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Why Do Witches Ride Brooms?

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The popular image of a witch, which you can see everywhere right now in the form of Halloween costumes and decorations, is a woman with a pointy hat and warty nose stirring a cauldron or flying on a broom. How did that odd choice of transportation get tied to witches and locked into our collective imagination?

One proposed explanation has its roots in a pagan ritual where people danced astride poles, pitchforks, and brooms in their fields, jumping as high as they could to entice their crops to grow to that height. “Anyone observing the leaping broomstick dance of witches at the full moon,” says anthropologist Robin Skelton, “could be expected to think of flying.”

Another explanation is that the broomsticks and the potions that witches brewed in their cauldrons are linked, and the former was a tool for delivering the latter. 

During the witch panics of the Middle Ages, authorities confiscated various brews, ointments, and salves from people accused of witchcraft and sorcery. In the early 1500s, physician Andres Laguna described one such substance that was taken from the home of an accused witch as “a pot full of [a] certain green ointment ... composed of soporific herbs such as hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.”

The local constable was a friend of Laguna’s, so the doctor was able to obtain some of the ointment to experiment with. His first test subject was the executioner’s wife, whom he anointed “head to foot” with the green stuff. 

“No sooner did I anoint her than she opened her eyes wide like a rabbit, and soon they looked like those of a cooked hare when she fell into such a profound sleep that I thought I should never be able to awake her,” Laguna wrote. “However ... after the lapse of thirty-six hours, I restored her to her senses and sanity.”

When the woman was conscious again, she asked Laguna, “Why did you awaken me, badness to you, at such an inauspicious moment? Why I was surrounded by all the delights in the world.” She then turned to her husband and claimed that she had cuckolded him and taken a “younger and lustier lover.”

Laguna wrote that even long after her dream, the executioner’s wife “stuck to many of her crazy notions.”

“From all this we may infer that all that those wretched witches do and say is caused by potions and ointments which so corrupt their memory and imagination that they create their own woes, for they firmly believe when awake all that they had dreamed when asleep,” he said. 

Another 16th century physician, Giovanni Della Porta, described a similar case where he witnessed a suspected witch apply one of her ointments. She also fell into a “most sound and heavy sleep,” and when she awoke “began to speak many vain and doting words, affirming that she had passed over both seas and mountains.”

He reached a similar conclusion as Laguna: These potions were the source of the bizarre things that witches claimed to experience and partake in. After applying their ointments, Della Porta wrote, these women “seem to be carried in the air, to feasting, singing, dancing, kissing, culling, and other acts of venery, with such youths as they love and desire most: for the force of their imagination is so vehement, that almost all that part of the brain, wherein the memory consists, is full of such concepts.”

In the centuries since, scientists have confirmed the two doctors’ suspicions. There was no black magic at work in witches’ brews, just chemistry, and "the events of the Sabbat … were an imaginative fiction exacerbated by malnutrition and by the use of hallucinogenic concoctions.”

Many of the botanical ingredients included in witches' potions, says pharmacologist David Kroll, including nightshade, henbane, mandrake and jimsonweed, contain hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids. These chemicals can cause vivid dreams and the sensation of flight, not unlike those reported by Della Porta’s witch and others accused of witchcraft. In his own experiments with henbane, toxicologist Gustav Schenk reported feeling “an intoxicating sensation of flying ... I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves which were quite unlike any ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along.”

Clearly these chemicals are potent, but they can also be dangerous. Ingesting them by drinking a witch’s brew could lead to side effects ranging from mere intestinal discomfort to death. Jimsonweed poisoning, for example, sometimes left its victims “hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet and mad as a wet hen.” 

To get around the risks of taking these potions orally, somewhere some clever witch figured out an alternate way for getting them inside the body: a staff, stick or a tool they already had around the house—the broom.

The hallucinogens in the brews, it turns out, can be absorbed through the skin without any of the unpleasant side affects. Some of the best places for absorption are the sweat glands in the armpits and the mucus membranes around the rectum and female genitalia. To apply the potions to these places, witches would slather them on their brooms and “ride” them to their witchy gatherings. 

Antoine Rose, accused of witchcraft in France, confessed as much to the authorities. She claimed that the Devil had given her a stick and a pot of ointment, and that to apply it, she would “smear the ointment on the stick, put it between her legs and say ‘Go, in the name of the Devil, go!’”

Other confessions and investigations turned up the same technique. In the 1300s, authorities searching the home of suspected witch Alice Kyteler “found a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” A century later, theologian Jordanes de Bergamo noted that “the witches confess that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.” 

In some cases, the accused specifically mentioned a broomstick as their tool of choice. In 1453, Guillaume Edelin, accused of witchcraft in France, admitted to flying on a broomstick, and later a man confessed to seeing his “aged mother straddle a broomstick and whisk up the chimney and out of the house.”

So folks were using brooms covered with hallucinogenic concoctions to produce vivid dreams that involved traveling through the air and partaking in wild sex and other rites. Add some rumor and fear mongering and twist it around a little bit, and it’s easy to see how people got the idea that witches were literally flying on their broomsticks, aided by magic ointments, to their black masses. 

To be fair, we have to take some of this with a grain of salt, given where the information is originally coming from. On the one hand, you have the church and government authorities and their citizen observers, who were often motivated by paranoia and social pressure to find and root witches out. As anthropologist Homayun Sidky notes, some historians dismiss the involvement of drugs in the practices of witches and argue that any witches’ potions, magic or not, were made up by the authorities to paint the targets of their persecution as more sinister. And on the other hand, you have the accused witches, who often gave their testimony and confessions under duress or torture. Still, it’s an interesting idea, and makes you look at the typical witch costume in a different light. 

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When You Feel "Chemistry" With Someone, What's Actually Going On?
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We know chemistry when we feel it with another person, but we don't always know why we're drawn to one person over another. Is it just a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones conspiring to rush you toward reproduction? Is it attraction borne of a set of shared values? Or is it bonding over specific experiences that create intimacy?

It's probably a combination of all three, plus ineffable qualities that even matchmaking services can't perfectly nail down.

"Scientists now assume, with very few exceptions, that any behavior has features of both genetics and history. It's nature and nurture," Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, tells Mental Floss. She is the founder of Liberos, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that works in collaboration with the University of Georgia and the University of Pittsburgh to study human sexual behavior and develop sexuality-related biotechnology.

Scientists who study attraction take into consideration everything from genetics, psychology, and family history to traumas, which have been shown to impact a person's ability to bond or feel desire.

THE (BRAIN) CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, Match.com's science advisor, and the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, breaks down "love" into three distinct stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. In each stage, your body chemistry behaves differently. It turns out that "chemistry" is, at least in part, actual chemistry. Biochemistry, specifically.

In the lust and attraction phases, your body is directing the show, as people can feel desire without knowing anything personal about the object of that desire. Lust, Fisher asserts in a seminal 1997 paper [PDF], is nothing more than the existence of a sex drive, or "the craving for sexual gratification," she writes. It's a sensation driven by estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, based in the biological drive to reproduce.

Attraction may be influenced less than lust by physiological factors—the appeal of someone's features, or the way they make you laugh—but your body is still calling the shots at this stage, pumping you full of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, effecting your brain in a way that's not unlike the way illicit substances do.

Fisher has collaborated multiple times on the science of attraction with social psychologist Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Aron and his wife Elaine, who is also a psychologist, are known for studying what makes relationships begin—and last.

In a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers proposed that "romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today."

In the attraction phase, your body produces increased amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is also responsible for pain relief. Using fMRI brain imaging, Aron's studies have shown that "if you're thinking about a person you're intensely in love with, your brain activates the dopamine reward system, which is the same system that responds to cocaine," he tells Mental Floss.

Earlier, Fisher's 1997 paper found that new couples often show "increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship."

The attachment phase is characterized by increases in oxytocin and vasopressin; these hormones are thought to promote bonding and positive social behaviors to sustain connections over time in order to fulfill parental duties.

There is no hard and fast timeline for how long each phase lasts, as it can vary widely due to gender, age, and other environmental factors, Fisher writes.

Additionally, while oxytocin has long gotten the credit for being the love hormone, Prause says that scientists are now "kind of over oxytocin," because it has broader functions than simply bonding. It also plays a role in the contraction of the uterus to stimulate birth, instigating lactation, and sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. 

Now they're focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin (no, really). Produced in the hypothalamus, kisspeptin plays a role in the onset of puberty, and may increase libido, regulate the gonadal steroids that fuel the sex drive, and help the body maintain pregnancy. But Prause says there is a lot more study about the role kisspeptin plays in attraction.

CHEMICAL AND PERSONAL BONDS

Biology may explain our initial attraction and the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily explain why a person's love of obscure movies or joy of hiking tickles your fancy, or what makes you want to settle down.

The Arons' numerous studies on this subject have found connection boils down to something quite simple: "What makes people attracted to the point of falling in love—presuming the person is reasonably appropriate for them—is that they feel the other person likes them," he says. 

In the process of doing research for her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone, writer Mandy Len Catron of Vancouver became her own test subject when she came across the research the Arons are most well-known for: their 36 questions, which promote bonding.

The questions were originally designed to "generate intimacy, a sense of feeling similar, and the sense that the other person likes you," Aron explains. Romantic love wasn't the goal. "It was a way of creating closeness between strangers."

The Arons first tested their questions by pairing up students during a regular class section of a large psychology course, as they related in a paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Some students were paired with someone of the same sex, while others were matched with someone of the opposite sex. Each partner then answered a series of 36 increasingly personal questions, which took about 45 minutes each. (Question 2: "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" Question 35: "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?") Small talk during class hadn't made them bond, but the questions made the students feel closer.

In another version of the study, heterosexual, opposite-sex pairs follow the 36-question session with four minutes of staring deeply into each other's eyes.

Catron decided to test these methods out with a casual acquaintance, Mark, over beers at a local bar one night. They were both dating other people at the time, and no one exclusively. As she answered the questions and listened to Mark's answers, "I felt totally absorbed by the conversation in a way that was unlike any of the other first dates I was having at the time with people I met online," Catron tells Mental Floss.

She was ready to skip the four minutes of soulful eye gazing, but Mark thought they should try it. "It was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also an important part of the experience," she recalls. "It's so intimate, it requires you to let your guard down."

The process instilled in Catron a deep feeling of trust in Mark and a desire to know him better. Within three months, they began dating in earnest. Now, more than three years later, they live together in a condo they bought.

The Arons' questions offer "accelerated intimacy," she says, in a time of increasingly online-driven dating experiences.

A LITTLE MYSTERY, A LOT OF SHARED VALUES

Despite all that we’ve learned, scientists may only ever be able to brush up against the edge of a true understanding of "chemistry." “We understand a fair amount about what happens when [attraction has] already occurred, but we're really bad at predicting when it will happen," Prause says. "People who try to claim magical matchmaking, or that they're going to somehow chemically manipulate an aphrodisiac or something—well good luck! Because we can't figure it out.”

And anyway, what's romance without a little mystery?

If you must have a definitive answer to the puzzle of interpersonal chemistry, Prause says to keep this in mind: "The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values."

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The Thermodynamic Genius of the Classic Drinking Bird Toy
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you're familiar with the drinking bird toy, you know it as a cheesy knickknack that's adorned office desktops for decades. But anyone with a background in thermodynamics knows that the novelty item deserves more credit. In his video spotted by Sploid, Bill Hammack—a.k.a. engineerguy—explains the impressive science at work every time the toy takes a sip.

To pull off its famous trick, a drinking bird toy must contain a special chemical compound called methylene chloride. When stored inside the toy it looks like colored water, but its properties are unique: It can transition easily from a liquid to a gas by essentially boiling at room temperature. Evaporated methylene chloride fills the bird's head while liquid methylene chloride fills the base of its body. Pressure differences caused by the condensing gas in the head encourage the liquid in the base to rise to the top of the toy, shifting the weight so its upper half topples forward into the glass in front of it. The liquid methylene chloride drains out in this new position and the balance of gas and liquid is restored. As long as the bird has enough room-temperature water to drink, the water will cool the methylene chloride vapor and start the whole process over again.

The result is a seemingly simple toy whose principles were actually complicated enough to baffle Albert Einstein. You can watch Hammack give a more detailed explanation of the science at work in the video below.

[h/t Sploid]

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