Another puzzle in cartoon understanding

It appeared on Facebook today, with this note from Chris Hansen:

(#1) CH: From another list we have a cartoon that takes a heckuva lot of background knowledge to understand. Arnold may want to deconstruct it, if he hasn’t already. I don’t know the cartoonist.

Well, I certainly wanted to deconstruct it, but not without knowing who the artist was. Quickly, however, Chris himself, Brian Guerrero-Kane, and Roger Phillips all supplied that information — Leigh Rubin (who has a Page on this blog) — and led me to fuller versions of the cartoon, with a title that considerably aids understanding. But the stripped-down version in #1, though challenging,  is soluble, so I’ll do that first.

First, to get anywhere with #1, you have to recognize that the four characters in it are the four Yellow Brick Road adventurers from the Wizard of Oz (the book and/or the 1939 movie): the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy Gale, and the Scarecrow. All eating ice-cream cones. WoZ and ice-cream cones are background bits of common modern Western (but especially American) popular culture, the sort of thing we’d expect most 6-year-olds to recognize.

Then it gets complicated. Three of the four YBRers are weeping. Why? Here you need to know about a medical phenomenon, described in one source as “severe but usually short-lived pain in the frontal or temporal region of the head, induced by the consumption of very cold food or drink or by other exposure to cold” (discussion to come in a little while). You don’t have to have a name for it — it could just be “that headache you get from eating ice cream too fast” or something like that, though the relatively transparent name cold-stimulus headache (one of the semi-technical names for it) will do here — but  to understand the cartoon you must either have experienced  a cold-stimulus headache yourself or observed it in others (or heard about it from others).

(It doesn’t happen to everyone — personal anecdote below — and not everyone gets it from ice cream, but only from more intensely cold foods, so one of its common names, the also transparent ice-cream headache, isn’t always accurate.)

So only the Scarecrow isn’t crying in pain. Maybe he’s just one of those people who don’t get cold-stimulus headaches from eating ice cream. Why would that be funny?

To understand that, you need to know two things, one about cold-stimulus headaches, one about the Scarecrow.

The first thing is that the subjective experience of the headache is (often) that it is actually localized in the sufferer’s brain, inside their head — so that another common name for the headache is the highly metaphorical brain freeze.

The second thing is that, just as (apparently) the Cowardly Lion lacks courage and the Tin Man lacks a heart, the Scarcrow lacks a brain. Aha! No brain, no brain freeze.

It’s a wonderful joke, but it depends on your having some very detailed culture-specific knowledge.

Background details. From Wikipedia:

A cold-stimulus headache, also known as brain freeze, ice-cream headache, trigeminal headache or its given scientific name sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (meaning “pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion”), is a form of brief pain or headache commonly associated with consumption (particularly quick consumption) of cold beverages or foods such as ice cream and ice pops. It is caused by having something cold touch the roof of the mouth, and is believed to result from a nerve response causing rapid constriction and swelling of blood vessels or a “referring” of pain from the roof of the mouth to the head.

… A cold-stimulus headache is the direct result of the rapid cooling and rewarming of the capillaries in the sinuses leading to periods of vasoconstriction and vasodilation. A similar but painless blood vessel response causes the face to appear “flushed” after being outside on a cold day. In both instances, the cold temperature causes the capillaries in the sinuses to constrict and then experience extreme rebound dilation as they warm up again.

In the palate, this dilation is sensed by nearby pain receptors, which then send signals back to the brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area. This nerve also senses facial pain, so as the neural signals are conducted the brain interprets the pain as coming from the forehead — the same “referred pain” phenomenon seen in heart attacks. Brain-freeze pain may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Research suggests that the same vascular mechanism and nerve implicated in “brain freeze” cause the aura (sensory disturbance) and pulsatile (throbbing pain) phases of migraines.

[Personal recollection. Some people simply don’t experience the headaches. For almost 40 years my man Jacques never did, and was puzzled at other people’s complaints. In fact, he had no recollection of ever having had any kind of headache — he simply didn’t understand what people were talking about when they said their heads hurt —  until May 1980, when he was struck by intense pain of a sort he’d never experienced before. Maybe it was migraines, maybe cluster headaches, the family doctor thought, but treatments for these had no effect, and the pain steadily worsened. Then, while he was teaching an Introduction to Language class at Ohio State early in June, the pain became so intense that tears were streaming down his face. And then he went blind. It was a huge medullar blastoma, very nasty; he survived, barely, but headaches, including ice-cream headaches, were his companions for the rest of his life.]

On the common names, from the OED.

From OED3 (Dec. 2012), the source of the definition above:

ice cream headache  n. severe but usually short-lived pain in the frontal or temporal region of the head, induced by the consumption of very cold food or drink or by other exposure to cold; an instance of this.

1937 R. Timbres Jrnl. 31 Jan. in H. Timbres & R. Timbres We didn’t ask Utopia (1939) 225 Your nose and fingertips get quite numb, too [in extremely cold weather], and if you don’t keep rubbing your forehead, you get what we used to call ‘an ice cream headache’.

1964 Washington Post 5 Apr.  e7/3 He’s trying to find out the processes involved in the so-called ice cream headache.

2006 Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent(Nexis) 20 Aug. 35 A British Medical Journal study found eating cold foods quickly doubled the likelihood of ice-cream headache.

And from OED3 (June 2011):

brain freeze n. N. Amer. colloq.  (a) the freezing of funding for scientific research …  (nonce-use);  (b) sudden mental paralysis; a lapse of memory or concentration, a mental block;  (c) = ice cream headache n.

1991 Union Leader (Manchester, New Hampsh.(Nexis) 27 May 4 Got a brain freeze from drinking a Dairy Queen ‘Mr. Misty’ too fast.

2004 Washington Post (Home ed.) 6 July  f2/1 Slurpees aren’t exactly health food. But..the sweet slush might cause brain freeze.

The Rubin original. In his ebook “Twisted Pop Culture”:

(#2) In color, with a signature, dating, and a caption

The caption considerably eases the task of understanding the drawing, but you still need specific information about brain freezes and the Scarecrow.

Bonus from the ebook. Another cartoon that requires background (pop) cultural information for understanding — in this case, you need to recognize that the clown is Ronald McDonald, the mascot of the McDonald’s fast-food chain, whose principal product is hamburgers:


One Response to “Another puzzle in cartoon understanding”

  1. Leigh Rubin Says:

    Thanks for the proper credit for my cartoons!

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