Weird science stories to brighten your year

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In another year dominated by COVID-19, we all need a little weird medical science to lift our spirits, and 2021 did not disappoint. As many of us know, people are strange, and there is no end to the oddities to be found in the human world - and here are four of the best from 2021 - from a man injecting himself with magic mushrooms which then grew in his blood, teens “catching” Tourette's-like symptoms from social media videos, an unfortunate Indian woman cried tears of blood during her period, and an Aboriginal memory trick that beats Sherlock Holmes' “mind palace”.

Credit: Australian Science Media Centre

A man injected magic mushrooms and they started to grow in his blood

A man referred to only as Mr X probably thought he was going to be a fun guy to be with after injecting a tea brewed from magic mushrooms into his blood, but instead his psychedelic experiment resulted in multiple organ failure and a “trip” to the intensive care unit. In the case study reported by US psychiatrists 30-year-old Mr X was attempting to self-medicate, having recently stopped taking his bipolar medication. But problems soon arose, and his family found him a few days later suffering from extreme confusion, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting blood. On arrival at hospital, doctors determined that his kidneys, lungs, liver and heart were all suffering, and his whole body was in a state of septic shock. Remarkably, the medics looked at his blood and found the mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis, were now growing in his veins. Whether Mr X’s confusion was a psychoactive effect of the mushrooms growing inside him, or merely a result of all his other medical issues, remains unclear. Talk about a bad trip!

A woman cried tears of blood during her period

Suddenly bleeding from your eyes sounds like the stuff of nightmares, so spare a thought for the unfortunate Indian woman who cried tears of blood, known as haemolacria, during her period. Outlined in a BMJ Case Report, the 25-year-old woman had reported to the emergency department crying red tears, and this wasn’t her first time as she’d experienced the same thing around a month earlier. A battery of tests revealed nothing untoward, so doctors diagnosed her with “‘vicarious menstruation” - bleeding in unexpected organs during menstruation. Other patients with the condition have experienced bleeding in the bladder, kidneys, lungs, and even through the skin. Although the cause of the woman’s condition wasn’t clear, her doctors reasoned that a hormonal imbalance could be the culprit, as the hormones oestrogen and progesterone can thin capillaries. And their hunch proved right. Treatment with hormonal contraceptives stopped the bloody tears, and the woman was mercifully free of it three months later.

Tic-Tok teens ‘caught’ Tourette’s-like symptoms from social media

German psychiatrists reported that young people around the world appear to be “catching” Tourette’s-like tics by watching videos on social media. Their specialist Tourette’s clinic in Hanover saw a spike in young patients who had recently developed strikingly similar vocal and behavioural tics. The vocal tics were unusual, involving long sentences full of insults and swearing, as were the behavioural tics, which included crushing eggs and throwing pens. But the team eventually recognised them from a YouTube channel called Thunderstorm in the Brain. The channel documents Jan Zimmerman’s life with Tourette’s, and shortly after he started it in 2019 the team saw their first patient with the distinctive symptoms. Some of the patients probably do have mild Tourette’s, they said, but most seemed to have a “mass social media-induced illness”. They speculated that the stress of the pandemic may have made teens more vulnerable to catching tics, while lockdowns have meant they are even more likely than usual to be on social media watching videos. 

Elementary, my dear Yunkaporta. An Aboriginal memory trick worked better than Sherlock’s “mind palace”

Sherlock fans may be familiar with Holmes’ memory technique, the “mind palace”, which involves visualising a familiar place, and linking information with imaginary objects placed in specific spots. But this year Holmes’ mind palace was all but demolished when a small study found an ancient memory trick used by Indigenous Aussies is more effective at helping students recall facts. The technique is similar to the mind palace, in that it matches information with features of the landscape, but it also uses stories to reinforce the memories. These stories can be songlines passed through generations, or entirely new yarns dreamt up on the spot as an aide-mémoire. In the study, three groups of students were asked to memorise the names of 20 butterflies. Following an initial test of recall, one group watched an irrelevant video, group two was taught Sherlock’s trick, and the third group went outside, where an Indigenous educator, Dr Tyson Yunkaporta, wove a narrative around campus landmarks and the butterflies. On re-testing, mind palace students were twice as likely to get a perfect score. But students who learned the Aboriginal trick were around three times as likely to ace the test.