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Why Does Skin Get Pruney in the Tub?

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For a long time, scientists thought that pruning of the skin after spending time in the water was simply a matter of fingers being a little spongey. The outermost layer (the stratum corneum) of the outermost layer (the epidermis) of our skin is mostly made up of cells called corneocytes. These cells are filled with keratin, a protein that helps keep the skin hydrated by absorbing water and preventing its evaporation. When you hang out in the pool or the bathtub for a while, the keratin absorbs a lot of water, and the cells swell up. While the thin stratum corneum swells with water, the lower layers of skin that it is attached to don’t, so that outermost layer has to buckle and bend to accommodate its relatively larger size, sort of like a too-big shirt that wrinkles and bunches together when it's tucked in.

Another, more recent explanation is that the wrinkles come from vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels. The idea is that hot water makes the blood vessels in the fingers tighten and the surrounding tissue contract, causing the skin to fold.

But the explanation might be more complicated than either one of those potential causes—especially when you consider how the phenomenon occurs in people with nerve damage.

So Unnerving

In the 1930s, two scientists examined a boy whose median nerve was severed, leaving his thumb, index, and middle fingers numb. When they soaked his hand in water, the ring and pinkie fingers wrinkled but the fingers affected by the damaged nerve stayed smooth.

And in 2001, researchers at Tel Aviv University found that nervous system malfunctions caused by Parkinson’s disease also interfered with finger wrinkling. In their study, Parkinson’s patients’ fingers wrinkled less on one side of the body than the other, and wrinkled less overall than the fingers of healthy subjects. Going by the common explanations, the wrinkles were a local phenomenon happening in very small bits of flesh. The involvement of the nervous system, though, suggests that something else is going on.

Getting a Grip

Mark Changizi, neuroscientist and the Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs in Boise, Idaho, thinks that the wrinkles’ neural factor is a clue that they’re adaptive. Rather than being a mere side effect of water-logged digits, he says, they’re a functional response to wet conditions: The wrinkles act like drainage networks or tire treads on our fingers and toes, channeling water away and giving skin more contact with, and a better grip on, wet surfaces.

Analyzing the wrinkles on various soaked fingers, Changizi and his team found that they all had similar shapes and characteristics—with disconnected channels that moved away from each other as they got farther from the fingertip—consistent with what is expected in a drainage network. That wasn’t much evidence for Changizi’s hypothesis, but it got the ball rolling. (Update: 11/30/2012, 1:25 pm) While that doesn't seem like much, Changizi points out that the "morphology prediction is actually very strong."

"Of the infinitely many wrinkle patterns that are possible," he says, "[the] drainage hypothesis predicts [the] actual [pattern]."

Since publishing the idea and the initial data last year, he and his team have been looking for evidence of finger-wrinkling in other primates that live in wet environments (they’d already found it happens in Japanese macaques) and are setting up experiments to directly test the wrinkles' effects on grips, While the results aren't ready to be published yet and the pilot studies so far suggest that pruney fingers do help improve grip.

(Update: 11/30/2012, 1:25 pm) Changizi has filled me in on that pilot data. The experiment was conducted Changizi and undergraduate student Joseph Palazzo. They had subjects carry out a timed task of moving objects, including bottles, stones, logs and other items, from one place on a table top to another, and back again. They did this in wet-pruney, dry-pruney (dry objects, and fingers dried after they had wrinkled), wet-nonpruney (wet fingers, but not yet wrinkled) and dry-nonpruney conditions. Wet-pruney performance was better than wet-nonpruney, with the subjects being faster and making fewer mistakes.

Changizi would like to see more behavioral studies like this carried out, and see more data from other species for further tests, but  probably won’t carry out any of these studies himself. "A more sophisticated next experiment would be version-2.0 of this sort of thing, in my mind," he says. "But not my forte." He thinks that other scientists would be much better at that kind of experiment.

"In terms of the categories of test, then," he says. "There's morphology, behavior, and phylogeny, and at this point we've done the first, poked at the second, and only wondered about the third."

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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