Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"Popular Scientific Recreation" Part I - Catatonic Chickens

I imagine my father-in-law, Giovanni, knew about this trick.  He spent his childhood summers in the countryside near Modena, Italy where he very likely encountered a chicken or two.

     Even though my father grew up in a city, as a kid he used to spend a lot of the summer on his grandfather's family farm.  He often tells stories of his adventures, misadventures and mischief.  One of those starts with "Do you know how to hypnotize a chicken?"  After a lot of head shaking, he would tell us all you have to do is make it stare at a line...hmmm...should we believe this?  Is it really that easy?  Usually there was a lot of head shaking and "Really?  Nooo...really?"  as he would insist "Yes, really."  As we never had a chicken handy to test this theory or had ever seen it done, we cautiously believed it.

As it turns out, this prankster farm activity has been delighting kids, fascinating adults and confounding chickens for a very, very long time.  There is an illustration of a catatonic chicken in the 1882 publication of Le Ricreazioni Scientifiche ovvero L'insegnamento coi Giuochi (originally published in France under the title Les récréations scientifiques, ou L'enseignement par les jeux) by Gastone Tissandier.  The passage in the book describes how to hypnotise a rooster by either drawing a white line on a dark table or a dark line on a white table.

Chicken hypnotism or tonic immobility has interested scientists for centuries.  Current explanations indicate it is a response to fear.  Playing dead or remaining immobile isn't foolproof, but it does keep some of these  animals from winding up as dinner for a predator in the wild.

The quote below credits the first time this behavior was described in literature and was taken from The Journal of Mental Sciences Volume 26 published in 1881.

So what does it look like in action?  See the video below for a better idea.

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