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What Causes Nightmares?

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When you're waking up from a nightmare, your first question might be, “Was that a bagel chasing me through my house with a sledgehammer?” And after the shock of dreaming about a homicidal, anthropomorphic breakfast dish wears off, your next question is probably, “Why was that bagel chasing me through my house with a sledgehammer?"

Nightmares, and dreams in general, occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. Depending on how long you sleep, your body goes through four to six cycles a night, and the REM stage gets longer with each sleep cycle. Most nightmares happen during the last third of your night’s sleep.

For most people, nightmares aren't a major problem: Only five percent of adults have a clinical nightmare problem where the dreams are too severe or frequent. But 85 percent of adults still experience normal nightmares—8 to 29 percent of people claim to have nightmares on a once-a-month basis, and two to six percent have nightmares once per week. 

Experts say anything from everyday stress to trauma (nightmares are common in post-traumatic stress disorder) to just good-old-fashioned watching scary movies might trigger nightmares. But if you want to dodge a restless night pockmarked by bad dreams, you might want to rethink having that pre-bedtime candy bar.

Was it something I ate?

Eating anything right before bed boosts metabolism and temperature, according to the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorder Center. That upsurge leads to more brain activity in REM sleep, prompting more dreams. One Canadian sleep study showed that, of 389 subjects, 8.5 percent blamed bouts of bad dreams on food.

Biochemists at Australia’s University of Tasmania conducted a study where they added mustard and Tabasco sauce to the dinner plates of six “young, healthy male subjects.” The spicy kick of the condiments “elevated body temperature during the first sleep cycle” and increased the subjects’ total awake time and sleep onset latency, or the time it takes to go from fully awake to fast asleep.

It’s not just the spicy stuff to watch out for, though. An article published by The Journal of the Mind and Body recapped a study that showed that junk food—ice cream and candy bars were used in the experiment—triggered more brain waves, causing seven of ten participants to experience nightmares.

How you sleep also plays a role in what kind of dreams you’re in for. A 2004 study found that left-side sleepers experience significantly more nightmares than right-side sleepers. And according to Prevention magazine, sleeping on your stomach—the least popular sleeping position—leads to the most emotionally charged dreams.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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