Why Aren't You Supposed to Wake a Sleepwalker?

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iStock

Reader Gabrielle wrote in to ask: “Why can't we wake a sleepwalker? Is it a can't do, or a shouldn't do?”

Despite urban legends claiming that waking a sleepwalker will send them into shock or give them a heart attack, it’s pretty much harmless. While you can wake them up, you probably shouldn’t, and that’s for both your benefit.

Waking a sleepwalker has never been shown to cause them any harm, but there’s plenty of potential for the person doing the waking to get hurt. Sleepwalking usually occurs during Stage 3 non-rapid eye movement sleep, also known as slow wave sleep, and this stage of sleep is very deep. While waking straight from stage 3 is difficult, it can be done—but doing so can leave a person in a state of cognitive impairment (sleep scientists call it sleep inertia) for around 30 minutes.

Sleep experts warn that forcefully bringing a person out of a deep sleep into this impaired state can cause them to become startled, confused or agitated. Not immediately recognizing you as someone they know, they may push you, strike you, or otherwise lash out at you. Even if they don’t react aggressively, some sleepwalkers have been known to drive or prepare meals in their sleep, and having a groggy, confused person behind the wheel or at the stove can be dangerous for them and for others.

Instead of trying to wake a sleepwalker, the Sleep Disorders Center at NYU recommends gently leading them by the arm to guide them back to bed.

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

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

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