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11 Insane Features of Normal Human Anatomy

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Sure, we’ve wowed you with medical oddities, but why should abnormal bodies get all the attention? The truth about the normal human body can be stranger than fiction. To prove it, here are 11 weird facts about the body you thought you knew.

1. Your Tongue

What does your tongue have in common with an octopus’ tentacle and an elephant’s trunk? All three are examples of a unique structure called the “muscular hydrostat,” a bundle of muscles that work without the assistance of bones. Like anything made mostly of water, the hydrostat has a constant volume, so when certain cells contract, the whole thing has to expand somewhere else. The result is a body part that is both strong and flexible. If your tongue were as big as an elephant’s trunk, it could uproot trees too.

2. Your Hyoid Bone

This wee, horseshoe-shaped bone will never appear in the song by James Weldon Johnson, as it’s connected to...no bones at all, in a meaningful sense; its job is independent of the rest of the skeleton. Also known as the lingual bone, the hyoid bone sits atop the larynx, providing an anchor for the muscles on the floor of the mouth, the tongue. Don’t worry: you’re not likely to break this bone, unless someone starts choking you to death. At that point, you’ve got bigger problems.

3. Your Philtrum

No, that little indent under your nose isn’t there to make it difficult to apply lipstick in the dark, but it doesn’t serve any other purpose either. The indent, called the philtrum, is just a residual reminder of your time in the womb: in utero, the two sides of your face develop independent of one another, then join at the middle. When the two sides fail to fuse properly, the result is a cleft palate, which occurs in about 1 of every 750 births. Ancient Romans found the philtrum erotic, and named that lipstick-thwarting dip in the upper lip “Cupid’s Bow.” In fact, the word philtrum comes from a Greek term meaning “love potion.”

4. Your Hair

People love tossing around hair facts. That old wives tale about it growing after you’re dead? A fun fallacy. After you die, your hair and nails don’t continue growing, but the skin retreats as it dehydrates, causing that creepy illusion of ghoulish growth.

In truth, hair is a weird combination of living and dead. The living hair follicle pushes out the hair, which is made up of different kinds of non-living yet protective cells made of keratin — the same keratin that's on your top (dead) layer of skin, and in your nails. When your hair turns grey, it means your pigment cells are dying. Yet another hairy reminder of your own mortality.

5. Your Nails

Ever notice how your toenails grow more slowly than your fingernails? That’s because there’s an evolutionary correlation between the length of your “terminal phalanges” (the outer-most bones in your toes and finger-tips) and the rate at which your nails grow. The tips of your toes are shorter than your fingertips, so your toenails don't grow as fast. In the same way, the nail on your middle finger will grow faster than the nail on your pinky. The seemingly random correlation has to do with the lessening necessity of claws through human evolution. If your fingernails are thick and grow quickly, ask yourself the question: “Should I be digging more?”

6. Your Bioluminescence

Fireflies and jellyfish glow, but humans? Believe it. The phenomenon is a natural byproduct of the metabolic process, and scientists have long been aware of the presence of bioluminescence in most living creatures. But it wasn’t until 2009, when a team of Japanese researchers developed a camera 1000 times more sensitive than the human eye, that human bioluminescence was captured on film. The light show apparently works on a 24-hour cycle — brightest in the late afternoon and on the cheeks, forehead and neck. Next time someone tells you “you’re glowing,” you can take it literally.

7. Your Walking Proteins

Of the microscopic menagerie that is your cell biology, the most bizarre member is perhaps the kinesin protein, a “motor” protein whose job it is to deliver important molecules to their necessary cellular destinations. What’s most remarkable is the kinesin’s mode of transportation: It “walks” along its micro-pathway using two structures at its base commonly referred to as “feet.” Though scientists disagree as to exactly how these feet were “made for walking,” there’s no denying that the mode of transportation closely resembles that of the humans they assist.

8. Your Sonic Hedgehog

What’s more complex than cell biology? Cell biology in your infinitely complex brain. In 1993, scientists discovered a protein in the hippocampus instrumental in developing a variety of neural traits. Isolated in fruit flies, the protein causes spines to grow on the back, so the scientists named it “Sonic” after the spiny Sega Genesis character. Similar proteins are named desert hedgehog and Indian hedgehog. Who says scientists don’t have fun?

9. Your Liver

The lumpy, lobey, unwieldy liver gets a bad rap, but if you didn’t have it in there cleaning out your system, you’d be looking pretty bad yourself. Lucky for you, the liver is perhaps the most resilient of the major organs: it can regenerate from only 25% of its tissue mass. You wouldn’t vote it the cutest kid in school, but “Most Likely to Succeed”? Maybe.

10. Your Vomeronasal Organ

There are important organs, and there are ones just along for the ride. As far as useless leftover body parts, you’ve probably heard about the tailbone, the appendix, even the little toe (wee wee wee all the way home). But you may not have heard of the “vomeronasal organ,” located unglamorously inside the nose.

Back in the day, the little guy used to aid in detecting subtle airborne information, most importantly, pheromones from a member of the opposite sex. In the age of modern man, the vomeronasal organ doesn’t appear to be doing much -- it doesn’t even have nerves connecting it to the brain. Still, scientists continue to argue about the potential chemical messages it might be sending, titillating that part of us that is still animal.

11. Your Sexy Bits

And speaking of pheromones and vestigial organs...

Men and women have more in common “down there” than you might think. Because the sex organs of a fetus don’t develop until about five months into development, males and females have remnants of the opposite sexual organs — and some are more useful than others. While the penis is basically an enlarged version of a lady’s clitoris, the male remnant of the lower vagina is less useful. Called the prostatic utricle (Latin for “pouch of the prostate”), the little-discussed fleshy sac just kind of hangs out near the prostate gland, leading nowhere. In the 1800s, the structure was more commonly called the vagina masculina, which requires no translation.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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