The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
At the edges of the eyebrows, you’ll find the temple, the flat, tender side of the head where you often press your fingers to relieve a headache. In movies, one karate chop to this area can allegedly kill a person, but is this really true? What lies beneath that smooth surface of skin that’s so delicate? To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Dr. Abbas Anwar, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Southern California Head and Neck Medical Group in Santa Monica.
1. THE TEMPLE IS A JUNCTURE.
It's technically where four skull bones—the frontal, parietal, temporal, and sphenoid—meet in the skull. This vulnerable juncture is called the pterion, which means "wing" in Greek but sounds like a kind of dinosaur.
2. IT REVEALS A DISTANT LINK TO REPTILES.
The temporal bone itself is made up of five smaller parts, which fuse together before birth. One of these pieces, called the tympanic part, may be evolutionarily linked to the angular bone in the lower jaws of reptiles.
3. IT'S THE THINNEST PART OF THE SKULL …
While these skull bones are "relatively strong," though thin, Anwar tells Mental Floss, the point at which they meet is the weakest point because there's no solid bone beneath them. "As such, this area is at risk with direct horizontal blows."
4. … WHICH IS WHY MAORI WARRIORS CRAFTED A SPECIAL WEAPON TO CRUSH IT.
When Maori warriors of the first nations tribes of New Zealand and Australia went into battle, one weapon they took with them was the patu onewa, a flat, heavy club carved from stones such as basalt, and sometimes jade, for the specific purpose of delivering a fatal, crushing blow to the temple.
5. THE TEMPLE COVERS A MAJOR ARTERY.
Running below these bones is a large artery known as the middle meningeal artery. It supplies blood to the outer covering of the brain, the meninges. "If hit hard enough, one of the four bones at this point can fracture inward and lacerate the middle meningeal artery," Anwar explains. This can cause an epidural hematoma, essentially "a collection of blood that builds up around the brain and compresses it."
Severe bleeding can cause "catastrophic consequences" if not recognized and treated promptly, including brain herniation (bulging brain tissue), hemiparesis (weakness of one side of the body), and death.
6. IS YOUR TEMPLE A SACRED SPACE?
Etymologists don't entirely agree on the meaning of the word temple, which has multiple origins. It may derive from the Latin word for time, tempus, according to a Dartmouth Medical School anatomy course: "The connection may be that with the passage of time, grey hairs appear here early on. Or it may relate to the pulsations of the underlying superficial temporal artery, marking the time we have left here."
It could also possibly hail from the Greek word temenos, meaning "place cut off," which would explain the idea of a temple of worship as well as that juncture of bones at the side of the head.
In Old English, tempel meant "any place regarded as occupied by divine presence," which might be code for the brain as the residence of consciousness or God.
More likely it's related to the Greek pterion, which as you'll recall means "wing." In Greek mythology, Hermes, messenger of the gods, wore a helmet with wings, which were positioned over the temples.
7. IT'S PRONE TO SKIN CANCER THAT'S HARD TO REMOVE.
Surgeon Gabriel Weston writes in The Guardian that skin cancers frequently turn up in this area from over exposure to the Sun, which makes for a challenging surgical procedure. "It is often not possible simply to sew up the hole in the skin after cutting a cancer out, since doing so can easily distort the contour of the eye," he writes.
To get around the problem, Weston uses a special technique called a Wolfe graft. After cutting away the cancerous lesion, "I measure out a circle of equal size in the skin above the collar-bone (where the skin is similar) and remove it." He grafts this skin patch to the patient's temple "with tiny silk sutures."
8. BRAIN FREEZE ISN'T IN YOUR BRAIN.
Sometimes when you eat or drink something cold too quickly, you get brain freeze, which can feel like someone has taken knives to your temples. But the pain isn't actually in your brain at all, as brains have no pain receptors. While researchers haven't been able to determine a cause of what's technically called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, or sometimes HICS ("headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus"), they theorize that the painful freeze you experience is likely caused by a quick cooling of the blood in the back of your throat at the juncture your internal carotid and anterior cerebral arteries, which can cause spasms or constrictions of the arterial branches.