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How Are Shrunken Heads Made?

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Getty Images

Head shrinking is rumored to have occurred all over the world, but documented only among a few indigenous South American tribes living in Peru and Ecuador. To the Jivaroan people, a head taken from an enemy and shrunk—called a tsantsa—was more than just a battle trophy. Jivaro warriors believed that the ritual of shrinking the head paralyzed the spirit of their foe and prevented it from taking revenge, and also passed the victim’s strength onto the killer.

How do you take a flesh-and-bone head and shrink it? A typical Jivaro head-shrinking ritual, as recorded by European explorers in the 19th century, went something like this.

Step One: Deflesh

After getting a safe distance away from the battlefield with the severed heads of fallen enemies, victorious warriors feast, and then begin the work of making the tsantsa. First, the victim's scalp is removed, starting at an incision made across the back of the neck parallel to the bottoms of the ears. The warrior tugs on a flap of skin created by this cut and pulls toward the top of the head and then again toward the face, peeling the skin away from the skull on the back and top of the head. He then uses a knife or a sharpened piece of wood to work the flesh away from the bone around the facial features and scrape away the cartilage from the nose and ears. The eyelids are sewn shut and the lips held together with three wooden pins. Eyewitness accounts report that an experienced warrior could de-flesh a head this way in as little as 15 minutes.

Now, the stumbling block for me, whenever I thought about shrunken heads before researching them (not that it was something I thought about often, I swear I’m not a weirdo), was how the skull was miniaturized. Turns out, it wasn’t. Once the skin was removed, Jivaro warriors simply tossed the skulls away.

Step Two: Simmer

With the flesh taken from the head, the warrior goes to the nearest river with a ceremonial pot to gather water. The filled pot is set on a fire to heat up, and the flesh from the head is placed in it to simmer for an hour or two. When it’s removed, the head is a little smaller than it was originally, but not much. The head is turned inside out and stripped of any remaining fat, cartilage or muscle, and the incision on the back of the neck is sewn shut.

Step Three: Apply Stones and Sand

The head, now completely sealed except for the hole where the neck used to attach, is further shrunk with sand and stones heated on another fire. The hot stones are dropped into the head through the neck hole and the head is rotated continuously to avoid scorching. When the head shrinks and becomes too small to accommodate the stones, sand is poured in it instead and the head is shaken to drive the sand into the crevices the stones couldn’t reach. Once the head is the right size, the warrior carefully uses hot stones to sear the exterior skin and shape the head and facial features. The finished product is then left to further dry and harden. The entire process takes about a week.

After the head is done, the warriors and the rest of the tribe partake in more victory feasts, the last of which may happen up to a year after the battle it celebrates. Once these rituals are complete, the shrunken head has served its purpose for the warrior. Its significance was in the process of its creation, and not the final product. The tsantsa is usually then discarded in a river or in the jungle, or given to a child in the warrior’s family or village as a toy.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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