Sunday, 30 June 2013

Why do we cry?

Yesterday my mom told me that my dad is not my real dad. She showed me pictures of my real dad and she told me what a loser he was. Then she cried a lot and said she was sorry she couldn't tell me any sooner.

I like my stepdad. As far as I'm concerned, he's still my real dad. We have lots of fun together. I don't know my biological dad, but I'm sure he can be nowhere near as nice as my stepdad. Especially considering that he left me and my mom and ran off with another woman.

So when my mom asked me if I wanted to meet my real dad sometime, I said no. I don't want things to become complicated between me and my stepdad. And I also don't want things to become weird and awkward just because there's some other dad on an old photograph. I like things very much the way they are.

But the whole thing made me realize something else. My mom almost never cries. She's one of those people who think that 'keeping a stiff upper lip' is more than just a saying. I never understood what 'keeping a stiff upper lip' really means. I think that people would look very weird if they were to do it properly.

My mom says it has to do with manners. And that's why she's always pulling herself together so much. (Have a look at this article in the Telegraph to find out a little more about British stiff-upper-lipness.)

Anyway. When she showed me those pictures of my dad, I thought it was strange how she lost a bit of her stiff upper lip. I had never seen her cry before. I think it had to do with my other dad running off with that woman. But I also thought it would be best not to ask her any more questions. I know that crying makes her feel very uncomfortable.

I'm sure my mom will tell me more about my other dad when she's ready. So - in the meantime - I wanted to find out why sad memories can make us cry so much. And I also wanted to know what tears are really made of. So here it goes...

Tears are very interesting because they're always there, even in our sleep. They are made out of mucus, water and oil, and our body produces them to keep our eyes lubricated and clean. The mucus in the middle part consists of a lot of proteins, then there's a layer of watery minerals, antibodies and vitamins. The antibodies and vitamins are there to keep the eye fresh and healthy. The outside of each tear consists of an oily substance called meibum (which sounds a lot like 'my bum'). This keeps our eyes from drying out too quickly.

Biologists distinguish between three different types of tears. These are basal tears, reflex tears and psychic or emotional tears. The basal tears are the ones that are always there to protect the eye. When we blink, they get washed out of something called the lacrimal punctum. It's a pretty interesting process because every time we blink we also wash out the old layer of tears through something called the inferior lacrimal canal. It's a little tunnel that transports our old tears through to our nose. (Check out this image on Wikipedia for a detailed description of the tear system in our eyes.)

Our reflex tears are the ones we shed when we've got something in our eye (such as a hair or dust). They are also the reason we get so teary every time someone cuts an onion. Onion vapors are really irritant for our eyes, so our eyes try to wash away the sulfenic acids they produce by generating more and more teary lubricant. (If you're into chemistry, you'll be interested to know that the sulfenic acid of an onion is turned into a special kind of sulfenic acid named 1-propenesulfenic acid, which then reacts with an enzyme to create syn-propanethial-S-oxide. Click on the link for a full description of this and to see what it looks like).

But I think the third type of our tears is the most interesting one. When we cry because we're sad or emotional, we activate all kinds of physical reactions. Reflex tears and basal lubrication of the eyes is pretty straightforward. But when we have emotional stress or when we feel fear, our limbic system, our whole muscular system and our brain get involved. (It's actually not the whole brain but only a little part called 'hypothalamus' that gets involved - click here if you're interested in learning more about the hypothalamus and how it functions.)

This is why emotional tears are a bit different from normal tears. Sad tears make the body release endorphines (endorphines make us happy). But they also have a lot more hormones in them. When we cry, it's easier to calm ourselves down because our tears can regulate our hormone levels (they get rid of one special hormone called Corticotropin in particular.) Some people cry when they're happy in order to release some of the joy they feel. But crying always has a social function as well. When we cry, we want others to see what we feel inside. And this might help them to help us get better.

Before I ask my mom some more questions, I think I'll have to tell her that it's OK to cry. You don't always have to keep a stiff upper lip. Scientists say crying helps to calm ourselves (I even found a blog on a site called Psychcentral that's called 'Seven Good Reasons to Cry'). It tells others about our difficulties and it strengthens our social ties. So it's OK for my mom to feel sad that our first dad left us for another woman. There's nothing wrong with that.

And while I'm on it, I will also tell my (step)dad. He still thinks that men don't cry. But I've seen him fall apart every time he watches a romantic comedy...

Check out this video I found on psychic crying by the 'Talk Nerdy To Me' guys. It's pretty interesting.

I took the small picture of the crying woman from a blog called Science inspiration. The stiff upper lippy picture came from the article on stiff upper lips on the Telegraph's website. The crying girl picture at the beginning of my post was made by Roy Lichtenberg in 1964. 

The crying boy was photographed by someone called Jill Greenberg. I found him on a blog post praising her work on   

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Everyone can always change the world...

Yesterday, my friend Steve, my dad and I went to see the new Superman movie Man of Steel. I was very excited to see it. But - as it turned out - it wasn't very good. Steve did not expect as much as I did, so he wasn't too disappointed. (He also thinks that Earth Generators should be freely available on Ebay). But I thought the film was too loud and there was no real story. After about 2 hours, I got really bored and wanted to go home.

I like Superman very much, but I don't think he should be an emotionless alien. I also think he should be one of us because that's why people like him so much. In 'Man of Steel', he is only a man of steel. That's why I thought the film was very boring. (Check out this review I found on the Guardian's website - it seems that someone called Philip French agrees with me big time).

When Steve and I discussed the Earth Generator they use in the film in school today, one of our teachers said that Superman was outdated. (If you haven't seen the film - an Earth Generator is a machine that can alter a planet's atmosphere so that evil people from Krypton can live on it). I don't think our teacher's right. I think that people always need Superheroes. But I don't think we should only look for them in Sci Fi movies.

There was another article on the Guardian's website which talked about the protests that are going on in Turkey. It said that Turks were now forbidden by their president to protest against any new law. But there was one young Turk who found a way around this. Instead of protesting, he just stood there for hours, without doing anything. The police didn't know what to do with him because he wasn't breaking the law. So others started to join him. After a few hours, they were all protesting against the government without actually protesting. And although the police later arrested all of them, I think they had enough time to make their point.

I think this is also what makes Superman so special. Although he has all kinds of special powers, he always remains one of us. I don't mean by that that he's American from Kansas or anything. I just think that, for a person from Krypton, he is still surprisingly human. And that is why we trust him.

So if Clark Kent from Kansas can do something special and help us against a common fiend, then we can all join him. The same goes for the man in Turkey. The Turks on Taksim Square in Istanbul joined the man who protested against not being allowed to protest because they saw that what he was doing was right (and that it worked). And I think this makes the standing Turk of Istanbul some sort of a Superman too.

I guess Superman's message is that everyone can always make a difference. No matter where you're from (from Krypton or from Kansas) or if you have any special super powers, you can always change the world. Maybe someone needs to tell Zack Snyder about all this...

I took the Superman picture from the film's official website ( The man in Istanbul is called Erdem Gunduz and I got his picture from

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Why are some people lactose intolerant?

My dad recently found out he's lactose intolerant. Whenever he has milk or anything with cream in it, he has what he calls a 'major arse explosion'. I don't think his arse actually explodes, but the smell coming from the loo is always pretty bad. And when he's done, he's usually pretty exhausted.

My mom thinks he's been lactose intolerant for years and just didn't realize. My dad was not too bothered about his angry farts. But my mom got pretty upset with him at some point and that's why she put him on a non-dairy diet. For two weeks, he could only eat stuff without any milk or cream in it; she didn't even allow him to have milk chocolate. And when he finally started drinking milk and eating cheese again last Saturday, things became really, really bad...

My mom's not lactose intolerant. She can have whatever she wants, normally it's lots of creamy cakes and nougat chocolates. I know no one in school with lactose problems, and I am not intolerant either. So I was wondering why only some people have 'arse explosions' and others don't.
I found out that lactose is a special kind of sugar that only occurs in dairy products. (If you're into chemistry, you might like to know what it looks like, so check out this picture of its full chemical structure on Wikipedia). Lactose is a part of all kinds of milk produced by mammals. This means that it's also found in human breast milk.

The real problem with it is that it needs to be broken down into glucose by our bodies. And this can only be done by a special enzyme called Lactase. Lactase is normally produced in our small intestines (that's where the first part of digestion happens). It breaks down lactose into glucose so that our body can absorb it via the bloodstream.

If you can't produce lactase, lactose apparently goes right through you and ends up in your colon. Our colon can't absorb the lactose without lactase. So it just starts working on it with the bacteria it has. And this can become very messy because it will produce huge amounts of acids, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane.

Anyway. The NHS has a very good site on lactose intolerance. You can check it out here. It says that there are two different types. One is called 'primary lactase deficiency', the other one is 'secondary lactase deficiency'. The first one is inherited, the second one is what you have if there is something wrong with your intestines. Most people inherit lactose deficiencies from their parents though. I found out that it can sometimes take really long until you notice it. Which would explain why my dad thought he was normal, although he smelled like a monster every time he let one rip.

Babies are immune because they produce huge amounts of lactase throughout the first two years of their lives (unless they have a problem with breast milk right away). But the gene responsible for lactose intolerance (the LCT gene) is usually passed on by parents who have at least one mutation of a gene called MCM6. (Check out this governmental website on genetics to learn more about genetic mutations in relation to lactose intolerance).

What this means is that -  although only one of my parents is actually lactose intolerant - it might still be enough for me to get some major arse explosions in the future...!

I took the bomb picture from The belly and the cream came from an Indian website called Grover and his smell came from  

Saturday, 1 June 2013

What do people think of when they die?

I have been wondering what people think of when they die for quite some time now. I have already asked my dad. But he doesn't know. And every time I ask her, my mom only keeps talking about angels and how people with special birthdays (such as Christmas) see special things others can't see. So I decided to do some research.

People used to be dead once their blood circulation stopped. But nowadays, medicine has found a number of ways how doctors can prevent this from happening (check out some info on Advanced Life Support in this article on Wikipedia. There are also a few reanimation techniques such as CPR - Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation - that can help save people's lives.) Some doctors even claim that they can resurrect people. Someone called Dr Sam Parnia has written a book about cases where people had been dead for more than 40 minutes (check it out on Amazon). So I guess, in the 21st century, you're only dead once your brain has finally stopped working.

My granddad died of a heart attack when he was 89. Technically, it was not his heart that killed him but the fact that - after his heart had given up - his brain was no longer supplied with oxygen. It's too bad I can't ask him what he was thinking when it happened. But there are lots of people around who have worked with people dying or who came back after a near-death experience. So I thought it might be a good idea to have a look at what they're saying...

I found lots of stuff, but most of it was not what I was looking for. In the Guardian, for example, there was an article about what people regretted most when they died. The article was about a woman named Bonnie Ware who used to be a nurse and who wrote a book about the 'Top Five Regrets of the Dying' (you can have a quick look at the book here). What she says is that most people regret that they had to live an unhappy life in which they weren't truly themselves. Having worked too hard came in second place. Bonnie Ware didn't record any young people, and most of her patients were old men, so I think most of the things she has to say are fairly common sense (or just sell very well). Her book didn't answer my question because it didn't mention what people were thinking of when they died. It only went on and on about what they were talking about before it happened.

You can find out all kinds of stuff on near-death experiences (NDEs) online. I think this is because people are really afraid of dying. My granddad used to tell me lots of times that he was tired of life because most of his friends and family were dead. So I think he didn't mind dying that much in the end. But I'm sure he was still pretty scared when it happened.

Psychologists think that most people in our Western World are scared of death. They even have a name for it: it's called 'Thanataphobia'. So I think people will definitely think about how scared or not scared they are when they are dying.

Anyway. There are a few common things in the NDEs I looked at. A priest named Don Piper had a near death experience and was singing along to 'What a friend we have in Jesus' after being hit by a truck. He says he went to Heaven and he's also written a bestseller book about it. He's now a baptist priest with his own church in Texas, so I don't know if he invented the story afterwards to sell a lot of books or if this really happened.

Other people tell stories about how they saw their own surgery or how the paramedics tried to reanimate their lifeless bodies. But they all described their outer body experiences from memory, so I guess they all may have made up at least parts of it. Maybe they were trying to make sense of what happened to them and those were the only explanations they could find. What all near-death experiences have in common is that people saw or thought of something that was connected with who they were or what they believed in.

Sam Parnia says:

'People tend to interpret what they see based on their background: A Hindu describes a Hindu god, an atheist doesn’t see a Hindu god or a Christian god, but some being. Different cultures see the same thing, but their interpretation depends on what they believe.' (I took this quote from an interview on

What this means is that what you think of when you die pretty much depends on who you are and what you believe in. Just before death, the brain goes through some exciting stuff. It is bombarded with a huge amount of sensory information. This happens because of a sudden loss of oxygen or of some traumatic injury (when you get shot in the head, for example). Just before you die, the brain cells then fire one last electrical impulse. Sometimes they also release a chemical called dimethlyltryptamine (DMT). This is exactly the same compound our brain releases when we dream.

So what some people describe as near-death experiences might just be their brain trying to make sense of an enormous sensory overload. And what people later describe as a tunnel or as a white light might just be their memory trying to make sense of a few confusing images...

As it turns out, it is quite difficult to tell what people really think of when they die. Apparently, you can have a near-death experience just by thinking that you're dying. So I think our brain plays all kinds of tricks on us when it is about to stop working.

But I have found out at least one thing that is true. No matter where we're from, which religion we believe in or what our regrets may be. We don't think of shopping lists or money problems when we die. What we think of always has to do with death.

Check out this article on the Daily Mail's website on the thinking you're dying experience. For a few more recorded cases of NDEs have a look round websites such as this one: If you always wanted to know how to do CPR, then have a look at this NHS site. There's an interesting video on there with someone showing how to do it properly.

The Zombie Boy was drawn by someone called Rick Lucey, I took it from his blog. The surgery picture came from the National Geographic. The boy in the tunnel can be found on the Paranormal Encyclopedia; the painting is by someone called Mike Pettygrew.