A wry view of life for the world-weary

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For Truth – Part Five


I hate icy conditions underfoot and am always on the lookout for anything that will give me greater purchase on the, admittedly rare, occasions when the pavements are treacherous. So it was with some interest that I read the report of a study by three scientists at the University of Otago which was published in the ever popular New Zealand Medical Journal some time back.

What they found was that wearing socks over shoes was an inexpensive and effective method to reduce the likelihood of slipping on paths. Dunedin is supposedly famous for its hilly areas – indeed Baldwin Street is named in the Guinness Book of Records as the steepest street in the world – and the local council had long been advising residents to put old socks over their shoes to increase grip.

As part of the trial, the scientists, Parkin, Williams and Priest, recruited a number of volunteers who were prepared to walk downhill in icy conditions, some wearing socks over their shoes and others socks inside their shoes. They documented every fall, commenting on the demeanour of and level of confidence displayed by the pedestrians. The only people to fall during the experiments were those who were not wearing their socks over their shoes.

So the findings seem quite conclusive – wearing socks this way increases your confidence in slippery conditions and increases grip. There is one drawback, however, and that is you do look a bit of a wally if you tramp the streets with socks over your shoes. Lack of social acceptability may hinder the adoption of this wonderful idea.

Interestingly, a number of the participants in the research chose to leave the research centre wearing their socks inside their shoes. One, inevitably, fell over almost immediately. If you are anxious to get on Dragon’s Den there’s an idea for you gratis – a range of must have socks to wear outside your shoes. It might just catch on!

Have you noticed that when one person starts yawning they seem to set off a chain reaction of copy-cat yawns. Why is that? Fortunately, some scientists have conducted some research, seeking to establish whether it is a fixed action prompted by observing another yawn or non-conscious mimicry or the result of empathy. And what better – and here is the moment of genius – than to base your experiments on a creature that is unlikely to show non-conscious mimicry or empathy but does respond to social stimuli. Step forward, the red-footed tortoise or Geochelone carbonaria as it is known to its mates.

A tortoise was conditioned to yawn when presented with a certain stimulus. Other tortoises were then introduced to observe our yawning tortoise in circumstances that tested the three potential hypotheses. What they found was that there was no difference in the propensity of the tortoises to yawn in any of the three conditions. Their conclusion – that contagious yawning is not the result of a fixed action pattern but may involve more complex social processes.

So we are none the wiser but at least can rule out the theory that it is triggered by merely observing someone yawning. Isn’t science wonderful?!

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

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