How Do Sword Swallowers Swallow Swords?

iStock/chrisjo
iStock/chrisjo

Swallowing food involves a series of muscle contractions, both voluntary and involuntary. Swallowing a sword requires no actual swallowing, but the complete opposite: the deliberate relaxation of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

First, the sword swallower tilts their head back and extends their neck to line up their mouth with their esophagus and straighten the pharynx. Relaxing their throat, they line the sword up with the path of their GI tract and move the blade into and through the mouth, pharynx and upper esophageal sphincter and into the esophagus. As the sword makes its way through the GI tract, it straightens out esophagus' curves and sometimes, if an especially long sword is used, passes through the gastroesophageal junction (lower esophageal sphincter) and into the stomach.

It sounds easy, but sword swallowing isn't something you can learn to do in an afternoon. Learning to relax the GI tract takes practice, and lots of it. Furthermore, a sword swallowing performance usually goes better if the swallower can make it look like it isn't the worst thing that ever happened to them. To see how difficult that can be, touch the back of your throat right now.

Not pleasant, is it? Now imagine cramming a long, cold and rigid sword down there, and even further, while keeping a straight face.

Beyond the physical process of relaxing the GI tract and carefully inserting the sword, the feat is accomplished by practice, attaining a mind-over-matter attitude and maintaining calm and focus during the performance.

Some sword swallowing facts:

"¢ During the development of endoscopy, the examination of the interior of the human body using a scope, researchers often worked with sword swallowers because their bodies were able to accommodate the rigid instruments.

"¢ The Coney Island Sideshow School offers organized sword swallowing classes.

"¢ Sword swallowing originated about 4000 years ago in India among fakirs and shamans who developed it as demonstration of their invulnerability, power and connection with the gods.

"¢ Sword swallowing came to America in the early 1800s and began gaining popularity after swallowers performed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

"¢ The Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) proclaimed February 28th, 2008 as International Sword Swallower's Day "to raise awareness of sword swallowers around the world." (February is National Swallowing Disorders Month)

"¢ Sword Swallowers refer to irritation of the throat due to performance as a "sword throat."

"¢ Red Stuart recently set the record for most swords swallowed simultaneously when he swallowed 34 at the 2008 Philadelphia Tattoo Convention on April 19, 2008.

"¢ In 2003, Matty "Blade" Henshaw set the record for most swords swallowed in a year: 3782.

"¢ "The Sword of Swords" has been swallowed by 33 different performers since 1994, when it was made by Thomas Blackthorne as an icon that could link the far-flung members of the sword-swallowing world.

"¢ In carny lingo, sword swallowers are called "blade glommers" or "steel slurpers."

This question was suggested my friend Paul Montgomery. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

Why Are So Many Ancient Statues Missing Their Noses?

Aninka/iStock via Getty Images
Aninka/iStock via Getty Images

Spencer Alexander McDaniel:

This is a question that a lot of people have asked. If you have ever visited a museum, you have probably seen ancient sculptures such as the one below—a Greek marble head of the poet Sappho currently held in the Glyptothek in Munich, with a missing nose:

A smashed or missing nose is a common feature on ancient sculptures from all cultures and all time periods of ancient history. It is by no means a feature that is confined to sculptures of any particular culture or era. Even the nose on the Great Sphinx, which stands on the Giza Plateau in Egypt alongside the great pyramids, is famously missing:

Full profile of Great Sphinx including pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre in the background on a clear sunny, blue sky day in Giza, Cairo, Egypt with no people
pius99/iStock via Getty Images

If you have seen one of these sculptures, you have probably wondered: “What happened to the nose?” Some people seem to have a false impression that the noses on the majority of these sculptures were deliberately removed by someone.

It is true that a few ancient sculptures were indeed deliberately defaced by people at various times for different reasons. For instance, there is a first-century AD Greek marble head of the goddess Aphrodite that was discovered in the Athenian Agora. You can tell that this particular marble head was at some point deliberately vandalized by Christians because they chiseled a cross into the goddess’s forehead.

This marble head, however, is an exceptional case that is not representative of the majority of ancient sculptures that are missing noses. For the vast majority of ancient sculptures that are missing noses, the reason for the missing nose has nothing to do with people at all. Instead, the reason for the missing nose simply has to do with the natural wear that the sculpture has suffered over time.

The fact is, ancient sculptures are thousands of years old and they have all undergone considerable natural wear over time. The statues we see in museums today are almost always beaten, battered, and damaged by time and exposure to the elements. Parts of sculptures that stick out, such as noses, arms, heads, and other appendages are almost always the first parts to break off. Other parts that are more securely attached, such as legs and torsos, are generally more likely to remain intact.

You are probably familiar with the ancient Greek statue shown below. It was found on the Greek island of Melos and was originally sculpted by Alexandros of Antioch in around the late second century BC. It is known as the Aphrodite of Melos or, more commonly, Venus de Milo. It famously has no arms:

Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture
winduptu/iStock via Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Aphrodite of Melos did, in fact, have arms, but they broke off at some point, as arms, noses, and legs often tend to do. The exact same thing has happened to many other sculptures’ noses. Because the noses stick out, they tend to break off easily.

Greek sculptures as we see them today are merely worn-out husks of their former glory. They were originally brightly painted, but most of the original pigments faded or flaked off long ago, leaving the bare, white marble exposed. Some exceptionally well-preserved sculptures do still retain traces of their original coloration, though. For example:

Lady with blue and gilt garment, fan and sun hat, from Tanagra 325-300 BC
Capillon, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even for the sculptures that do not retain visible color to the naked eye, archaeologists can detect traces of pigment under an ultraviolet light using special techniques. There are also dozens of references to painted sculptures in ancient Greek literature, such as in Euripides's Helen, in which Helen laments (in translation, of course):

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.”

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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