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.

Anatomical quirks: 10 things you didn't know about your body

English anatomist John Banester (1533 – 1610) delivers the Visceral Lecture at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall in London, 1581.

Photo credit: Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • 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."

Brain Efficiency

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."

Balancing Act

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."

Inner Pharmacy

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.

Allergic Nation

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.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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