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Monday, 28 September 2020

Walking with wolves

If I go back through my photographs to spring 2017, I suddenly come across a lot that look like this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Or this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

What are those strange objects?
The answer is poo. Wolf, hedgehog, boar and deer scat… amongst others. So what was I doing photographing animal scat?
The answer is, tracking.
Believe it or not, wolf poo contains a lot of fur, so what they leave behind tends to look wiry as it decomposes, as if it were made of steel wool. Eventually, all that’s left is fluff.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Prescribed hallucinations

My doctor gave me a medicine that made me hallucinate.

“They’re antacids. They can’t do that,” they said.
via Wikipedia Commons

By this time, being gaslighted by doctors was so habitual I was numb to it.

They’d told me I had acid reflux. The endoscopy, the barium meal, and the pH test all proved that I did not have acid reflux. But apparently they’d put me on medication for it anyway – and not, until now, told me as much.

I’d taken the troublesome things four times a day every day for months, which meant rearranging my meal times and interfering with school (I was sixteen). When I finally decided they weren’t helping me with pain and stopped, for the next twenty-four hours, I saw disembodied hands.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Zombies in nature

Haitian folklore tells of the zombie: a reanimated corpse. In modern day, the zombie is portrayed as parasitic, feeding on the brains of others and so infecting them
Zombie via Wikipedia Commons.
to become zombies too.

There are various parallels in nature: fungi that infect the brains of ants, the Euhaplorchis californiensis worm that infects fish, or the toxoplasma gondii parasite that infects rats (there’s more about toxoplasmosis here) – all these force their hosts to change their behaviour to help spread the fungal spores, or get themselves eaten by a bird or cat, where they can reproduce.

We don’t know how this happens, but researchers looking at some of these parasites found they excrete chemicals that alter brain chemistry. In their target host, the cocktail has a profound affect on behaviour, but doesn’t work so well in other species.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Starting Again

The sleeping baby strapped to my chest suddenly spasms and clasps me in a gesture I call “crabbing”. I stop to exclaim.

“Did you fall off your branch?” I ask my daughter.

The baby sleeps on.

But I know she will wake soon: sleep starts (or hypnic jerks) like this tend to happen when someone is falling to sleep or waking up, as their mind wrestles between consciousness and unconsciousness – like so many other sleep phenomena (e.g. sleep paralysis). And so far, experience has agreed with the science.

But what are these “sleep starts”?

Thursday, 13 August 2020

The speed of time

This time will pass. Or so they say. We believe we’re travelling forward, how do we really know? If time changed direction, could we even tell? In days, and weeks, and months like these, time seems to stand still.

...Why is that?

Sometimes, time seems to stand still. Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

There are lots of theories for why time seems to move at different speeds. Some of them are related to age. Afterall, didn’t time always move much, much more slowly when you were a child? The proportional theory suggests that our perception of time is linked to the constant that is our time alive: “the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man's life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life — a man of 50 as 1/50”, whilst the biological theory proposes that time is linked to our metabolism, which gradually slows down as we age. Or perhaps our heartbeat. Or breathing. Or body temperature. Experiments (some of which are ethically dubious!) seem to back it up; for example, a fever can make you experience time as longer... or is that just because being ill sucks?

Monday, 3 August 2020

Isolation and the Brain

As babies, we are all born with vastly more neural connections than we need[1], and these connections get 'pruned' as we go through life, cutting out the unused ones, strengthening most the ones we use daily[2].

As social animals, we learn best and develop neural connections by interacting with others. So what happens when our brains are isolated – when we don't see or interact with other people for... months?


One BBC Horizon experiment subjected volunteers to 48 hours isolation in complete darkness: devoid of external sensory stimulti, they started to hallucinate. In the equivalent on Channel 5 (In Solitary: The Anti-Social Experiment), participants took in three items to distract themselves and fuel their resolve. Some people took in personal items that carried meaning – but quickly found these intensified feelings of desperation and homesickness; others took in activities to keep them physically or mentally stimulated, and it was these that were found to be most effective. Scientists think this is an essential coping mechanism for staying mentally healthy in isolation. In the longest isolation experiment, undertaken by Stefania Follini, who spent 130 days underground, the interior designer occupied herself with martial arts and decorating her cave.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Baby Tastes (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #22)

Do your baby’s tastes depend on what you ate when they were in the womb?

Apparently, you can taste foods in amniotic fluid and breast milk – certain distinct flavours such as carrot, vanilla, mint and garlic, anyway. These flavours can be detected in breastmilk as little as half an hour after eating, and adults can even smell and identify them.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Coronavirus 101

It’s devastating us now. But where did it come from, where is is going, and what is it anyway?

The disease COVID-19, caused by the virus commonly known as coronavirus, was thought to originate from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally. However, recent work has demonstrated that the market is only one possible origin of the disease. Potential patient zeroes – the first human to contract coronavirus – have found to have no link to the market.