BOSTON -- Driving while desperately needing to urinate isn't a crime, but maybe it should be.
Peter Snyder and his colleagues found that having a bladder at its bursting point reduced attention span and the ability to make decisions to the same degree expected with low levels of alcohol intoxication or 24 hours of sleep deprivation. The research earned them the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for medicine.
"When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," said Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The ability to hold information was really impaired," he said.
This year's winners of the dubious distinction handed out Thursday at Harvard University for head-scratching scientific discoveries included a team of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi; a European mayor who solved his city's parking problems with a piece of heavy military equipment; a Norwegian researcher who explored the science behind sighing; and the numerous people throughout history whose mathematical calculations to predict the end of the world have fallen flat.
The 21st annual awards sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research were handed out by real Nobel laureates, and featured the usual doses of silliness, including a mini-opera about the chemistry in a coffee shop and the ritual launching of paper airplanes.
The point of Snyder's work was to determine the effects of pain on decision-making. Working with full bladders is a "low-cost, low-risk" way of causing pain that can be easily resolved, simply by going to the bathroom.
The research, done with scientists at Australian universities, also was fun. The group even crowned an unofficial withholding champion -- the person who could go the longest before his bladder exploded. Australian researcher David Darby held out for three hours.
Vilnius, Lithuania Mayor Arturas Zuokas won the Ig Nobel peace prize for his heavy-handed way of dealing with parking scofflaws. He crushed their cars with a military armored personnel carrier.