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Monday, June 25, 2018

What Does a Hangover Do to Your Brain?

A book that delves into all the questions that intrigued you in biology class but the teacher looked too prim to ask.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: March 19, 2016 12:36:49 am

Book: Asap Science

Author: Mitchell Moffitt, Greg Brown

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 248 

Price: Rs499

The subtitle to this book, as exuberant as the YouTube channel from which it draws its content, is ‘Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumours and Unexplained Phenomena’. In the great anthropocentric tradition of the human race, all of the above relate to human biology. No Area 51. No Close Encounters. No Secret Life of Plants. Just us. Specifically, what’s inside us.

You know how hairy and shirty doctors get when they figure out that you have been researching your ailments over the internet? Well, there is a scientific basis to their behaviour. My own GP, one of the last with that god-tier capacity for differential diagnosis which so many family physicians used to have, insists that half an hour of surfing can’t make up for five years in an MBBS lecture theatre. That’s very true, and besides, that half hour fills you with 101-level stuff and does not prepare you for the really deep stuff, such as the difference between vasomotor rhinitis and vasovagal syncope. Doctors thrive on Latin-rich terms like that. In humanspeak, the first is inexplicable sniffles and the second, fainting away like those infamously delicate Victorian ladies.

Asap Science is an interesting entrant in this complex landscape, full of lively and rude illustration, all bright blue. It delves reasonably deeply into all the questions that intrigued you in biology class but the teacher looked too prim to ask. The science is generally bang on, though skimpy on the details so as not to tax the general reader. For instance, in a long section on the science of hangover management, which covers the issue before, during and after the fateful binge, it differs from received wisdom only in one respect, by holding that the famous blinding headache is a result of the brain losing fluids to the extent that it shrinks. It is fairly well established that shrunken heads is not the issue, and that the pain correlates with the brain settling down on the base of the skull like a beached whale. Nature keeps it floating in cerebrospinal fluid, which dwindles due to the diuretic effect of alcohol.

Readers who have been surfing the internet a lot may find ideas insufficiently explored. Investigating the idea that watching too much TV ruins the eyes, Moffitt and Brown point out the correlation between myopia and spending too much time indoors. The idea is that if the eye becomes unaccustomed to longer focal lengths —looking at a star or the horizon amounts to focusing on infinity — it loses the power of accommodation. However, the line of enquiry stops there. What about the stereotypical bookworm of popular literature, who unfailingly wears enormous glasses? Do people who read a lot adapt to even shorter focal lengths? What about convicts and hostages? Why aren’t they all prone to myopia? Fortunately, the authors briefly manage to tear themselves away from stuff like how mucus works and does being cold make you ill, to address the really important questions, like whether people can spontaneously combust, a phenomenon which has been persistently reported from the dawn of literature. The chapter on the gender divide in orgasms will fascinate many. One came away with the impression that more parts of a woman’s brain shut down than a man’s, but it’s complicated and one could be mistaken.

If the phenomenon of waking and sleeping interests you, a chapter addressing the issue of the snooze button will fascinate. The world is generally agreed that the grace period it provides refreshes, and electronic clock makers dutifully arm their products with that button. You’d be surprised to learn the truth.

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