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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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 Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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