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Is It Possible to be Scared to Death?

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Visitors to haunted houses or riders of roller coasters will often tell others that they were “scared to death” during their experiences. But obviously they weren’t, if they’re telling you about it. Which raises the question: Is it even possible to be scared to death?

It is definitely possible to be so scared that you die, but it’s very rare. According to ASAP Science, when a person is frightened by something, his body’s fight or flight response kicks in. Adrenaline is released, which makes the heart beat more quickly, sending more blood to the muscles. The result? That very scared person temporarily becomes a stronger and faster version of himself. (Fight or flight also triggers pupil dilation and slows digestion, among other effects.)

“All of this increases the chances of succeeding in a fight or running away from, say, an aggressive jaguar,” neurologist Martin A. Samuels told Scientific American in 2009. “This process certainly would be of help to primitive humans, but the problem, of course, is that in the modern world there is very limited advantage of the fight-or-flight response. There is a downside to revving up your nervous system like this.”

In a typical fight or flight response, the effects are only temporary, and the heart can handle it just fine. But in large doses, adrenaline isn’t good for you. In fact, it’s toxic. According to Samuels, adrenaline hits the receptors in the heart-muscle cells, which makes the calcium channels in the membranes of the cells open up. “Calcium ions rush into the heart cells and this causes the heart muscle to contract,” Samuels said. “If it's a massive overwhelming storm of adrenaline, calcium keeps pouring into the cells and the muscle just can't relax.”

When the system that regulates the rhythm of the heart is overloaded with adrenaline, the organ can go into rhythms that, Samuels said, “are not compatible with life. If one of those is triggered, you will drop dead.” He pinpointed ventricular fibrillation—which the American Heart Association calls “the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance” in which “the lower chambers quiver and the heart can't pump any blood, causing cardiac arrest”—as the one most likely to cause death from fear. It’s been established that fear lowers the threshold for arrhythmia in a normal heart, and if there’s some blockage, fear can triple your rate of ventricular fibrillation.

It’s not just fear that can cause a person to drop dead, either: Samuels told NPR in 2012 that “a powerful positive emotion can do it, as well. I have an example of a guy who hit a hole in one, he played golf his whole life and hit a ball over a rise and didn't see where it went. He and his partner went over and looked down on the green, and the ball was in the hole. And he said ‘wow, I hit a hole in one, I can die now,’ and he did.”

People are more at risk of dropping dead from fright (or happiness) if there’s already damage to their hearts. “A person who is walking around with a 50 percent narrowing of the arteries may never have symptoms, but if they're held up at gunpoint or narrowly miss an auto accident, their adrenaline levels can rise and destabilize that plaque,” Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. “That ruptured plaque can cause a blood clot to form and now they have a 100% blockage.” But healthy people can be scared to death, too.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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