. Hesiod writes that her sexual beauty (reminiscent of the lost paradise) returns each spring and her passions (destructive like nature’s inhuman forces) necessitates the “technology” (yes, this is the word he uses!) of marriage in order to control her.

Along with Pandora, there was Helene. She is the symbol of the essential ambiguity of woman and sexual beauty divinely embodied in her patroness Aphrodite, and equally as destructive as hers. Byron calls her “the Greek Eve,” the cause of masculine Greece’s “fall.” Homer even calls herself twice “bitch-faced,” adding once the honorable adjective “evil-plotting.” Why? Her sexual appetite could not be easily satisfied and controlled by men. It happens….

Her half-sister, Klytaimestra, was another interesting character. She embodied — as Aeschylus (Oresteia) says — “the relentless havoc of unleashed female passion that attacks from within the orders of household and state.” She was “the lion raised as a pet in the house…child-loving, and a joy to the old” while young, but ultimately defiling the house with blood, a “priest of destruction” when its savage nature surfaces.

I will spare you the number of times Homer calls her “bitch-faced.” This woman, driven by the female’s most potent force, a sexual energy magnified by a sense of injustice and dishonor, killed her rival Kassandra and her spouse Agamenon with a “man-minded heart,” Aeschilus says. She is even more dreadful than other women because she is a male woman! She appears to be the combination of “man’s will-driven mind” and “woman’s sexual passion” colluding to bring destruction and death.

Maybe “the technique of marriage” did not work so well in her case.

However, the list of merciless examples of female erotic power is long. I will stop here in order to discourage further misogynist feelings.

The word “sex” has traveled a long way, from the dusty office of sleepy bureaucrats all the way to the blood that flows in our human veins.


Books on the topic:

B. S. Thorton, Eros. The Myth of Ancient Greek Sensuality, Oxford: Harper Collins Publisher, 1997.

D. Halperin, J. J. Winkler, F. I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality, Princeton University Press, 1990.

About the Author

Susi Ferrarello, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the University of California