What mystical powers do four kids have?
November 21, 2007 10:29 AM   Subscribe

You know the playground trick whereby four of you can "levitate" a fifth person using just your fingertips (you first hold your hands over his head and count to 20)? How does that work, then?
posted by bonaldi to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Try standing in a doorway, with your hands at your sides. Then raise them a little and push against the side of the doorway for 20 seconds. Then step out of the doorway.

I'd guess this has something to do with it, along with having the weight distributed between a bunch of people.
posted by sanka at 10:34 AM on November 21, 2007

Light as a feather, stiff as a board?

As far as I know, it works because you're distributing the weight. It's not like really you're only using your fingers, you're using all of your body, just like picking up anything.

I used to do it as a kid and it always worked for us.
posted by fructose at 10:39 AM on November 21, 2007

Response by poster: Ah, I didn't know it was called that! The thing, though, is that it doesn't work the first time you try -- they're too heavy.

Some links I've now googled are putting it down to "HUMAN DIAMAGNETISM GRAVITY ANTENNA LEVITATION", which sounds ... madey-up to me.
posted by bonaldi at 10:44 AM on November 21, 2007

In most people, the first two fingers are nearly as strong as the biceps and other muscles of the arm, so the amount you can lift with your first two fingers is probably at least 70% of what you could lift with your whole hand.

Using adults as an example, a 160 lb person supported by 4 people is 20 pounds per hand. I could definitely curl a 20 lb weight with my fingers without much problem, and children are likely to have a better strength-to-weight ratio.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:54 AM on November 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yep that sounds really plausible. I'm clearly going to have to try and talk my colleagues into trying it out here, so I can see if it really only works after the handwaving. I certainly remember it not working first time round as a kid.
posted by bonaldi at 11:04 AM on November 21, 2007

Well, look at it this way: a 160# person supported by four others is only 20# per hand if everyone is pulling their weight.

If one person hesitates, slacks, or is unable to lift the weight without hurting himself, the other three have to pitch in to support the extra weight. And if that extra weight causes one of the remaining three to hesitate, slack, or pull back, you're down to two, and so on. All you have to do is psych one person in the group out of pulling his weight and you've destroyed the co-operation that makes the trick possible.

And the thing is, kids are really really suggestible. In your average group of four eight-year-olds, guaranteed there'll be at least one who you can psych out with a little handwaving.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:12 AM on November 21, 2007

It has to be the weight distribution thing. In the physical world that we know, hand waving has no effect on weight. ;)

It probably was not called "light as a feather, stiff as a board" the way you did it. When we did it we were usually at a sleepover and we'd go into a darkened room and spread ourselves out around one of the kids with each of our two pairs of two fingers underneath him or her. One person would sit at the kid's head, and we'd pretend the kid was dead, and the head person would tell a spooky story about how he or she died. At the end, the person would start chanting, "light as a feather, stiff as a board," we'd all join in, and then we'd all slowly lift the kid way up off the ground. Until he or she squirmed and we'd lose our grip and the kid would fall to the floor.

But it didn't seem *all* that mystical until one of the kids would say something like, "Hey, nobody on my side was even lifting. We took our fingers away." Or another person would say, "We did this last week and Becky all by herself lifted Jimmy way up over her head!" My theory is that it's the same kids who claim they aren't moving the Ouija Board indicator that tell you stuff like, "You were the only one lifting him!"

It's all just a kid scam. :) In your case, the scam artists would be the ones who weren't lifting before the hand waving (which is why it didn't work then).
posted by iguanapolitico at 11:18 AM on November 21, 2007

I think the phenomenon occurs because the kid getting lifted tenses up more the second time, and when the liftee's muscles are clenched he/she feels lighter because he/she is doing more of the "work."
posted by emd3737 at 11:29 AM on November 21, 2007

It's definitely the weight distribution--this trick is carefully described in the Klutz Book of Kids Shenanigans: Great Things to Do That Mom and Dad Will Just Barely Approve Of (comes with a whoopee cushion, too) and that's how they explain it.

And they're not too heavy the first time, it's just pretend/faking it/some people holding out, to make the trick better.
posted by anaelith at 11:45 AM on November 21, 2007

Yeah, it's crucial that the person being lifted makes their body "stiff as a board." Otherwise it's dead weight and it won't work, or at least not as easily.
posted by fructose at 11:46 AM on November 21, 2007

Oh, and that Klutz book is awesome. I had it as a kid.
posted by fructose at 11:47 AM on November 21, 2007

I think emd3737 is onto it: the first time you try, the liftee is likely to be relaxed, and that means the people under their abdomen/hips and shoulders are taking a disproportionate amount of the weight (a human's COG is near the navel, a little lower for females). The "magic" basically encourages them to tense up, distributing their weight to all lifters. When the weight is evenly distributed, it's enough to lift easily.

Not sure where you'd go for a 'official' answer to this...maybe a kinesiologist?
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:55 AM on November 21, 2007

There's a psychological aspect to this, too, similar to how a Ouija board works -- the ideomotor effect. You think he/she is levitating from some unknown force, without realizing that it's all of you doing it simultaneously, and all of you making subtle adjustments along the way.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:58 AM on November 21, 2007

thirding the klutz book=awesome. my mom got it for me. now that's a cool mom.
posted by prophetsearcher at 11:59 AM on November 21, 2007

Can someone please explain this trick? I've never heard of it and I'm dying to try it!
posted by GilloD at 2:20 PM on November 21, 2007

Response by poster: GilloD:
Sit a friend on a chair, facing west
Arrange four friends at each corner.
Standing friends put their two index fingers together
Hook them under sitting friend's knees or armpits, depending on which corner they're standing at.
Try to lift.
Stack your hands up floating above sitting friend's head, one above the other, not touching, each in order (Friend 1 Left, Friend 2 left, friend 3 left, friend 4 left, friend 1 right etc).
Count to 20 ominously
Quickly put your fingers back into the lifting position and lift
Marvel as sitting friend just floats out the chair
Return to AskMe and report back.
posted by bonaldi at 2:26 PM on November 21, 2007

Wow thanks for asking this. I remember chanting "light as a feather, stiff as a board" and lifting some kid up and being completely stunned by it. I thought it was magic.
posted by jdl at 3:13 PM on November 21, 2007

My friends and I never got light as a feather, stiff as a board to work. I weighed maybe fifty pounds at the time and four of them could not lift me. It was immensely frustrating, especially because any one of them could pick me up like a baby and carry me around, but I think I was just too damn ticklish to pull my "stiff as a board" weight.
posted by crinklebat at 7:32 PM on November 21, 2007

Two things:

First, it's been mentioned above that holding your arms out in front of you for 20 seconds is a lot like pushing your arms against the inside of a door jamb for 20 seconds; in both cases, your muscles will keep acting as you've been forcing them to act, for a brief period of time, when you relax them.

This plays into the idea (also mentioned above) that even one person screwing up the lift will cause the whole thing to collapse; when you do it the second time, even if friend #3 doesn't lift at the same time as the rest of you, it doesn't matter -- because their muscles are still lifting a bit from the 20-second period. So the 20-second period enforces the rule that everyone needs to be lifting at least somewhat for this to work.

Second: when I was a teenager going on long bike rides with friends, we'd spell off when someone got tired; the tired person would sit upright, and one of us would pull alongside, stick a stiff finger straight into their back, and hold our arms in that position. The additional load of that person was trivial in a way that (for whatever reason) it wasn't trivial if we put our hand on their back, and so we could push them along with little effort for a half mile or so until they were up to pedaling again (then we'd cycle to the next person.)

So yeah, fingers are strong, and weight distribution plays a big part in that.
posted by davejay at 9:33 PM on November 21, 2007

Arm, rather, not arms.
posted by davejay at 9:34 PM on November 21, 2007

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