For the first post in my Fantasyland February series (I promise I’ll write more soon), I wanted to dive into a few science topics related to Sleeping Beauty, the princess who was awakened from a deep slumber by true love’s kiss. Hopefully none of the super cool science information below puts you to sleep!
So what caused Sleeping Beauty’s coma or death-like slumber?
Including Juliet imbibing a sleeping draught or Snow White eating a poisoned apple , fictional characters have been put into death-like states (or faked their own deaths) in myriad ways. So what likely caused Sleeping Beauty’s death-like state? How might pricking a finger have led to the princess losing consciousness? And could true love’s kiss really awaken someone from such a state? Maybe the magical secret is the too-coincidental-to-be-overlooked common thread of roses (that famous Shakespearean line, the color of Snow White’s lips, Sleeping Beauty’s secret identity), maybe it’s science or maybe it’s both.
According to The Film Theorists, plants may be the culprit behind these medieval motionless maladies. But unfortunately the suggested plants refute my rose hypothesis: none of the likely suspects are in the Rosaceae (rose) family. First, atropa belladonna, a poisonous plant commonly found in medieval Germany (in which the authors of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the Brothers Grimm, lived) might be what caused these princesses’ death-like states. In addition to being poisonous when ingested, this plant was often used to make poisonous arrows. And arrows are pretty similar to spindles, so it is possible that the spindle with which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger was also coated in the same belladonna poison.
Atropa belladonna’s deathly powers can be attributed to a chemical makeup that is high in alkaloids. These alkaloids work by blocking receptors in the nervous system for a chemical called acetylcholine, like blocking all of the doors to the elevators and stairwells to prevent you (the acetylcholine in this analogy) from getting to the right floor of a building (neurons that control movement of muscles that regulate breathing and neurons that regulate heartbeat the heart). One of the main side effects of the specific alkaloid in atropa belladonna is to speed up the heartbeat, eventually leading to heart attack. Although the mechanism of delivery for this poison seemed good, it is more likely that Sleeping Beauty’s heartrate slowed down to a restful, death-like state rather than speeding up.
Another hypothesis that I think is more likely is that Sleeping Beauty went into a hypoglycemic diabetic coma after pricking her finger on a spindle that may have been coated in insulin.These comas are caused by the concentration of sugar in blood reaching too low of levels and the hormone insulin reduces the amount of sugar in the blood. While it is highly unlikely that Maleficent was able to isolate insulin into a substance in medieval times, the spindle might not have been necessary at all; the sum of experiences that Sleeping Beauty experienced leading up to the finger-pricking moment may have also caused the coma. The clues are all there – she didn’t have a chance to eat her birthday dinner or cake and then had to walk briskly to the castle which would’ve depleted her body’s sugar reserves. Hypoglycemic diabetic comas have symptoms such as fatigue, weakness and light-headedness as well as shallow breathing which could all be some of the things that we see Sleeping Beauty experiencing in the Disney film. Furthermore, it is actually feasible that this state could have been cured by true love’s kiss. If Prince Philip’s lips and tongue were coated in several grams of glucose, this could have been enough to rebalance Sleeping Beauty’s blood sugar levels by allowing her to digest the glucose. All in favor of renaming Prince Philip to Prince Sugarlip from now on, say aye!
Lastly, the third hypothesis is that Sleeping Beauty suffered head trauma and a subsequent coma after pricking her finger. But, Sarah, you might say, that’s silly; pricking a finger has nothing to do with head injury! And this is where my personal experience with something called a vasovagal syncope allows me to undermine that assumption. Vasovagal syncope causes someone to lose consciousness, often for only a few seconds or minutes, because some sort of external stimulus causes nerve signals (the same ones affected by atropa belladonna chemicals) to dramatically decrease heart rate, which lowers blood pressure, which prevents more blood and more oxygen to reach the brain.
My handful of vasovagal response experiences have been caused by triggers of descriptions pain or anything to do with breaking bones but several other people are triggered by needles or blood. You know what else is sharp like a needle and can draw blood? A spindle! So Sleeping Beauty could have lost consciousness and fell to the floor due to a vasovagal response to pricking her finger. In the process, she could have hit her head hard enough on the cobblestones of the tower room to be put into a coma. Unfortunately, there is still no scientific evidence showing that a kiss has the ability to awaken anyone from coma.
Thanks for reading!
Which do you think is the most plausible scientific explanation?
Check out my Instagram posts @thephdprincess for more science related to Sleeping Beauty coming up this week! I just had too much information to fit into this one post!