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Strange but true: Our brains dance when music plays

And humans can stomach a lot of chocolate, but it could kill off coyotes

SHARE Strange but true: Our brains dance when music plays

Question: Just what could be music's strongest ways of moving all of us, even when we may not wish to be moved?

Answer: A musical species we humans are, with music occupying more areas of the brain than language does, says Oliver Sacks in "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain."

One man after being struck by lightning was suddenly inspired to become a pianist at age 42. To people with a condition termed "amusia," a symphony can sound like the clattering of pots and pans. To some, a catchy tune unstoppably takes them into hours of mental replay. For others, musical hallucinations assault them night and day.

Yet for far more people, music goes not wrong but powerfully right. Sacks once worked with victims of sleeping sickness, unable to move; yet they would come alive to music and dance and sing, only to retreat to their frozen state once the music stopped (from psychologist Frances Rauscher). Some stroke victims lose the ability to speak — unless music empowers their mind and tongue. In cases where minds are ravaged by Alzheimer's or amnesia, music can calm and organize memories.

One man suffered such severe brain damage he could not respond to his children nor recall anything more than 10 seconds after it happened, yet he could conduct an entire symphony!

Remarkably, music "may have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions."

Question: In extremis, how much could a chocoholic "stomach"? Pet owners, pay heed!

Answer: It has been calculated that a human could theoretically eat about 110 pounds of the candy before facing poisoning from theobromine, an ingredient chemically related to caffeine, says New Scientist magazine.

However, not so your dog or cat: It's been said that a mere 240 grams (about one-half pound) of dark chocolate contains enough methylxanthines to kill a 40-kilogram (90-pound) canine. "Veterinary journals are peppered with stories of dogs, cats, parrots, foxes, badgers and other animals dropping dead after finding chocolate or being fed it by well-meaning humans."

"Theobroma cacao" is Greek for "food of the gods," and for millennia, people have been safely enjoying the beans of the cacao plant. Apparently we are able to metabolize the theobromine rapidly enough to avoid poisoning. But coyotes, like dogs, are sensitive enough that chocolate has been investigated as a way of controlling coyote populations, those dreaded attackers of livestock herds.

Question: What if just for fun you drew an artful picture of a classic, teardrop-shaped raindrop for your kid, but then to your surprise, she announced that she's taking weather science in school and set out to evaluate the accuracy of your drawing. Would you make the grade?

Answer: Not likely, since you've depicted the common but erroneous shape seen in countless children's books, drawings everywhere, even on the Weather Channel. Actually, says Pennsylvania State University's Alistair B. Fraser, real raindrops bear scant resemblance to the popular cartoon fantasy. Instead, very small drops are spheres, larger ones look a bit like a hamburger bun, still larger ones develop a big depression in their bottom and form a sort of bag shape.

This is because the bigger, housefly-size drops fall faster — maybe 20 mph — so the air pressure on the bottom causes the depression to grow explosively until the distended drop breaks apart into many smaller, spherical drops.

Now you know, and you can only hope that your sensitive, compassionate daughter doesn't rain too heavily on your grade parade.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com