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Why Do We Laugh When We’re Scared?

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You’re sitting in a crowded movie theater watching the latest horror flick, and all around you, the audience seems genuinely scared. But for some reason, their screams and gasps are punctuated with laughter. 

We usually think of laughter as being a response to pleasure or amusement—we’re supposed to laugh when we find something funny, not scary. So why do we laugh when we’re scared? 

It turns out scientists still aren’t sure what makes us laugh in seemingly inappropriate contexts—though they have some pretty compelling ideas.

Two of the most popular theories rest on the assumption that laughter is inherently social; when we laugh, we’re conveying a message to the people around us. According to scientists like primatologist Signe Preuschoft, who published a prominent study on macaque laughter, fearful laughter is an expression of submission. Macaques in Preuschoft’s study laughed or smiled when they felt threatened by a dominant macaque—their laughter was accompanied by evasive or submissive body movements. According to Preuschoft, the laughter is used to admit fear and communicate a desire to avoid conflict. 

Another camp believes that fearful laughter actually represents a denial of fear. We’re scared, but we’re trying to convince ourselves and the people around us that we’re not—that everything is okay. Alex Lickerman writes in Psychology Today, “We're signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we've just encountered isn't really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe.” Lickerman calls this a “mature” defense mechanism (as opposed to “psychotic,” “immature,” or “neurotic”). He notes, “being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it.”

Others group fearful laughter with other seemingly incongruous emotional reactions, like crying when we’re happy. They argue that these incongruous responses help us regulate our emotions; crying when we’re overwhelmed with joy or laughing when we’re terrified helps balance us out emotionally. Science reporter Wray Herbert writes in The Association For Psychological Science, “When we are at risk of being overwhelmed by our emotions—either positive or negative—expressing the opposite emotion can have a dampening effect and restore emotional balance.”

In the case of horror movies, specifically, some theorists argue that we laugh because horror and humor have in their roots the same phenomena: incongruity and transgression. We laugh when something is incongruous, when it goes against our expectations, or breaks a social law (when a character does or says something inappropriate, for instance). But in another context, those same things are perceived as scary—usually when something veers from harmless incongruity into potentially dangerous territory. In Silence of the Lambs, for instance, Hannibal Lecter’s famous “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” line is both funny (because there’s something incongruous about him being such a “classy” cannibal) and terrifying (because, well, he’s a cannibalistic serial killer). 

Ultimately, there’s no single explanation for the phenomenon of fearful laughter. If we laugh during a horror movie, it might be because we’re responding to the incongruity of the situation as much as the “danger” it represents. We might also be trying to show the people around us we’re not scared—or prove it to ourselves. Or, maybe, we’re just straining for emotional balance by countering our fear with a few chuckles.

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

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

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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