And in movies too I guess, at least for fainting. What’s up with that? I am forever reading in novels about people breaking into a sweat when nervous or caught lying. Although it’s true one sweats much of the time here in the tropics, on those few occasions I get nervous – I never lie, or so I say – in a nice air-con room, I don’t break into a sweat. Does this happen to many people in real life, or is it just a literary convention?
Likewise with fainting. Do many people faint dead away upon hearing some sort of shocking news?
My stepmother fainted at the hospital upon being told that my father had suffered a heart attack that put him in a coma. So, yeah…it can happen.
I’ve also seen it happen while I’m on shift. We get a call every so often for someone who’s unconscious. Usually there are aggravating circumstances, like a low-blood sugar problem, OD, or alcohol-induced. But not always.
It’s possible, or for all sorts of other stresses; serious illness, standing at attention in the hot sun too long, or more often a combination of several. Say, being sick, hearing some shocking news and then leaping to your feet. Anything that can lower the blood flow enough to your brain to knock you out (which is how leaping to your feet can contribute).
As I recall (I’m no doctor), one of the major factors is how functional your autonomic control of your blood pressure is. Ideally, your blood vessels are supposed to squeeze down somewhat and keep your blood from pooling in your legs & lower torso due to gravity; in some people this reflex response isn’t up to par. So all sorts of stresses can let the blood pressure in your head drop below what your brain needs to function, causing a fainting spell. Which naturally flattens you, letting the pooled blood even itself up and alleviating the problem.
There are some, though, in my experiences, I’ve only seen a few where someone’s hit their head on a table, say, as they fell. Generally, when someone gets lightheaded for whatever reason, they’re usually able to sit down (or lie down) before going completely out. I think it’s an instinct we all have - when your equilibrium goes wonky, sit down. Most of the times I’ve had to go to a house where someone’s out, it’s a friend or family member who calls 911, so I’d venture that most people don’t go all the way down without someone/something breaking the fall.
Okay, standing in the sun, presence of some disease or condition and all that are fine. But often in the movies you see some non-stressed housewife going about her normal business in her white-bread, air-conditioned home when she answers the phone to hear that, say, the husband she thought had died years ago has been discovered alive, and down she goes. It’s often the one odd moment in an otherwise-plausible film, such as the Tom Hanks movie, Cast Away. How often does that happen?
And don’t forget sweating. Does anyone really break out in a nervous sweat?
I almost fainted when the doctor told me my husband had died. My knees gave way and I dimmed out (not blacked out, just dimmed) for a second. My daughter grabbed my arm so I didn’t fall, and it helped that there was a chair nearby. Closest I’ve come to an out-of-body experience, and it was a few moments before things felt real again. Weird.
Weren’t women wearing tight corsets (during the era when that was fashionable) much more prone to fainting? And would the literature the OP is thinking of be either from that era, or at least influenced by the conventions of the literature from that era?
Part of it is shorthand, like the women yelling their lungs out when startled/scared. I’ve never, ever, seen someone yell like that irl, but it seems to be a required skill for actresses in “scary” movies or TV series (more so in some countries than in others).
As for hitting one’s head, people do sit down, try to grab the wall (btdt, didn’t quite faint, but it wasn’t news-related), and generally fall down in a heap more often than “looking like a plank”. I’ve seen quite a few people get bumped knees from a faint.
I faint a lot - narcolepsy - and even when I’m caught completely unawares I don’t usually hit my head, because you don’t topple like a tree trunk, you collapse like a puppet whose strings have been cut. In other words, onto your knees (or your bum, depending on your posture before you fell) before falling the rest of the way. That doesn’t leave a large area for objects that’ll hurt your head, and hitting your head on the (possibly carpeted) floor from that height, at slow speed, isn’t that big a deal.
The type of fainting you’re tlking about is eal, medically recognised,and usually called a vasovagal syncope. Wikiexlains it reasonably well:
It’s basically a fight-or-flight response that’s too strong for the body to cope with.
However, I think it happened more in times when corsets were popular, and afterwards, even though corsets weren’t usually worn and people weren’t as prone to fainting, it persisted in literature because by then it had become a trope.
I’ve seen someone faint with relief. She was a coworker of mine whose boyfriend was deployed on indefinite active service (in Belize in the 70s). His sergeant came into our shop to tell her that he was going to be home in a week, in time for Christmas, and she went down (as said above) like a puppet with the strings cut.
I’m sweatier than most people, so I don’t know how applicable my experiences are to the general case, but my hands and feet start sweating whenever I’m concentrating. In elementary school, my papers were a soggy mess. The paper would actually start falling apart. Even now, I make small pools of sweat on the surface in front of me whenever my mind is working. I’d I’m under pressure, it gets worse and other parts of my body will start sweating. So I can believe that other people might sweat from the forehead a little if under pressure. I doubt that it is a surefirr sign of lying, however.
When people faint in movies they typically topple like tree-trunks and are easy to catch. I was riding the El in Chicago one day, and a lady looked at me and said something like “please…can you” and then proceeded to faint. I caught her and, since she collapsed exactly like the aformentioned puppet, proceed to drag me to the ground as well (I was taller and somewhat heavier than she). It is extremely difficult to hold up a limp person.
She opened her eyes almost immediately and I gratefully turned her over to the conductor to worry about.
People always seem to be fainting from the horror of what they’ve seen in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft (and of his followerrs and imitators. Have a look at Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone, for instance). It was a pleasant novelty that the hero of The Shadow over Innsmouth doesn’t faint, but deals with the situation.
We are talking about a period where women sometimes had their lower ribs removed so they could tighten their corsets up a bit more; I’ve always heard that shortness of breath was common for fashionable women back then, and than some could make themselves faint just by holding their breath.