Announcer: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com
Robert Lamb: Hey. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Robert Lamb.
Julie Douglas: I'm Julie Douglas.
Robert Lamb: Tell me Julie; you've encountered people using the word "literally" incorrectly before, right?
Julie Douglas: Oh yeah. Yeah, I'm definitely - I'm someone who's used incorrectly before.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, use incorrectly in a sentence.
Julie Douglas: I am literally starving to death.
Robert Lamb: All right, or the famous sports line, "He literally took his head off." And - but the thing is generally, you're not - you're generally not starving, and in sports, people are generally not decapitated on the field.
Julie Douglas: Yeah; yeah; hopefully.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. So it's interesting to actually dive into the scientific world and look for examples where people's heads can literally explode because people will use this like, "Oh man, I read that article on nature and it made my head explode." Or, "I went to math class and my head totally exploded."
Julie Douglas: So we're seeking to answer the question: can your brain, your skull literally explode?
Robert Lamb: Yeah.
Julie Douglas: And if so, how? But I think we may need to go back in the time machine a bit to look at a good instance of splattering of the brain so to speak.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, because we have evidence from around 79AD, a little place called Herculaneum near Mount Vesuvius where archaeologists have found these skulls from the victims of people who died when this volcano erupted and the skull is completely cracked open like an egg that's been shattered.
Julie Douglas: Brutal.
Robert Lamb: Yeah.
Julie Douglas: So they're thinking that now that they've got more evidence that it had to do with the pyroclastic flow, right?
Robert Lamb: Yeah. And a pyroclastic flow is pretty mind blowing. When a volcano erupts all the stuff coming out the top is - of course, it's not just - it's not merely just smoke. It's ash. It's -
Julie Douglas: Rock and mud.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's all just pulverized by this rapid release of gas from the inner Earth. So all that stuff comes back down again and it can end up forming into this thing called pyroclastic flow, which is essentially just a mass of ash, gas, rock fragments all traveling at speeds up to 125 miles per hour, so just speeding along. And the temperatures in this thing are pretty amazing.
Julie Douglas: Up like 1400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. I've seen it range from 752 to 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty hot.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. Okay, so let's set the stage. Vesuvius erupts; there's this column of gas, this roiling mixture and if you're unlucky enough to live in Pompeii , you're probably gonna get buried in a bunch of ash, right?
Robert Lamb: Right.
Julie Douglas: Which is, I think, what we normally think about when we think about Vesuvius. We think about the inhabitants of Pompeii, but if you're in the little fishing village of Herculaneum, it's gonna be far worse. You may even be downwind of that pyroclastic flow.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. And again, it's just like this wall of what looks like smoke and then this wall of just rolling ash just coming down the side of the hills.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. And so you see the volcano erupt. Ten minutes later, you're trying to evacuate something. You're running down the street, and like you said, you've got this cloud mushrooming at you at 125 miles an hour. Yikes. 1400 degrees Fahrenheit: what is that gonna do to you?
Robert Lamb: Well, the scientists believe that what happens is when it first hits you, it's going to basically vaporize your soft tissues on the exterior of your body, but then the heat is also so intense that it cracks the enamel of your teeth. And actually, they've discovered that also the insides of the skull were kind of blackened.
Julie Douglas: And charred.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. So the brains are essentially boiling in there just in a split second. And it's like being - it's like something from a Sci-Fi novel or something where someone's hit with a ray gun. It's like suddenly the brain's boiling. And what happens if something's suddenly boiling inside a closed space like the cranium?
Julie Douglas: Yeah, so I was thinking it seems so Sci-Fi, something that's just incinerating before your eyes and the poor brain is boiling and just pops. And you had written an article about volcanic ash and you actually had a good explanation for that. I think you likened it to an egg and water.
Robert Lamb: Yeah.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, so it's boiling and if you think about a molten goo that your brain is in.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's - another way to think of it is if you've ever been camping and you had a can of beans or something, a can of soup and you were kind of heating it up hobo style, the stupidest thing you could possibly do would be to throw an entire can of soup into a fire because what's gonna happen?
Julie Douglas: It's gonna blow up.
Robert Lamb: Right. It's gonna blow up. You gotta poke holes in that can.
Julie Douglas: Of course.
Robert Lamb: Right. So it's like a similar thing occurring in a split second with these poor fishermen's skulls. It's just suddenly heat hits them and wham-o: the skull just cracks.
Julie Douglas: Instant literal blowing of the mind right there. And I think what's so cool about that is that they actually tried to replicate these results. Well, I shouldn't say that's what so cool about it. I think it's cool that they went to the trouble of trying to find out exactly how this is because again, before they got this sort of recent information, everybody was under the assumption that people had died from suffocation from the gases and volcanic ash and everything else raining down upon them. So now they know it was really the heat that was the element that wiped out the village and Pompeii.
And you have a bunch of scientists basically in a lab taking animal and human bones and exposing them to certain degrees of heat and finally being able to replicate this degree of charredness and also looking at the skulls as you had mentioned and seeing that there are parts of the skull missing. And "Hey, here is our conclusion. It got up to degrees so hot that it could just make your brain pop."
Robert Lamb: Yeah, they believe it got up - in Herculaneum, it got up to around 932 degrees Fahrenheit.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. And it was a big - this wasn't just a pyroclastic flow. It was that as well, but it was a pyroclastic cloud, so it hung aroun d. So even if you were ensconced away in some building and you thought you were hiding from it, the heat was eventually gonna get to you anyway.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, no insulation of the time was gonna save you from that.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. It's really horrific when you think about it.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, but luckily, like I say, I think it would have been over pretty quick.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, this is true. Like you said, it's sort of instant vaporization. So as far as ways to go, that's, I think, not too bad; not having experienced it myself.
Robert Lamb: No. I wouldn't seek it out.
Julie Douglas: No.
Robert Lamb: Now what is the - another interesting aspect of the whole situation with Vesuvius was the posture of the bodies.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. They call it the garden of fugitives because they found a bunch of different people who they assumed were suffocating to death because a lot of them had their hands up to their noses in a posture as if they were choking or whatnot. And they found it to actually be something called a cadaveric spasm, and this only happens with nuclear explosions and volcanic eruptions. So this is something that is an instantaneous muscular stiffening. So it's an instantaneous death mask if you will.
Robert Lamb: Wow.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. It's pretty shocking if you think about it. They actually - this is kinda interesting too, but a lot of the researchers had looked at the different postures and they categorized them, and some were called lifelike and some were called sleep like and some were called pugilistic attitude, which I really like.
Robert Lamb: This is the one where it kinda looks like they're boxing?
Julie Douglas: Yeah, it looks like - as if they were - and the conclusion was that they were sort of boxing at the elements, trying to get away from the volcanic ash or something; man versus nature, but I just love that it's called pugilistic attitude. I'm gonna start saying that you have a really pugilistic attitude.
Robert Lamb: It sounds kind like - almost kind of snobby on the part of the archaeologists if they're kind of like - they're thinking, "Hey, these primitive people from the past: they thought they could box away the volcanic eruption or fight it off with their hands." I don't know.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, think about how long we've had access to Pompeii and what our thoughts were when we were first discovering that. Was it in the 1800s? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like that's when people sort of became aware of it and really started to look at explanations. So yeah, they're boxing off the elements.
Robert Lamb: I remember becoming aware of it through my father's National Geographic subscription because I just remember they had all these really gnarly illustrations of all the bodies and the skulls in all those weird poses.
Julie Douglas: It's really fascinating. In fact, the PBS special - I think it's called Secrets of the Dead is fascinating because it looks at all the different things they can find out now through science, particularly with Herculaneum. That's somewhat new in the discoveries that they have found there, so it's cool stuff.
Robert Lamb: In researching the possibility of one's skull literally exploding I ran across another interesting tidbit and this had to do with giraffes. I don't know if you happened to come across this one as well, but giraffes' hearts - the heart of a giraffe produces a very high pressure to force the blood up to the head. So I found an instance where - online where some people were asking, "Well, how come the - when the giraffe leans down to get - leans its head down, cranes its neck forward, how come the pressure doesn't make the giraffe's head explode?"
Julie Douglas: How come?
Robert Lamb: Well, it's because the giraffe has this thing called a - and I'm probably going to mispronounce this, but rete mirable, which is Latin for wonderful net and it's a cluster of arteries and veins that diverts blood flow and changes - actually, equalizes blood pressure so that when the animal lowers its head, it kinda serves as a natural pressure relief system.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. Do you think they get dizzy nonetheless?
Robert Lamb: I don't know. Apparently, it's the same thing that - it keeps dogs - when dogs get really hot, it keeps their brains from overheating. It helps regulate where the blood's going in a penguin to keep the penguin from getting too - its extremities - cooling down blood too much. And also helps whales and other diving mammals when they're going down to different pressures from high pressure portions of the water.
Julie Douglas: Got you; very cool.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, I found that on the happy scientist, Robert Krampf's website.
Julie Douglas: Everybody needs some happy science. That's good stuff.
Robert Lamb: So let me ask you: has your head ever exploded?
Julie Douglas: Not literally.
Robert Lamb: Not literally? Okay.
Julie Douglas: No, but there is something called exploding head syndrome.
Robert Lamb: Okay. It sounds pretty severe.
Julie Douglas: It is. It does sound severe. And I actually have experienced that. Okay, so that is something that you feel inside of your brain, or you perceive inside of your brain. So there's been a couple of nights that I've woken up in the middle of the night and thought, "Oh my God." I've just heard this gigantic, really loud slamming sound in my - in what I thought was my environment and freaked out and got up and made sure that the mafia wasn't coming for me.
I don't know why I thought it was the mafia, but checked everything out and said, "Okay, everything's fine." And it's happened enough so that when I actually read about exploding brain syndrome I thought to myself, "Oh yeah, of course. I've had that. No big deal." So it sounds really dramatic, but at the end of the day, it's really just the person experiencing this sound and there's no pain. It's just a sense of alarm; of course, a surge in adrenaline.
Robert Lamb: Right, yeah. I've seen different people experienced it as more of like a gunshot noise; others it's like an explosion. Sometimes people experience apparently kind of a flash of light with it.
Julie Douglas: Yes.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. And as best they can tell, it's thought to be caused by a delay in the reduction of activity in selected areas of the brainstem.
Julie Douglas: What are you saying about my brainstem?
Robert Lamb: That it's not working right, I guess. It's kind of making you wake up in the night to imagine you're hearing sounds. But when I first found out about this one, I was like, "Oh my" - actually, even when I first started reading about it because initially, you're like, "Exploding head syndrome? That sounds insane." And then you read a little about it and initial explanations of it online are kind of like, "People are waking up in the night holding" - you can just picture people waking up clutching their head, screaming and thinking that their head's about to explode. That was the vision.
It's totally like Scanners. That's what I was thinking. So when you - when I asked - you mentioned it this morning just very nonchalant like, "Yeah, I think I've had exploding head syndrome." I was like, "Whoa. How can you just think you have it? Or how could you have not realized you had it before," but it's - exploding head syndrome or EHS as they call it, apparently is not really that severe.
Julie Douglas: Right.
Robert Lamb: If you experience it, don't go to your doctor and ask for - tell them you need medication because he's just gonna laugh at you. Well, he's probably not gonna laugh at you, but still.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. Or you might get some medication that you don't necessarily need.
Robert Lamb: It depends - yeah, if you -
Julie Douglas: This is a non-judgment zone. If you need to do that, it's fine, but yeah, generally you don't need to. And that's kind of I think why my reaction was so blasÃ© about it because I was like, "Well, yeah, so I heard this slamming sound in my head and sometimes that happens every once in a while, but yeah, no mafia people in my living room, so all was well."
Robert Lamb: And I believe it tends to occur in the early phases of sleep, right; when you're sort of - you're not really completely awake, and you're not really asleep yet?
Julie Douglas: Yeah, I think it's before you take the deep dive into sleep. And then sometimes, it occurs after the deep dive. So it's - and that's the twilight stage, I think they call it. So note to myself: I need to get my brainstem worked on.
Robert Lamb: Well, I think there's a kit you can get online for this. It's just like self repair [inaudible].
Julie Douglas: Oh yeah.
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Robert Lamb: So in researching this, we also ran across some stories that are completely not true about exploding heads.
Julie Douglas: But kinda wonderful because I think we both got excited.
Robert Lamb: Yeah. There was one about the chess player whose head exploded.
Julie Douglas: Yes.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, and I think we both had the same experience where we ran across the article, and then we were like, "Oh my goodness, gold. This is - we're totally gonna talk about this one." And then we saw the source.
Julie Douglas: Weekly World.
Robert Lamb: Yeah.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, but it started out kinda strong, right? It's still sort of impossible, but still it starts out kinda strong. And then, as it goes on, you sorta think, "I don't know about this. This just seems like it's just not possible" And then at the very end of the story, it says, "This is more common than you think it is and here are some signs that you may be in danger or your head exploding," which is my favorite thing about this article. And I won't read all of them, but here's one which was "Does your head sometimes ache when you think too hard?"
Robert Lamb: Yeah, I guess it does.
Julie Douglas: Okay, well, you could - your brain might explode. Yeah. Oh and here's another one, "Do you tend to analyze yourself too much?"
Robert Lamb: Ooh, yeah.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. That - there are many more like, "If you spend a lot of time balancing your checkbook." Yeah, it's good stuff, but I think the theory behind that that they tried to deposit in the story was that there was too much electrical activity happening in the brain.
Robert Lamb: Oh wow.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, it was like an overload of the circuitry.
Robert Lamb: All right, now how about the trumpet guy because that was another story?
Julie Douglas: Oh yeah, there's a trumpet player. Okay, this one was in the National Enquirer, so obviously, you see that and you go, "Oh, okay. This is right next to Bat Boy." Ugo Solari was playing The Impossible Dream on trumpet when his head swelled and burst "like a balloon."
Robert Lamb: Okay.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, and what I love about this story is that they've just got all these people talking about the event, all these onlookers and they have these descriptions about how there was a blond in the front row and she got brains in her blond hair. And it's pretty good stuff.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, though I can't imagine even - how would the brain explode from playing? It's just - I don't buy it as easily as I buy the chess player.
Julie Douglas: I don't know. It was The Impossible Dream. I've never played it on a trumpet.
Robert Lamb: And why on The Impossible Dream? I'm thinking like Flight of the Bumble Bees would probably do it.
Julie Douglas: I don't know. I think it's just something from the Man of La Mancha. I'm gonna have to listen to it again, but that was a good one, I thought. And then there's this idea too that if you were somehow flung out into space that you would explode.
Robert Lamb: Oh yes. Yeah, this one is one you can - I believe we mentioned the Sean Connery Sci-Fi movie Outland in the last podcast or the one before it, but that was the movie where the guys are suddenly outside the spaceship and oh, their head swells up and bursts like a big bloody balloon.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. And that's not necessarily gonna happen. In fact, not even not necessarily. It's literally not going to happen.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, and you can - NASA's pretty open about this. They really want everybody to know that you're not gonna explode. Basically, you're not even necessarily gonna be injured. You might get kind of like - for a brief exposure to the void kind of like what happens in, I think 2001 -
Robert Lamb: Yeah, and I think they ripped it off in various other films later on. I think they do the same thing in Firefly and Event Horizon, but yeah, if you exhale all the air and you don't have - you're not holding your breath like an idiot, then you're not gonna be injured in that regard. You might get some sort of mild - sort of like the bends situation. You might have some mild even non-painful and reversible swelling of the skin, but the one thing that it really stresses that your skin is a really good system. It's really great at containing -
Julie Douglas: Yeah, it's a barrier.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's a barrier and it's not ideal for space walking. You shouldn't depend on it entirely.
Julie Douglas: No, you could get sun burned pretty badly.
Robert Lamb: Right, but when push comes to shove, and especially when the shove is out of a space airlock, you're probably gonna be okay for a very brief period of time before any other causes can jump in there and kill you.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, I think a minute or two and then the loss of oxygen and you're out. It's a very un-histrionic sort of death that you would experience. There would be no explosions.
Robert Lamb: Yeah.
Julie Douglas: Yeah. So just in case that was something you were worried about, don't worry. You would not explode in space.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, if anybody out there was on the fence about getting that Virgin Galactic ticket, yeah, feel free to go ahead and - go and buy it. Push purchase; you're good. Or - well, I guess - or you can also reserve it. What is it: $20,000 I think to reserve, $200,000 for the ticket?
Julie Douglas: Oh yeah, I didn't even look at my paperwork.
Robert Lamb: You just signed it.
Julie Douglas: I just - yeah, take it out of my bank account.
Robert Lamb: So I guess that's about it for exploding heads.
Julie Douglas: That's not literally it, is it?
Robert Lamb: It might be. It might literally be it unless anybody out there has something that we've overlooked or indeed has any stories about their own head seeming to explode in the night due to loud noises. And you can also check out more on the howstuffworks.com website where we have - this is where I actually wrote an article on "How is Volcanic Ash Made," which goes into pyroclastic flow and all that.
Julie Douglas: And the egg analogy.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, the egg analogy and other ways that volcanic ash can really mess with human life and just getting about town. And then we also have an article about the whole going out into space without a spacesuit thing. Marshall Brain, the site founder wrote one called "What if an Astronaut Went on a Space Walk without a Spacesuit?" No explosions in there, but a lot of cool data about how it would affect your body.
Julie Douglas: All right, well thanks for listening. You can find those articles and many more every day on howstuffworks.com.
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