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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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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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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