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Can you tell the difference between modern and medieval health myths? Take this quiz.

This isn’t the first time rumors have gone viral.

By Schuyler Velasco

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us the perils of health misinformation, but false stories about diseases and cures are hardly new. Some of the rumors circulating on Twitter today sound suspiciously like myths from 100 or even 500 years ago. 

Can you separate old myths from modern-day misconceptions? Take this quiz prepared with help from Jessica Davis and Briony Swire-Thompson of Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, who work on modeling the spread of information.

“Hospitals are busier during full moons.” Is this a myth from:

Correct! Wrong!

You can hear this one echoing around the halls of even the world’s top hospitals in the present day. There’s even an episode of “ER” about it. But a 2004 paper from Iran tracking trauma-related admissions to three emergency departments over 13 months found no difference between full-moon days and other days in regards to the number of attendees or severity of patients treated. People tend to remember facts that confirm an already-held belief. In psychology, this phenomenon is called confirmation bias. If the hospital is busy on a full moon, people will think “see, hospitals are busy on full moons.” But if it is quiet, the myth won’t come to mind.

When this global outbreak was spreading, there was a rumor that burning rosemary would cleanse the homes of the infected:

Correct! Wrong!

This myth of old isn’t too far off from some of the misinformation circulating during our current crisis; online, you can find false claims that everything from eating garlic to taking hot baths will protect you from COVID-19.

“Intentional bee stings can heal injuries.” Where is this myth from?

Correct! Wrong!

Apitherapy, or using bee products like honey and pollen for medicinal purposes, is a non-Western medical tradition that can be traced back to ancient societies in Korea, Egypt, and Greece. According to biomedical scientists, it has well known antibacterial properties. However, bee venom as an alternative (and widely debunked) form of medicine was first credited to Philipp Terc, a 19th-century Austrian physician. More recently Gwyneth Paltrow wrote in a post in her popular lifestyle blog that bee venom therapy helped her get rid of an old injury.

“Drinking alcohol kills brain cells.” Is this myth from:

Correct! Wrong!

Neurons are the longest-living cells in the body, and they are very difficult to kill. Alcoholics and non-alcoholics have the same number and density of neurons in the brain. Although it doesn’t kill brain cells per se, it does seem to damage the ends of neurons (dendrites), making it more difficult for neurons to relay messages to one another.

The misconception that the “Spanish Flu” epidemic originated in Spain is from:

Correct! Wrong!

The virus actually may have started in Kansas, but we are not entirely sure. Spain was neutral during World War I, when the virus broke out, so compared with other countries, news outlets in Spain were more open with information about how it was affecting citizens. This gave the false impression that Spain was hit particularly hard by the flu in comparison to other countries. The death toll of this flu has been estimated at 50 million people. The misconception is still widely repeated today — including by the official White House Twitter account.

Bloodletting — draining blood from a patient in order to cure or prevent sickness — began around 3,000 years ago, but it was discredited in:

Correct! Wrong!

Illness was originally thought to be caused by the imbalance of the four “humors” in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Bloodletting was used as a standard practice to reset the balance. The treatment is thought to have originated in Egypt and then spread to Europe. Even one of Britain's most reputable medical journals, The Lancet, is named for the instrument used for opening veins--and it was founded in 1823. It persisted until the growth of new treatments and procedures, along with several studies that showed its ineffectiveness in the late 1800s, and eventually fell out of favor.

“We only use 10 percent of our brain” is a myth. Which book helped popularize it?

Correct! Wrong!

It is still unclear where this myth originated, but it gained traction thanks, in part, to a 1936 preface of Dale Carnegie’s seminal self-help book. The blurb misquotes psychologist William James, who wrote often about how the average person only achieves a small portion of their true potential — a contention that, when repeated by others, gradually morphed into the 10 percent misconception. Although some areas of the brain will become more active depending on the task, our whole brain is active, at least to some extent, all of the time.

Hysteria was once classified as a mental disorder, commonly diagnosed in women. When did the psychiatry profession finally drop the term?

Correct! Wrong!

The concept of female hysteria goes back thousands of years; from ancient Greece well into the Victorian era, it was considered a disease that originated in the uterus. Historically, hysteria was thought to manifest itself in women with symptoms such as anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, and nervousness. Freud popularized this notion in 1895 his book ‘Studies On Hysteria’, although even then his views were polarizing. Although Freud’s ideas were largely rejected in modern times, the term ‘hysteria neurosis’ remained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until its third edition, published in 1980. By then, the definition did not refer to gender, and was simply regarding the ‘involuntary psychogenic loss or disorder of function’. Nonetheless, the term was happily retired due to the historical baggage associated, and replaced with more appropriate terms such as ‘dissociative disorders’.

An early version of the “five-second rule” came from:

Correct! Wrong!

According to legend, the 15th-Century Mongol ruler had a rule at his banquets: dropped food was fair game, if he deemed it good enough. Fast forward to 1963. In an episode of her television show “The French Chef,” Julia Child crystallised the five-second rule, in spirit at least, after flipping a potato pancake out of her pan. “You can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen,” she said. “Who’s going to see?”

Here’s one crucial health issue that shows we’ve advanced past the Middle Ages. Back then, what was widely believed to cause hiccups?

Correct! Wrong!

The Old English word for “hiccup” is “ælfsogoða,” which roughly translates to “elf-cough.”

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Want more? If you would like to participate in one of Dr. Briony Swire-Thompson’s future “myth vs. fact” experiments, sign up here.



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Question 8: Hollis & Wright,  “Old English Prose of Secular Learning” c. 1992; 


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Spanish flu image from the National Archives; other images from iStockphoto




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