Spontaneous human combustion

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Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a name used to describe alleged cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. While there have been about 200 cited cases[1] worldwide over a period of around 300 years, most of the alleged cases are characterized by the lack of a thorough investigation, or rely heavily on hearsay and oral testimony. In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred "spontaneously."

There are many hypothesized explanations which account for the various cases of human spontaneous combustion. These generally fall into one of three groups: paranormal explanations (e.g. a ghost or alien caused it), natural explanations that credit some unknown and otherwise unobserved phenomenon (e.g. the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol cause spontaneous ignition), and natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g. the victim dropped a cigarette).

Objections to natural explanations usually revolve around the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings. Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body — or part of it — has suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning, with surroundings or lower limbs comparatively undamaged.[1]

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Suggested explanations

Many hypotheses have attempted to explain how SHC might occur, but those which rely on current scientific understanding say that with instances mistaken for spontaneous combustion, there was an external source of ignition, and that the likelihood that true spontaneous human combustion actually takes place within the body is quite low.[2]

Unverified natural phenomena

  • Since every human body contains varying strengths of electrical field and the human body also contains flammable gases (mainly methane in the intestines), an electrical discharge could ignite these gases.
  • SHC victims are sometimes described as lonely people who fall into a trance immediately before their incineration. Heymer[3] suggests that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by reacting nitrogen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions. This hypothesis has been criticized on the basis that Heymer "seems to be under the illusion that nitrogen exist as gases in the blood and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case."[4] (Mitochondria are organelles found within cells.) The hypothesis also fails to take into account the fact that nitrogen is an inert, non-flammable gas.

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