Why Do Limbs 'Fall Asleep'?


At some point, we've all experienced the sensation of "pins and needles"—that strange numbness that comes from applying pressure to our arms or legs. If you've ever wondered what causes it, or if it's dangerous, wonder no more.

We've got nerves running through our bodies that act as lines of communication between the brain and the other body parts, transmitting commands from the brain and relaying sensory information back to it for processing. With a "sleeping" limb, your nerves are going a little haywire because prolonged pressure has actually cut off communication between that limb and the brain. (The tingling sensation is technically called paresthesia.)

Pressure puts the squeeze on nerve pathways and blood vessels, so the nerves can't transmit signals properly, and the blood vessels can't bring oxygen and nutrients to the nerves. The cutoff interferes with the normal flow of information between the limb and the brain, and the signals going back and forth get jumbled. Some nerve cells stop sending info entirely, while others send impulses erratically.

The problem is compounded by the fact that our nerves are pretty specialized, and different kinds of nerves and sensory receptors receive different stimuli and transmit different information. (We've discussed another bodily oddity caused by this.) When the various signals get scrambled and aren't transmitted normally, the brain starts to misinterpret the info it's getting and generates an array of sensations, like warmth, numbness, and that tingling feeling.

When a limb falls asleep, we usually try to "wake it up" by changing positions. Blood flows back to the limb, giving a little boost to the misfiring nerves and making the tingling seem worse, but eventually the nerve signals begin to flow properly again. The pins-and-needles sensation is annoying for a few minutes, but it's a nice little prompt for us to relieve the pressure on a limb before serious nerve damage occurs.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?


The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?


Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

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