Is the grass always greener on the other side?

November 26, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence?

Yes. You ask how I know this. (1) Personal observation. Not to bore you with details of my personal life, but grass has always been a problem for me. (2) Scholarly corroboration--specifically, a journal article entitled "The Grass Is Always Greener: An Ecological Analysis of an Old Aphorism" by James R. Pomerantz, Perception, 1983. Professor Pomerantz's explanation, I may as well tell you, isn't the model of scientific rigor some might prefer. First, it has about as much to do with ecology as Radio Flyers have to do with radio. (The only ecological thing about it, as far as I can tell, is that it involves grass.) Second, the author persists in referring to the "grass is always greener" phenomenon as the "GAG effect," leading you to suspect that the project wasn't pursued with 100 percent seriousness. However, in my business you work with what you've got.

Here's the deal. If the observer (O) looks at his feet (A), Pomerantz writes, he sees the grass "at an angle more nearly perpendicular to the ground and thus sees through the blades of [green] grass to the [brown] ground below." This "desaturates the green." However, if O looks at a nearby field (B), "the more acute angle his line of sight makes with the ground allows less of the brown to reach his eye, and thus green will dominate his perceptual experience." In other words, the grass seems plenty green when you look across the way at your neighbor's lawn, but you see all the bare spots when you look straight down at yours.

Makes sense, no? But some will cavil: The paper you're citing is (partly) a joke! Look, when Stephen Hawking publishes his take on the subject I'll quote Stephen Hawking. In the meantime, let's not lose sight of an axiom I have long lived by: Just because it's bullshit doesn't mean it isn't true.

Dear Cecil:

Is there any medical foundation to the claim in movies and TV series that people who have taken an overdose of sleeping pills or some other drug must not fall asleep or lose consciousness before they receive treatment or else they will die? Or does it just make for good (ha!) drama? --Bengt Carlsson, Stockholm, Sweden

Cecil replies:

It's not a crock, but the scriptwriters have it backward. Keeping your overdosing pal awake isn't for his benefit (directly, anyway). It's for yours.

Barbiturates and other central nervous system depressants have predictable effects on the body depending on dose: first relaxation, then sleep, anesthesia, coma, and finally death. Absent monitoring devices, it's difficult to judge Mr. OD Victim's condition once he nods off. Rather than take a chance, the standard advice has historically been to keep the poor bastard on his feet--as long as he's moving, you can be reasonably sure death isn't imminent, whereas if he can't be roused, it's time for a quick trip to the ER.

While walking your buddy around may be informative (and reassuring), it's not really therapeutic--drugs metabolize at roughly the same rate whether the affected party is conscious or not. I've heard of one scenario that might count as an exception: The drug is alcohol and a medical professional has given the victim an emetic so he'll heave whatever he hasn't digested. In that case having the guy walk around might have some impact on his condition, since if he's awake and upright, gravity and an active digestive system will help the emetic do its thing. I should stress, however, that doctors (specifically Patrick Murray, a kidney specialist at the University of Chicago Hospitals, whom I consulted on this subject) shudder at the thought of amateurs trying to make a drugged person throw up, lest he choke to death on his own vomit a la Jimi Hendrix. Better you should get the guy help from people who know what they're doing.

Whether the victim is ambulatory or not becomes moot once he arrives at the hospital. Doctors can order lab tests to determine how much depressant the guy has in him and if it's safe to let him sleep it off. If it is, they do, taking care to put him on heart and oxygen monitors just in case.

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