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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 Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

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
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

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

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