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Anatomical quirks: 10 things you didn't know about your body
Bill Bryson's new book, "The Body: A Guide For Occupants," provides important (and funny) lessons in anatomy, neuroscience, physiology, biology, and more.
- American-British scholar, Bill Bryson, has written a fascinating user's guide to the human body.
- The Body: A Guide For Occupants provides important lessons in anatomy, neuroscience, physiology, biology, and more.
- Though we've learn a lot about ourselves in the last two centuries, it's still clear there's much we don't know.
As far as medicine and science have come, we remain ignorant of much of how our body functions. It's a challenge for us, for instance, to wrap our heads around the ecosystems that live within us — that are us. Indeed, even for the self-aware animal that we are, we're still in a nascent phase of understanding what we really are.
That's why we need writers like Bill Bryson. His new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, continues the American-British scholar's quest to understand nearly everything — as evidenced by his 2004 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Most well-known for travel books such as A Walk in the Woods and Notes From a Small Island, Bryson's nonfiction writing is as enjoyable as his journals galavanting around the globe — not nearly as humorous, but he lets plenty of quips slip into this latest work as well.
Below are 10 factoids about yourself (and, more generally, our species) that you might not have known. If only this book had been available during my high school years, I might have retained more than I did than with those dry biology textbooks. Educators, take note.
To hear Bryson explore his new work, make sure to check out a recent episode of our podcast, Think Again.
Bill Bryson, travel writer, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England.
Photo credit: David Levenson / Getty Images
The Resistance is Growing
Much of our stomach bacteria is healthy, yet for a multitude of reasons our gut ecosystem is becoming infertile. First off, we owe Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming a note of thanks for discovering penicillin, which immediately saved millions of lives. Yet, even in 1945 he warned of the dangers of microbes growing a resistance to this newly discovered medicine known as antibiotics.
As Bryson writes, from the 1950s through the '90s, three new antibiotics were introduced in the U.S. every year; now the number is one every other year. Sadly, pharmaceutical companies would rather focus on drugs that people need to take for decades (like statins and SSRIs) than on low moneymakers that will be obsolete in a few years.
Overuse fattening up farmed animals, C-sections (in which the baby does not pass through the wash of microbes in the mother's vagina), and our own misuse all seem to blame. For example, 20 percent of all antibiotic usage is for sinus problems, yet antibiotics do not help sinus problems. Bryson continues, "Almost three-quarters of the 40 million antibiotic prescriptions written each year in the United Stats are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics."
The human brain is hungry. Weighing just 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes 20 percent of our energy requirements. Whether you're watching TV or doing complex math, your brain burns roughly 400 calories every day. Thinking more doesn't result in a greater calorie burn. In fact, the opposite is true.
"An academic at the University of California at Irvine named Richard Haier used positron emission tomography scanners to find that the hardest-working brains are usually the least productive. The most efficient brains, he found, were those that could save a task quickly and then go into a kind of standby mode."
Our vestibular system is responsible for balance. Located inside of our ears, a gel informs our brains whether we are going left or right, up or down. When spinning in a circle, the gel keeps moving when we stop, resulting in that peculiar disorientation children seem to love. Fascinatingly, our brain isn't interpreting it as merely a pause.
"When loss of balance is prolonged or severe, the brain doesn't know quite what to make of it and interprets it as poisoning. That is why loss of balance so generally results in nausea."
Over the course of your life, you'll secrete roughly 31,700 quarts of saliva. In an interesting comparison, Bryson notes that this is equivalent to "two hundred or so deep baths." As I recently wrote about, salivary diagnostics is an important developing field of medicine. A recent discovery, Bryson writes, is opiorphin, a natural painkiller produced by our saliva. While six times more potent than morphine, we produce very little amounts of it — not enough to avoid the pain of hot pizza on the roof of your mouth, but still, an essential biological feature that helps us manage pain.
Pain in the Head
Speaking of pain management, only our brain — an organ that itself cannot feel pain — can feel pain. Headaches are not even our brain hurting, regardless of how deeply we feel it. Of all the various types of pain there are, some confer evolutionary benefit by warning you to avoid something while others seem to be a design failure. For example, we usually don't feel the pain of cancer until after it's already ravaged our body. Not much of a warning system, that one.
There is not much of a difference between physical and emotional pain. Both can be diminished through a variety of means, such as "pleasant aromas, soothing images, pleasurable music, good food, and sex." Another important factor is expectation. Bryson concludes, "In many ways, we feel the pain we expect to feel."
Bill Bryson on the miraculous human body
Younger is Not Better
Up until relatively recently, children went through puberty around age 16 or 17. That dropped drastically in the last century due to improved nutrition. There's a problem, however: young girls are now menstruating as early as seven or eight, and there is a link between excess estrogen and cancer later in life. You solve one problem — in this case, malnutrition — and suddenly others appear.
While there is no clear reason why we develop allergies at all, between 10 to 40 percent of the world's populations suffer an allergy to something. Strangely, the richer the nation, the more allergies its citizens get. While there is a genetic link, it's only an increased chance that you'll get what your parents have (about 40 percent). Genes are not destiny, unless they are.
One thing is certain, however: babies born through a C-section are eight times more likely to develop allergies (as well as more likely to be struck with diabetes, asthma, celiac disease, and obesity). Today, 60 percent of all births through C-section are because of convenience, not necessity. There's a reason babies are born the way they are. By not allowing for that (unless medically necessary), we're doing our children more harm than the temporary good of reduced pain during childbirth.
Stop Eating So Damn Much
In 1915, an average American spent half of their weekly income on food. Today that number is closer to 6 percent, yet we're eating more than ever. As our biology dictates a hoarding mentality, health care systems pay the price, mostly due to processed foods (almost all of which contain added sugars). As Bryson puts it, "We are in the historically extraordinary position that far more people on Earth suffer from obesity than from hunger."
That Said, Weight Isn't Everything
We know that obesity creates many health problems, but a hyper-focus on "clean eating" and a holistic lifestyle doesn't mean you're going to avoid all of biology's ills.
"Roughly 40 percent of people with diabetes, chronic hypertension, or cardiovascular disease were fit as a fiddle before they got ill, and roughly 20 percent of people who are severely overweight live to a ripe old age without ever doing anything about it."
The body is certainly confusing.
Finally, A Few Myths
It's incredible how easily swayed we are. For example, in 1968 a doctor published a letter (not a study or research) describing how uneasy he felt after dining in Chinese restaurants. He speculated that MSG might be the cause. It wasn't, but for decades we've labeled it as toxic. It's not; it's an essential component of the glorious taste sensation, umami.
Genetically speaking, humans don't reproduce. We recombine.
The marketing ploy that has men taking testosterone supplements to stave off the natural 1 percent yearly decline starting in their '40s? Putting it back in is more likely to harm you: men increase their risk of a heart attack or stroke by taking these supplements.
Ten thousand steps a day? That myth is based on a single study done in Japan in the 1960s that was on shaky ground to begin with. This said, you should be walking. Ten thousand is roughly equivalent to five miles; studies of hunting and gathering societies, which are comprised of generally fit populations, have a "slightly" higher average: 19 miles per day.
Sleep is for the consolidation and transferring of memories? Maybe.
Finally, we don't lose most of our body heat through our heads. Body heat is evenly distributed. If you walk out in winter without a hat, however, you are risking losing body heat through that area because it's exposed. Listen to your mom and put on a hat, dummy.
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Airspeeder, the world's newest motorsport, is set to debut its first race in 2021.
What can you expect to see? Something like a mix between Red Bull's air racing and the pod-racing scenes from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" — manned electric cars flying close together in the desert at 120 mph, nose-diving off cliffs, and racing over lakes, all while hopefully avoiding collisions.
Airspeeder calls its vehicles flying electric cars, but it's probably easier to think of the wheelless multicopters as car-sized drones. Powered by electric batteries, the carbon-fiber craft use eight propellers to fly, and the tiltable motors are designed to allow pilots to navigate through the course's pylons at high speeds.
To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.
"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a blog post.
Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley.
Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.
"Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it's a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast," Airspeeder's founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, told GQ." But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there's an incident or a pilot slows down or there's a traffic jam on the course they're all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It's technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future."
Airspeeder has yet to announce a date for the first race, but Pearson said he hopes to put on three races over the first season. The company is developing two courses: one in California's Mojave Desert, and one near Coober Pedy in South Australia.
The way you speak might reveal a lot about you, such as your willingness to engage in casual sex.
- A new study finds a deeper voice is associated with self-reported extraversion, dominance, and casual sex.
- It was the first study on the topic to objectively measure voice pitch.
- The authors suggest that hormones like testosterone might explain their findings.
We make snap decisions about other people based on information that we can gather quickly. One of the many ways that we do this is by making bold conclusions about other people's personalities based on their voices alone. Various studies demonstrate that people associate a deep voice with dominance, but those with higher pitched voices are perceived as nervous or neurotic. Popular culture seems to agree with and reinforce these stereotypes.
Are these perceptions accurate? Maybe. A new study by an international team of researchers with the goal of more accurately determining what our voices reveal about us has demonstrated that there is some connection between how we sound and who we think we are.
The voice-personality connection
Lead author Dr. Julia Stern of the University of Göttingen explained:
"Even if we just hear someone's voice without any visual clues — for instance on the phone — we know pretty soon whether we're talking to a man, a woman, a child, or an older person. We can pick up on whether the person sounds interested, friendly, sad, nervous, or whether they have an attractive voice. We also start to make assumptions about trust and dominance. The first step was to investigate whether voices are, indeed, related to people's personality."
The study included data from 2,000 people from four countries involved in eleven previous independent studies focused on other questions. Each of these studies involved some kind of self-reporting of personality traits and vocal recordings. The recordings were analyzed with Praat, software that determined the frequencies of the participants' speaking voices.
The study is the largest ever conducted on the topic and the first to use an objective measure of pitch rather than subjective rankings such as "high pitched" or "deep." Each participant's vocal pitch was then compared to the self-reported personality data they provided.
The findings associated self-reported levels of dominant tendencies, extroversion, and increased interest in and acceptance of sociosexuality (casual sex or sex outside of a relationship) with a lower pitched voice. This was true for men and women of any age. The findings were in line with the previous, less robust studies on the subject.
Other stereotypes, like if a higher pitched voice hints at neuroticism, openness to new experiences, or agreeableness, were impossible to determine with the data at hand.
Voice isn't everything
It should be remembered that the personality traits that this study associates with vocal pitch are self-reported, so there are some serious limitations. For instance, it is entirely possible that vocal pitch is associated with thinking you're extroverted when you actually aren't. Furthermore, all four countries in the study are WEIRD, so the findings probably cannot be universalized.
Additionally, there are plenty of examples of people for whom the voice-personality link doesn't apply. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, an extremely extroverted, dominating man, had a fairly high pitched voice.
The authors do speculate that there could be a connection between testosterone levels in men, their vocal pitch, and their perceived level of dominance that would be supported by previous studies. However, they have no hypothesis explaining why that same relationship exists for women.
The authors suggest that further studies in this area could focus on finding a possible physical connection between these traits and vocal pitch and to determine if they hold for traits which are not self-reported.
Who needs steroids when you have the placebo effect?
- A study suggests that the effectiveness of sports drinks may depend in part on their color.
- Runners who rinsed with a pink liquid ran better than those who consumed the same but colorless drink.
- Improvement in their performance is likely due to a placebo effect.
The "placebo effect" is real. It's the name for a strange phenomenon that most notably occurs during clinical trials. People who are given an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, often experience the same therapeutic benefit as those who are given actual medicine. It's not their imagination — it really happens. (Even better, recent research suggests that therapeutic benefits occur even when the person knows that they were given a placebo.)
Now, a new study from the University of Westminster (UOW) Centre for Nutraceuticals in London and published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that the placebo effect may explain yet another phenomenon: Athletic performance.
The research showed that treadmill runners who rinsed their mouths with a pink liquid increased their performance over runners who swished with exactly the same liquid but without the coloring. Why pink? The color is generally linked to sweetness, and the researchers wondered if that association would subconsciously trick the runners into an expectation of more carbohydrates and thus energy.
Author Sanjoy Deb explains:
"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit to its impact on testosterone and muscular power. Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."
Running for science
Credit: Ryan De Hamer / Unsplash
For the study, the researchers recruited ten healthy adults — six men, four women. All were regular exercisers, with an average age of 30. The participants were told that they would be testing the relative benefits of two commercial sports drinks after watching a brief video explaining the value of such beverages. Previous research found that mid-exercise rinsing with such drinks can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise.
The drinks consisted of 0.12 grams of sucralose dissolved in 500 mL of plain water — an artificially sweetened rinse low in calories. The liquids contained no other additives common to sports drinks such as caffeine. The pink version had non-caloric coloring added but was otherwise identical.
After a 12-minute warmup phase of jogging followed by running, the athletes ran at a difficult pace for 30 minutes, rinsing with their drinks as they ran. Following a brief cool-down, they were interviewed to capture their impressions of the exercise session. (Each runner tested both drinks.)
The researchers found that when the volunteers used the pink rinse, they ran an average of 212 meters farther and 4.4 percent faster. They also enjoyed the exercise more.
Deb said, "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."
The researchers also plan to dig deeper into the phenomenon by investigating the possibility that the pinkness of the beverage is somehow directly activating the brain's reward areas.