Centuries after the Enlightenment, the human race likes to think it has the world pretty much down pat. But fortunately for enthusiasts of mystery, the unexplained and general oddity, the planet is full of events, phenomena and behaviour that science hasn’t even come close to explaining. From the bizarre to the downright disgusting, we touch on a few examples below.
Coprophagia in dogs
Scientists can’t explain why some dogs like to feast on their own and other canines’ faeces. Although most dogs grow out of coprophagia soon after puppyhood, a hardcore few continue to enthusiastically ingest as much crap as they can find well into adulthood. Some dogs are so highly motivated to indulge in their snack of choice that they’ll twist their bodies so as they can enjoy their own waste “oven fresh”, so to speak. It’s entirely unknown why well-fed adult dogs should choose to indulge in such behaviour. Stools have next to no nutritional value, and there doesn’t seem to be a sexual element to the practices of coprophagic canines.
Human consumption of boogers
Like faeces, nasal mucus has no significant nutritional content, yet many people still insist on popping the harvest of a good hooter rummage in their mouth. You wouldn’t do that with other bodily waste, unless you enjoy similar pastimes to Mr Oaten. Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, quite rightly won a Nobel Prize for their pioneering research into nosepicking in 2001, after discovering that 4.5% of their sample group admitted to eating their nasal debris. It’s possible that eating boogers could help build a healthy immune system, according to New Scientist magazine, but the subject is woefully under-researched. The only study on the matter dates back to 1966, when researchers at State University of New York found people who ate their snot found it “tasty”.
The origin of HIV
Improved antiretroviral drugs can now help HIV carriers live to a ripe old age, but we still don’t understand where the disease came from. Scientists agree that HIV is most likely a mutated form of the simian immunodeficiency virus, which is found in chimpanzees and African monkeys. Although these animals have both historically been hunted for food and could have passed the disease onto humans after being eaten, some wags have posited that HIV may have come about as the result of an intimate liaison between a man and a chimp. As chimps are around four times stronger than the average man, a certain amount of wooing would have been required for this theory to be plausible. A man would have a hard time forcing a monkey to participate in something it didn’t want to take part in.
What would possess anybody to have sex with a dead body? Psychiatrists just don’t know. A 1989 study by doctors at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, one of the few pieces of serious research on the subject, found that 68% of necrophiliacs reported a desire to possess an “unresisting and unrejecting partner”, but failed to mention if they tried looking for a submissive living shag before resorting to copulating with corpses. Other motivations reported by necrophiliacs included looking to overcome feelings of isolation, and boosting self-esteem by expressing power over a dead person, which is nice. Penguins reportedly indulge in necrophilia mistakenly after assuming that dead bodies are in fact potential partners “presenting” themselves, an excuse human necrophilia enthusiasts would probably have trouble getting away with.
Influenza viruses circulate year round, in warm and cold weather, but only take hold over the autumn and winter months. Researchers have speculated this could be down to the fact that colder weather helps flu viruses survive on surfaces and that people tend to stay indoors together in cooler temperatures, giving viruses a better chance of spreading than they’d have in spring or summer. Some even suspect a lack of vitamin D from the sun could make people more susceptible to falling ill with the flu. However, flu seasonality is most likely caused by “a less-than-straightforward interaction” between all of these and other factors, according to Eric Lofgren of the Tufts University School of Medicine, although he doesn’t know that for sure.
Google have a smart Flu Trends app that maps flu seasonality across the globe – check it out.
The ability of multiple breeds of birds to migrate thousands of miles and then return to more or less the same location every year without the aid of maps or a GPS system is a true miracle of nature that science has no explanation for. The feat is particularly impressive when you consider that a bird trapped in your home would be more likely to knock itself out trying to fly out of a closed than find an escape route to the outside world. Some argue that birds are able to navigate by recognising sights and smells as they travel, while others suggest they are in tune with the Earth’s magnetism.
Adult cot death
Sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS) is sometimes referred to as “adult cot death”. It’s a form of cardiac death that has no definite cause. Around 5% of all sudden cardiac deaths are a mystery, even after the heart has been examined by a cardiac pathologist. As the name suggests, SADS can strike outwardly healthy individuals spontaneously and without warning. The syndrome kills around 800 people aged under 35 every year in Britain, according to the Express. Doctors advise anybody who has a relative who’s died of SADS to have a heart check, but the condition has no warning signs.
The fact that women are more prone to suffer from depression and other anxiety disorders has long baffled scientists. While feminists may argue that living in a patriarchal society is enough to get any women down, researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia found that female rats are more susceptible to stress hormones than their male counterparts. A separate Yale University study posited that women suffer more from mood disorders because they’re more likely to ruminate on their problems than men, thus heightening their anxiety.
The placebo effect
Many forms of alternative and complementary medicine owe their continued existence to the placebo effect. Placebo treatments play off the peculiar fact that when a patient expects to get better after a course of drugs or therapy, their symptoms can improve, even when the treatment administered was fake. Physical conditions such as stomach ulcers have been seen to improve quicker after the use of a placebo, according to the NHS, highlighting that the success of this type of treatment is not limited psychological ailments. Study after study has shown that placebo treatments can alleviate patients’ symptoms, apparently through nothing more than the expectation of cure.
No other animal on the planet wastes close to a decade of life transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Adolescence, and the moodiness and rebellion that go with it, is particular to humans. As to what purpose this awkward period serves, scientists are unsure. Some suggest it’s an opportunity for the brain to rejig itself before adulthood. There is a wholesale reorganisation of the brain during the teenage years, according to New Scientist, but this fails account for the sullenness adolescents typically display.