There are so many common myths, misconceptions, and urban legends, and one of my favourite things is learning about them. Because they’re so ingrained in society—drilled into our heads from the time we’re children—we don’t know they’re untrue…until we learn they’re untrue.
One very common myth that I learned about years ago is that the suicide rate goes up at Christmas. Some versions of this myth may say the rate doubles, others will cite a percentage. The truth is, suicide rates actually go down over the holidays. In fact, more suicides take place in the early spring than at any other time of the year. No one really knows why, but it probably has to do with people being around people during the holidays. If you think about it, people often get depressed in the winter time before the holidays (the weather, lack of sunlight, social hibernation, and the stress of the holidays). But then the holidays actually arrive and suddenly they’re propelled into a world of food and music, gift-giving, parties, and gatherings. They’re surrounded by people. Maybe they feel better for a while and their suicidal thoughts go on hiatus. When the holidays pass, life returns to normal, and the depression returns. Maybe these people think if they can just fend off their harmful thoughts until the spring, they’ll be okay. Maybe it’s just the winter. But when spring arrives they’re still depressed and suicidal, so, well…. And that’s one theory as to why the suicide rate is highest in the spring.
One of the myths that recently got busted for me is one that I would often espouse. In the winter time, especially in Canada, you’d better wear a toque (woolen hat) because…say it with me now…you lose 80% of your body heat through your head. Or 50%, the number changes. We do lose most of our body heat through our extremities—arms and hands, legs and feet, and heads. But you don’t lose any more body heat through your head than you do your hands. It’s just that most people do not wear hats, so when they do they feel warmer. If you never wore gloves and suddenly put on gloves, you’d feel warmer too. Or shoes. Or pants. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the “heat rises” theory, because that is not an explanation that will bust the mythbuster. Hot air rises above cool air, but heat doesn’t rise inside our bodies to our heads!
Here’s a good one: If you shave, then your hair will grow back faster, thicker, and darker. I remember this one being busted on this awesome Canadian kids show called Street Cents years ago. Shaving just cuts hair—it has no effect on the part of the hair shaft below the skin surface, which is where growth and pigmentation occur. That’s like saying when you get the hair on your head cut, it will grow back thicker. The truth is, your hair will not grow back thicker or darker, but it may appear so because the new hair growth has blunt ends instead of tapered ends.
Speaking of hair, how about the common notion that your hair and fingernails continue to grow after you’re dead? Yep, it’s false. Just like the above, hair and fingernails may appear longer after death simply because the skin around them has retracted. Dehydration causes the skin and soft tissue to shrink, but the hair and nails remain the same length. It’s all an illusion. So, Joss Whedon, you got it wrong when you made Buffy come out of the grave with longer hair than she went in with!
This is my absolute favourite myth to bust: Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. I don’t have many vices or bad habits, but cracking my knuckles is one I do have that some people find either gross or irritating. I try not to do it around people who are bothered by it, and I mostly do it when I’m cold. (My aunt smacks me when I do it.) Finding it irritating is one thing, but don’t tell me I’m causing arthritis! I read the truth about this myth when I was a kid, in a magazine in my doctor’s office. Here’s how I remember it from that magazine, and I just corroborated it: Your joints are surrounded by a thick lubricating fluid. When you crack your knuckles, the bones of the joint pull apart, which causes a gas bubble to form in the joint. The sound you hear that so many people find irritating is the sound of the adhesive seal in the joint breaking (or you can think of it as the bubble popping). For the record, arthritis is caused by a person’s immune system attacking their joints.
Fun, right? We learned so much today! Now go forth and stop propagating misinformation.