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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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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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