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The Straight Dope

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I recall reading that if you attach a polygraph machine to a tree and then project harmful thoughts at it, the machine will register "lies" or "stress." Did I imagine this? Do trees have not only emotions but ESP? --Javier Ramirez, Los Angeles

You undoubtedly read something about a crackpot classic from the 70s called The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The centerpiece of the book was the work of one Cleve Backster, an expert in lie-detector machines. On a whim in 1966, Backster hooked up a plant to a polygraph and found that it reacted sharply when he merely thought about burning one of its leaves. To test the plant's reaction to the extinction of other forms of life, Backster dumped some brine shrimp into a pot of boiling water. The plant, obviously outraged, showed a violent response.

Tompkins and Bird cited other research supporting Backster's findings. One researcher claimed that plants sulked when insulted. Electronics whiz Paul Sauvin said he'd wired up a philodendron to a sensing device tuned in to a radio gizmo in a nearby car. When Sauvin beamed a telepathic message to the plant from his home two miles away, it triggered a signal that caused the car to start.

Another researcher found that an ordinary green pea registered a half-volt discharge at the moment of its death. If enough peas were wired together in series, he speculated, you could generate 500 volts, enough to cause a human to explode. Luckily, he explained, most recipes for peas don't involve wiring them in series, so the actual danger was slight.

Other scientists, however, were unable to replicate these findings. They concluded that plant telepathy was a fantasy. Proponents responded that the plants were just refusing to cooperate with hostile researchers. Matters came to a head at a conference in 1975, when Backster admitted he'd never bothered to repeat his original experiments. He did report, however, that he had begun a promising new line of research. He'd poured milk into a container of yogurt and immediately detected a sympathetic response in another container of yogurt nearby. This greatly amused the assembled reporters, who phoned in stories about the "world's first inter-yogurt communications system." The conference ended in disarray, and little has been heard from the psychic-plant crowd since.

In novels of yesteryear you could barely get through a chapter without some female character fainting. But women rarely faint today. Was all that swooning just literary license? If not, why don't women faint as much now? --Felix Krull, Dallas

The power of the pen is an awesome thing, Felix. Witness this column, a major force for good in a world of darkness. But the results aren't always so positive. In the 19th century, writers helped to create "the cult of female invalidism," which held that women were such delicate creatures that they'd faint at the slightest provocation. Women were as much at fault as men for perpetuating this idea--they loved to make a scene by fainting at a dramatic moment.

But fainting wasn't entirely psychosomatic. Partly it was the result of incredibly constrictive Victorian clothing. A fashionably dressed woman wore 37 pounds of clothing in winter, of which 19 pounds were suspended from the waist. She also had herself shoehorned into a corset that compressed her waist to an average of 20 inches. Corsets distorted the rib cage and made it difficult to move or even breathe. In a crowded room you'd have women keeling over right and left. Add in poor diet, lack of exercise (too masculine), and quack medical practices like leeching, and it's a wonder a woman could remain upright at all.

Corsets and the cult of invalidism helped create fashionable female diseases like chlorosis (vaguely akin to anemia) and neurasthenia (chronic nervous exhaustion). These largely disappeared after World War I. But that's no reason to feel smug. What with anorexia and bulimia, it looks like we've just substituted one set of disorders for another.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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