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How Many Spiders Do You Really Swallow in Your Sleep?

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The “you eat X number of spiders” factoid changes depending on who you ask. Some people says it’s three, others eight, and still others might say as many as several dozen. Ask someone who really knows their spiders, though, and the number of ingested creepy crawlies drops right to zero.

Think about it this way, says Rod Crawford, Curator of Arachnids at Seattle’s Burke Museum and a dedicated buster of spider myths: To swallow even just one spider in your sleep, a number of very unlikely circumstances all have to happen at once.

The first, Crawford says, is that your mouth needs to be open. Sure, some people sleep that way, but not everyone. No open mouth, no swallowed spiders.

Second, the spiders have to get in your bed. “A totally normal, neatly made bed,” Crawford says, “has maybe one or two spiders cross it per year.” Add some humans to the bed, and spiders really don’t want anything to do with it. “Most people roll around in their sleep,” write doctors Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman in their book, Don't Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health. “This rolling would probably scare the spiders from wandering anywhere close to your face.”

Third and fourth, Crawford says, the spider would have to just happen to cross your body where your mouth is and be so bold as to enter an orifice that’s exhaling warm breath. “Just try blowing on a spider and see how they react to that!” Crawford says. “It’s not attractive to them!”

Finally, you’d have to swallow the spider while sleeping, and Carroll and Vreeman point out that, “we do not automatically swallow every time something goes into our mouths.”

The odds are pretty clearly stacked against you swallowing any one spider, let alone multiple ones over the years. “The chance that all of these things would happen together—that there would be a wandering, potentially suicidal spider in close vicinity to your mouth and that they would actually wander in to the wet dark breathing space and trigger your swallowing reflex,” Carroll and Vreeman write, “is really incredibly small.”

However unlikely, something like this still could happen, but we don’t have any solid proof that it has. Plenty of people watch other people sleep, says Crawford, but he’s never seen or heard a single good eyewitness account of a spider climbing into a sleeping person’s mouth or of someone watching them sleep keeping it from almost happening.

What’s more, says Crawford, “Every time you hear this story, the teller has a different number of spiders and a different length of time in which they are supposed to be swallowed. So even if one version had been correct, nearly all the tellers would still have to be lying!”

But Wait, There’s More!

There might actually be another layer of BS to this urban legend. Many stories that debunk the spider statistic point to an article written in the early 1990s about misinformation on the early World Wide Web as its origin. The article on the spider story at Snopes.com, for example, reads:

Fear not. This "statistic" was not only made up out of whole cloth, it was invented as an example of the absurd things people will believe simply because they come across them on the Internet.

In a 1993 PC Professional article, columnist Lisa Holst wrote about the ubiquitous lists of "facts" that were circulating via e-mail and how readily they were accepted as truthful by gullible recipients. To demonstrate her point, Holst offered her own made-up list of equally ridiculous "facts," among which was the statistic cited above about the average person's swallowing eight spiders per year, which she took from a collection of common misbeliefs printed in a 1954 book on insect folklore. In a delicious irony, Holst's propagation of this false "fact" has spurred it into becoming one of the most widely-circulated bits of misinformation to be found on the Internet.

All well and good, except that a web search doesn’t turn up much of anything about Lisa Holst or PC Professional that isn’t directly related to the genesis of the spider myth and saying pretty much the same thing as Snopes. The columnist, the column and the magazine don’t seem to exist, or were at least lost to history before everyone and everything had some presence on Google. A few people, including a guy named Nick who runs the blog “Eight Spiders,” have gone a little further in search of the source, but to no avail. Even the Library of Congress said they had no record of the magazine when Nick called them up. The story about how the story got made up may itself be made up. Whoa. Meta.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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