That Sugar Rush Is All In Your Head

iStock.com/egal
iStock.com/egal

We've all heard of the "sugar rush." It's a vision that prompts parents and even teachers to snatch candy away from kids, fearing they'll soon be bouncing off the walls, wired and hyperactive. It’s a myth American culture has clung to for decades—and these days, it’s not just a kid thing. Adults are wary of sugar, too. Some of this fear is warranted—diabetes, the obesity epidemic—but the truth is, sugar doesn't cause hyperactivity. Its impact on the body isn’t an up-and-down thing. The science is clear: There is no "sugar rush.”

To find out how and why the myth started, we need to go back to well before the first World War—then pay a visit to the 1970s.

Our Complicated Relationship With Sugar

According to cultural historian Samira Kawash, America has had a long, complex, love-hate relationship with sugar. In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Kawash traces the turn from candy-as-treat to candy-as-food in the early 20th century. At that time, the dietary recommendations from scientists included a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with sugar as essential for energy.

Not everyone was on board: The temperance movement, for example, pushed the idea that sugar caused an intoxication similar to alcohol, making candy-eaters sluggish, loopy, and overstimulated. In 1907, the chief of the Philadelphia Bureau of Health estimated that the "appetite" for candy and alcohol were "one and the same," Kawash writes. On the flip side, other scientists suggested that sugar from candy could stave off cravings for alcohol—a suggestion that candymakers then used in their advertisements.

While the debate about sugar as an energy source raged in America, militaries around the world were also exploring sugar as energy for soldiers. In 1898, the Prussian war office became the first to commission a study on the sweet stuff—with promising results: "Sugar in small doses is well-adapted to help men to perform extraordinary muscular labor," early researchers wrote. German military experiments introduced candy and chocolate cakes as fortification for the troops, and the U.S. military added sugary foods to soldiers' diets soon after. When American soldiers returned from World War I, they craved sweets, which "propelled an enormous boom" of candy sales that has lasted to this day, Kawash wrote on her blog, The Candy Professor. American advertisers framed candy as a quick, easy source of energy for busy adults during their workday.

As artificial sweeteners moved into kitchens in the 1950s, candymakers struggled to make their products appeal to women who were watching their waistlines. One industry group, Sugar Information Inc., produced a tiny "Memo to Dieters" pamphlet in 1954 designed to fit inside chocolate boxes. "Sugar before meals raises your blood sugar level and reduces your appetite," it claimed. But by the 1970s, the sugar-positivity heyday had started to wane.

The Origins of the Sugar Rush Myth

The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity gained traction in the early 1970s, when more attention was being paid to how diet might affect behavior. One of the major figures studying the possible connection between diet and behavior was an allergist named Benjamin Feingold, who hypothesized that certain food additives, including dyes and artificial flavorings, might lead to hyperactivity. He formalized this into a popular—yet controversial—elimination diet program. Though certain sugary foods were banned from the program for containing dyes and flavorings, sugar itself was never formally prohibited. Still, thanks in part of the Feingold diet, sugar started to become the poster child for diet and hyperactivity.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that serious doubts about sugar's connection to hyperactivity began to be raised by scientists. As FDA historian Suzanne White Junod wrote in 2003 [PDF], the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health concluded that "alleged links between sugar consumption and hyperactivity/attention deficit disorders in children had not been scientifically supported." Despite "mothers' mantra of no sweets before dinner," she noted, "more serious allegations of adverse pediatric consequences … have not withstood scientific scrutiny."

A 1994 paper found that aspartame—an artificial sweetener that had also been accused of inducing hyperactivity in children—had no effect on 15 children with ADHD, even though they had consumed 10 times more than the typical amount.

A year later, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a meta-analysis of the effect of sugar on children's behavior and cognition. It examined data from 23 studies that were conducted under controlled conditions: In every study, some children were given sugar, and others were given an artificial sweetener placebo like aspartame. Neither researchers nor children knew who received the real thing. The studies recruited neurotypical children, kids with ADHD, and a group who were "sensitive" to sugar, according to their parents.

The analysis found that "sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children." (The authors did note that “a small effect of sugar or effects on subsets of children cannot be ruled out.”)

"So far, all the well-controlled scientific studies examining the relationship between sugar and behavior in children have not been able to demonstrate it," Mark Wolraich, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who has worked with children with ADHD for more than 30 years and the co-author of that 1995 paper, tells Mental Floss.

Yet the myth that consuming sugar causes hyperactivity hasn’t really gone away. One major reason is the placebo effect, which can have powerful results. The idea that you or your children might feel a "sugar rush" from too much candy isn't unlike the boost you hope to feel from an energy drink or a meal replacement shake or bar (which can contain several teaspoons of sugar). The same is true for parents who claim that their kids seem hyperactive at a party. Peer pressure and excitement seem to be to blame—not sugar.

"The strong belief of parents [in sugar's effects on children's behavior] may be due to expectancy and common association," Wolraich wrote in the JAMA paper.

It works the other way, too: Some parents say they've noticed a difference in their kids' behavior once they take out most sugars from their diets. This strategy, like the Feingold diet, continues to attract interest and followers because believing it works has an impact on whether it actually works or not.

Correlation, Causation, and Caffeine

Which isn't to say there are absolutely no links between sugar consumption and poor health outcomes. A 2006 paper found that drinking a lot of sugary soft drinks was associated with mental health issues, including hyperactivity, but the study's design relied on self-reported questionnaires that were filled out by more than 5000 10th-graders in Oslo, Norway. The authors also noted that caffeine is common in colas, which might have a confounding effect.

In another study, conducted by University of Vermont professor of economics Sara Solnick and Harvard health policy professor David Hemenway, the researchers investigated the so-called "Twinkie defense," in which sugar is said to contribute to an "altered state of mind." (The phrase Twinkie defense comes from the 1979 trial of Dan White for killing San Francisco city district supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. His lawyers argued that White had "diminished capacity and was unable to premeditate his crime," as evidenced in part by his sudden adoption of a junk-food diet in the months before the murders. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.)

In their survey of nearly 1900 Boston public high schoolers, Solnick and Hemenway found "a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence." Adolescents who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week—nearly 30 percent of the group—were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon.

But Solnick tells Mental Floss the study isn't evidence of a "sugar rush."

"Even if sugar did cause aggression—which we did not prove—we have no way of knowing whether the effect is immediate (and perhaps short-lived) as the phrase 'sugar rush' implies, or whether it’s a longer-term process," she says. Sugar could, for example, increase irritability, which might sometimes flare up into aggression—but not as an immediate reaction to consuming sugar.

Harvard researchers are looking into the long-term effects of sugar using data from Project Viva, a large observational study of pregnant women, mothers, and their children. A 2018 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine studied more than 1200 mother-child pairs from Project Viva, assessing mothers' self-reported diets during pregnancy as well as their children's health during early childhood.

"Sugar consumption, especially from [sugar-sweetened beverages], during pregnancy and childhood, and maternal diet soda consumption may adversely impact child cognition,” the authors concluded, though they noted that other factors could explain the association.

“This study design can look at relationships, but it cannot determine cause and effect,” says Wolraich, who was not involved in the study. "It is equally possible that parents of children with lower cognition are likely to cause a greater consumption of sugar or diet drinks, or that there is a third factor that influences cognition and consumption.”

The Science of the Sugar Crash

Though the evidence against the sugar rush is strong, a "sugar crash" is real—but typically it only affects people with diabetes.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, low blood sugar—or hypoglycemia—is a serious medical condition. When a lot of sugar enters the bloodstream, it can spike the blood sugar level, causing fluctuation, instability, and eventually a crash—which is called reactive hypoglycemia. If a diabetic's blood sugar levels are too low, a number of symptoms—including shakiness, fatigue, weakness, and more—can follow. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures and even coma.

For most of us, though, it's rare. Endocrinologist Dr. Natasa Janicic-Kahric told The Washington Post that "about 5 percent of Americans experience sugar crash."

You're more likely to experience it if you do a tough workout on an empty stomach. "If one exercises vigorously and doesn't have sufficient intake to supplement their use of calories, they can get lightheaded," Wolraich says. "But in most cases, the body is good at regulating a person's needs."

So what you're attributing to sugar—the highs and the lows—is probably all in your head.

Fact-Checking 13 Plot Points in All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic

Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

After being the face of Shakespeare film adaptations to a whole generation in films like Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), and Love's Labour's Lost (2000), Kenneth Branagh has stepped into the shoes of the Bard himself. The British actor plays William Shakespeare in the new movie All Is True, which the five-time Oscar nominee also directed.

The film, which began rolling out in U.S. theaters on May 10, functions as a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare in Love. Call this one Shakespeare in Retirement. It depicts the Bard in the final few years of his life, which historians believe he mostly spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. Before his death in 1616, Shakespeare reunited with the wife and children he’d spent so much time away from while working in London.

All Is True takes its name from an alternate title used during Shakespeare’s lifetime for his play Henry VIII. The film frequently winks at its title, exploring the role of truth—or lack thereof—in the life of Branagh’s Will.

Spotty historical records leave many details about Shakespeare’s life in the realm of uncertainty, so filmmakers depicting the playwright must make use of broad artistic license to fill in the blanks. Mental Floss spoke with Harvard University professor and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare author Stephen Greenblatt to fact-check All Is True. It turns out that the film’s depiction of Shakespeare is a mix of truth, presumed truth, and pure imagination.

1. Partially true: Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon after the Globe burned down.

All Is True opens with the striking image of Will’s silhouette in front of a massive, crackling fire that destroys his prized playhouse. A title card tells viewers that at a performance of Shakespeare’s Life of Henry VIII (a.k.a. All Is True) at the Globe on June 29, 1613, during Act 1 Scene 4, a prop cannon misfired, starting the blaze. The next title card states, “The Globe Theatre burnt entirely to the ground. William Shakespeare never wrote another play.”

A prop cannon likely did misfire, and the resulting fire did destroy the Globe; while there were fortunately no deaths or serious injuries as a result, the fire delivered a serious financial blow to Shakespeare and other shareholders in the King's Men, the company of actors who performed at the Globe. But "never wrote another play" is a stretch. “The movie suggests he rode out of London, as it were, in the wake of the fire,” Greenblatt says. “But actually, it’s widely thought that he retired to Stratford before but he continued to write for the theater.”

The Tempest, for example, was likely the last play Shakespeare wrote solo, without a collaborator, and some scholars theorize he wrote it at home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not in London. Academics are divided as to which play was the final play Shakespeare ever wrote, but the general consensus is that it was either Henry VIII or The Two Noble Kinsmen, both collaborations with John Fletcher, which were possibly written during return trips to London.

2. True: Shakespeare’s daughter was accused of adultery.

Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Ducz- mal as Elizabeth Hall, Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall
Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Duczmal as Elizabeth Hall, and Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film depicts a man named John Lane accusing Shakespeare’s eldest child, Susanna Hall, of adultery. That really happened, and the real-life Susanna Hall sued Lane in 1613 for slanderously saying that she had cheated on her husband with local man Ralph Smith.

As for whether Susanna Hall really did have an extramarital relationship with these men, that’s not known for sure, and the film leaves this somewhat up to viewer interpretation. But her real-life slander case did succeed in getting Lane excommunicated.

3. Likely true: Shakespeare had no schooling beyond age 14.

When a fanboy approaches Will with some eager questions, he says, “They say you left school at 14.” The line may be a bit misleading: Shakespeare did not quit school as a student would today if he "left school" at age 14. But it is true that boys in Shakespeare’s time completed grammar school at around age 14. They then could begin apprenticeships. Shakespeare’s schooling would have been intense, though: He would have been in lessons from 6 a.m. to as late at 6 p.m. six days a week, 12 months a year (getting an extra hour to sleep in only during the winter, when school started at 7 a.m. in the dark and cold months).

As Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up by the threat of violence.”

No surviving records confirm that Shakespeare attended the school in Stratford-upon-Avon, but most scholars safely assume that he did. The grammar school there was free and accessible to all boys in the area, the exception being the children of the very poor, since they had to begin working at a young age.

Regarding the fanboy moment in the film, Greenblatt says, “The implication of that moment was precisely to remind us that [Shakespeare] didn’t go to university, as far as we know. I’m sure he didn’t. He would have bragged about it at some point" (as many of his contemporaries did).

4. Likely true: Susanna Hall was literate, while Shakespeare’s wife and younger daughter were not.

While boys received a formal education in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, girls did not. The film depicts Susanna as skillful at reading, unlike Will’s younger daughter, Judith, or his wife, Anne.

This is likely true: Greenblatt says that “the general sense is that Susanna was literate and that Judith and Anne were not,” though this is another area of Shakespeare’s family history that scholars cannot know for certain.

“This is a trickier matter than it looks,” Greenblatt says, “because lots of people in this period, including Shakespeare’s father, clearly knew how to read, but didn’t know how to write. This would be particularly the case for many women but not exclusively women in the period—that writing is a different skill from reading and that quite a few people were able to read.”

5. True: Shortly after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in 'All Is True'
Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

When Will insists that he did mourn Hamnet, his only son, who died in 1596 at age 11, Anne bites back, “You mourn him now. At the time you wrote Merry Wives of Windsor.”

It’s a gut-punch from Anne not just because Merry Wives (featuring the ever-entertaining character Falstaff) is a raucous comedy but also because it was, in the most cynical view, a cash grab. Shakespeare likely wrote Merry Wives after the Falstaff-featuring Henry IV Part 1 but before moving onto the grimmer Henry IV Part 2, “to tap an unexpected new market phenomenon,” scholars Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson wrote in British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue regarding the "humours comedy," which debuted to immediate popularity in May 1597.

There is another way to interpret this: Both parts of Henry IV deal with a troubled father-son relationship, and the conclusion of Part 2 depicts a son taking up the mantle of his deceased father. Perhaps Prince Hal and King Henry hit too close to home for Will (who in this film hopes his son will follow in his poetic footsteps), and a lighthearted comedy is what he needed.

6. Very unlikely: The Earl of Southampton visited Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was one of Shakespeare’s patrons, and Shakespeare included a lengthy dedication to Southampton in his poem The Rape of Lucrece. Despite that affiliation, the idea that Southampton (played by Ian McKellen, yet another acclaimed Shakespearean actor) would have visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford is just “a piece of imagination,” according to Greenblatt. He points out that “it’s difficult to imagine any longer the social abyss” between an earl and someone like Shakespeare but explains, “The difference in social class is so extreme that the idea that the Earl would trot by on his horse to visit Shakespeare at his house is wildly unlikely.”

It is more likely that fellow playwright Ben Jonson would have visited Shakespeare, as he does later in the film.

7. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s sonnets were published “illegally and without [his] consent”

This is what Will reminds the Earl of Southampton of in the film. Regarding that term illegally, it’s worth first noting that though copyright law as we know it did not exist in 16th century England, “there definitely were legal controls over publication,” Greenblatt says.

“This is a notoriously complicated matter—the publication of the sonnets,” he explains. “It is still very much open to question. It’s not a settled matter as to whether Shakespeare did or did not have anything to do with the publication of those sonnets.”

8. Uncertain: Shakespeare wrote some of his sonnets for and about the Earl of Southampton.

Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in 'All is True'
Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in All is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

One juicy debate about Shakespeare that endures is the question of who (if anyone) is the subject of his sonnets. Some speculate that his poems that describe a fair youth refer to the Earl of Southampton.

The film imagines a slightly more complicated—and perhaps more believable—situation than the idea that Southampton and Shakespeare had a fling: Will harbors feelings for Southampton, unrequited by the Earl, who reminds Will, “As a man, it is not your place to love me.”

“There is no way of achieving any certainty,” Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World regarding whether the sonnets were written as love tokens for anyone in particular. “After generations of feverish research, no one has been able to offer more than guesses, careful or wild.”

9. True: 3000 attendees could fit into the Globe for one performance.

In an elaborate, impressive clapback directed at Thomas Lucy, a local politician who repeatedly insults Will, the celebrated playwright cites his many responsibilities in London, then says he somehow “found time to write down the pretty thoughts you mentioned.”

It’s true that Shakespeare was both a businessman and poet. His status as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) was actually unprecedented: “No other English literary playwright had ever held such a position,” Oxford professor Bart van Es wrote in Shakespeare in Company, adding that becoming part owner of the Globe, “the most impressive venue in London … placed him in a category entirely of his own.”

Among the accomplishments Will lists for Lucy is filling the Globe with “3000 paying customers per afternoon.”

“That is the upper end of the size of those public theaters, as far as we now know from archaeological evidence,” Greenblatt says. “Three thousand is at the high end, but yes. Whether they actually got 3000 people every afternoon is another question.”

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Globe that opened in London in 1997 has a capacity of about half that. Its dimensions are the same as the Globe of Shakespeare’s day but modern fire codes don’t allow playgoers to be packed in quite so tightly.

10. True: Shakespeare wrote Thomas Quiney out of his will.

The film depicts the retired playwright adding his son-in-law-to-be, Thomas Quiney, to his will in anticipation of Quiney's marriage to Will's youngest daughter, Judith. A couple of months later, Shakespeare amends his will again after it’s revealed that Quiney fathered a child by another woman before marrying Judith.

This may have really happened. Shakespeare summoned his lawyer in January 1616 to write Quiney into the will. Then in March, a month after his wedding, Quiney confessed in the vicar’s court to being responsible for the pregnancy of unmarried Stratford woman Margaret Wheeler, who had just died in childbirth (along with the child). Shakespeare then met again with his lawyer to strike out Quiney’s name and insert Judith’s name instead. However, some historians dispute that Shakespeare made this change as a result of the scandal; they instead suggest that it was due to practical concerns about Judith’s financial future.

All Is True reverses scholars’s common assumption that Shakespeare had a better relationship with Susanna’s husband, physician John Hall, than with Judith’s. It depicts Will’s removal of Quiney from his will as a reluctant necessity. “What the movie does is suggest [that John] Hall is an obnoxious, Puritan prig and that Thomas Quiney is actually a very nice fellow,” Greenblatt says.

One aspect of Shakespeare’s relationship with Hall that the film leaves out entirely is scholars’ assumption that Hall would have tended to the playwright during any sickness that led to his death. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, however, and Hall’s surviving casebooks date back only to 1617, the year after Shakespeare’s death.

11. Unlikely: Shakespeare’s family recited his verse at his funeral.

At what appears to be Will’s funeral, Anne, Judith, and Susanna (all with varying levels of literacy) read aloud the words of a dirge sung for the supposedly dead Imogen in Cymbeline. “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,” they quote, “Thou thy worldly task hast done … All lovers young, all lovers must / Consign to thee and come to dust.”

The words are evocative of Scripture. (“Be not afraid” / “Have no fear” is said to be the most repeated phrase in both the Old Testament and the New Testament—and of course there’s the Genesis passage often read at funerals: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) Greenblatt says it is “very unlikely” that verse not from the Bible would have been recited at a funeral at the time of Shakespeare’s death, adding, “but I found that moment quite touching.”

SPOILER WARNING: The remainder of this article includes spoilers about some major twists in All Is True.

12. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s offspring wrote poetry.

Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All is True (2019)
Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In All Is True, when Will voices grief for his son who had died 17 years prior, he often references Hamnet’s apparent talent as a poet. “He showed such promise, Anne,” Will cries.

Branagh’s film imagines that Hamnet wrote poems full of wit and mischief. Then Judith drops the revelation that she actually crafted the poems, dictating them to her twin brother, who knew how to write. All Is True thus displaces the controversial authorship question from Shakespeare to his children.

“There’s no historical trace of any of this,” Greenblatt says. “That is just an invention.”

13. Uncertain: Hamnet Shakespeare died of the plague.

The other revelation that stuns Will in All Is True is about Hamnet’s death. Will looks at the record noting young Hamnet’s death and becomes suspicious about whether his only son really died of the plague. He confronts Anne and Judith, pointing out the small number of deaths in Stratford in the summer of 1596, saying that the plague strikes with “a scythe, not a dagger.” At this point, Judith confesses that her twin took his own life after she threatened to tell their father about the true author of the poems. She then tearfully recalls Hamnet, who did not know how to swim, stepping into a pond and drowning.

Though the historical record doesn't supply a cause of death for Hamnet, many historians assume he died of the bubonic plague. For the film's revelation about Hamnet’s suicide, which Greenblatt deems as another imaginative invention, Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton seem to have taken inspiration from the real parish register recording burials at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, which lists no more than two dozen burials between June and September 1596. Meanwhile, a plague epidemic hit Shakespeare’s hometown shortly after the poet’s birth in 1564 and lasted about six months, killing more than 200 people in Stratford, which was about a sixth of the population.

As Greenblatt points out, the storyline about Judith’s poems and Hamnet’s death serves as a commentary on Virginia Woolf’s compelling essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister,” which appears in A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. The essay imagines a tragic story for Shakespeare’s fictional sister who is as gifted as her successful brother but is not permitted to go to school and whose parents scold her each time she picks up a book. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was,” Woolf wrote.

Greenblatt observes that the central theme of All Is True seems to be “the tragic cost of not having full access to literacy if you were a woman.” He notes, though, that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, “there were actually quite a few [literate] women, and the work of the last generation, particularly feminist scholars, have recovered a much larger field than Virginia Woolf could have understood or than the movie suggests, of women who were reading and writing in the period.”

Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True is in theaters now.

Could Game of Thrones's Dragons Really Fly? We Asked Some Experts

HBO
HBO

Game of Thrones is a show that requires a serious suspension of disbelief. It exists in a universe where the dead can rise from their graves, humans can see through the eyes of animals, anyone can travel between Dragonstone and Eastwatch at or near the speed of light, and Jon Snow can hold an unbroken frown for seven straight seasons.

Still, as we anticipate the premiere of Game of Thrones's eighth and final season on April 14—and as we remember cowering each time Drogon hovered in midair to pour a throatful of flame over one of Daenerys Targaryen’s enemies in last season's big-budget battles—we started to wonder: Could a beast that big really maneuver through the air like that? Fortunately, two scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying flying creatures agreed to clear that up for us.

Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist who specializes in crows, says there’s one major problem with dragon flight: physics. “They’re just so damn big,” he says. “Way too big to ever get off the ground.”

For comparison, there's the albatross, which weighs around 25 pounds and needs a 10-foot wingspan in order to heave itself into the air. And birds don’t scale up easily. McGowan says that as a bird gets heavier, its wingspan has to grow exponentially to keep up: “If you need a 10 foot wingspan for a 25-pound bird, what would you need for a 2000-pound dragon?” (Last season, one eagle-eyed engineer estimated that Drogon weighed around three tons and flew with a wingspan under 60 feet—and the dragons are even bigger now.)

In the real world, bird species generally stay small to avoid having to grow their wings exponentially. Those that do grow large wings, like the albatross, can travel long distances—but pay the price in maneuverability. Birds with smaller wings can maneuver in tighter spaces, but have to expend much more energy to stay aloft. “Birds make a lot of compromises to fly,” McGowan says, “and dragons just aren’t doing that.”

Still, there is some hope for letting our dragon-sized fantasies take flight. Michael Habib, a paleontologist and assistant professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, studies the flight mechanics of extinct animals, including giant pterosaurs once thought to be too big to get off the ground. He also works with film studios like Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm to design believable flying monsters like griffins, hippogriffs, and pegasi. There are three tricks, he says, for plausibly scaling up fantasy flying creatures.

First, you want to give them the right wing type. Like modern day bats, pterosaurs—which lived from 228 to 66 million years ago—had membrane wings, made of skin stretched over a series of elongated fingers. These are good for slow, maneuverable flight, and they don’t have to be as large compared to the body as a bird’s feather wings. Habib tells Mental Floss that a dragon with a good pair of wings would be able to sustain flight easily once it was in the air—but it could only get there “if it came with a catapult for takeoff.”

Second, a dragon needs to have the right skeletal structure. Their bones should be strong enough to withstand the massive mechanical forces involved in flight without getting too heavy. Hollow bones are best; they're actually stronger than a very dense bone with a similar mass. Habib explains that’s because the bone’s ability to withstand the strain of flight depends on its diameter—the wider it is, the more force it can take. A hollow, air-filled bone can be much wider than a dense bone full of marrow, and it will still weigh less than the dense bone.

Third, and most importantly, a dragon needs to have as much power available for takeoff as possible. Habib says that almost every animal that takes flight, from birds to flying squirrels to winged snakes, gets into the air by jumping, not flapping its wings.

“What birds get stuck on is they only have two hind limbs available for jumping power,” Habib says. “Bats do better—and pterosaurs did, too—because they walk on their wings and they can jump off of all four limbs.”

That makes a big difference, especially because most of a bird’s strength is in its wings. While birds take off with less than half their bodies’ muscle power, bats and pterosaurs launch themselves with everything they’ve got. That’s what allowed the largest pterosaurs to grow into 550-pound behemoths, while the heaviest-ever flying bird—the extinct Argentavis magnificens—maxed out around 150 pounds.

The dragons in Game of Thrones do have membrane wings, and they could conceivably have hollow bones. Back in season three, WIRED reported that the show’s animators based the dragons on a cross between an eagle and a bat. (Their strenuous, flappy hovering certainly takes after fruit bats.) Although the dragons walk around on their wings like bats, they don’t seem to jump off of them during takeoff. Throughout the series, we see them dive from cliffs and glide into flight, leap off their hind legs after a running start, and sometimes just flap their wings and leave the ground.

Habib says even if a dragon followed all of his specifications, it could only grow up to about 1000 pounds without grounding itself—not several tons, like Daenerys’s children.

“They’re probably beyond the flight limit for any anatomy,” Habib concedes, “unless they’re secretly made out of carbon fiber and titanium.”

“Maybe they’re full of hot air,” suggests McGowan, “or maybe it’s just magic.”

And what would happen if a dragon got a hole in one of its membrane wings, like Viserion displays after rising from the dead in the finale of season seven? Could it still fly? "The short answer is, probably a bit, but not as well as normal," Habib says.

Bats can fly with similarly damaged wings thanks to the way wings move through air. We tend to think of them as paddles pushing the air, but wings actually pull air. Like any other fluid, air has a certain amount of intrinsic stickiness to it, so air sticks to other air. "As the wing is pulling on the air, it's flowing over and around the wing, and it will skip over the air within the wing's small gaps and imperfections just as water will jump over the holes in a storm grate," Habib says. "Obviously, the more holes you put in the wing, the more inefficient it becomes, but it will still work up to a point. If there are too many holes, it will fail."

To McGowan, though, how the dragons fly doesn't really matter: “I think all day. When I go home, I don’t want to think anymore. I can just say it’s magic. I don’t care.”

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