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8 Surprising Facts About the Stomach

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.

While you may only think of your stomach when you're eating or it catches your attention with a gurgle or burble, it's much more than a repository for the food you eat. Your stomach kills microbes, secretes hormones and mucus, and absorbs nutrients. Here are eight gut-clenching facts you might not have known:

1. IT HAS SOME SERIOUS STORAGE CAPACITY.

Your stomach at rest holds about 7 ounces of stomach acid and bile. However, it has the capacity to hold nearly a half-pound of food at a time if necessary. (The average capacity is about 32 ounces, or a quarter-gallon.) It normally takes from four to six hours to digest one meal, so this capacity can be important.

2. PH BALANCE AND MUCUS PREVENT ACID FROM CORRODING YOUR STOMACH.

"Thanks to the high production of hydrochloric acid, which is highly potent, the stomach regenerates its lining frequently," says Sydney Ziverts, a health and nutrition investigator for ConsumerSafety.org. The stomach cavity has a powerful protective process in place that normally keeps the pH of the stomach balanced. Potassium ions help to modulate the hydrochloric acid, and the stomach lining itself produces high numbers of goblet mucus cells to protect the lining.

3. IT ALLOWS YOU TO ABSORB THE CRUCIAL VITAMIN B12 OUT OF YOUR FOOD.

Your stomach is responsible for helping to release the crucial vitamin B12 [PDF] from the proteins you eat. Hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin break the locked B12 out of its protein so it can be absorbed into your blood stream. "The metabolism of vitamin B starts in the stomach in the parietal cells," Lisa Ganjhu, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Mental Floss. Vitamin B "is one of the main vitamins in our body to help with metabolism and energy production," she says.

4. IT'S A HORMONE-GENERATING MACHINE.

Eating and digesting your food is most likely something you never have to think about. Yet your GI tract is home to a veritable orchestra of hormones stimulated by epithelial cells that line the stomach and small intestine. These hormones engage in a wide range of functions, including stimulating appetite, encouraging the secretion of enzymes and gastric acid, and reminding the gall bladder to contract and empty. These hormones directly enter the blood, and eventually affect the function of other parts of the digestive system, including the liver and pancreas, and even your brain.

5. YOUR STOMACH IS ONE OF YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM'S FIRST LINES OF DEFENSE.

Besides just digesting your food, the stomach helps protect your entire body. "The acidity in our stomach helps to sterilize whatever you're eating. It kills off bacteria and potential food toxins," says Ganjhu. Your gastrointestinal tract also has patches of lymphoid defense cells it sends out when something makes it through the stomach, such as a virus or bacterial infection.  

6. AND IT MAY PLAY A PART IN YOUR MOOD, TOO.

Your stomach may very well be a key player in keeping your mood balanced. New research suggests links between the gut microbiome—the microorganisms that live in any environment—and your mental health. A recent study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that transferring the gut microbiota of depressed human patients into rats induced depressive symptoms in the rodents, opening up a whole new realm of possible bacteria-based treatments.

7. STOMACH FLU ISN'T ACTUALLY A FLU.

If you've ever had the misfortune to find yourself stranded by the toilet for 24 to 48 hours purging the contents of your stomach, you may have described the cause as a stomach flu. However, actual influenza is primarily a respiratory infection. What keeps you in the bathroom is likely some form of norovirus or rotavirus, which causes gastroenteritis of the stomach and intestines, and usually resolves in one to two days.

8. THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF STOMACH ULCERS IS LIKELY BACTERIAL.

The causes of ulcers have perplexed medical researchers for years. However, recent studies have found a link between the bacteria H. pylori and inflammation of the stomach lining, gastritis, and ulcers. In fact, new research suggests that the bacteria may also be linked to stomach cancer.

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Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?
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If you close your fingers in a car door or slam your funny bone into a wall, you might find your first reaction is to suck on your fingers or rub your elbow. Not only is this an instinctive self-soothing behavior, it's a pretty effective technique for temporarily calming pain signals to the brain.

But how and why does it work? To understand, you need to know about the dominant theory of how pain is communicated in the body.

In the 17th century, French scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that there were specific pain receptors in the body that "rang a bell in the brain" when a stimulus interacted with the body, Lorne Mendell, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Mental Floss. However, no study has effectively been able to identify receptors anywhere in the body that only respond to painful stimuli.

"You can activate certain nerve fibers that can lead to pain, but under other circumstances, they don't," Mendell says. In other words, the same nerve fibers that carry pain signals also carry other sensations.

In 1965, two researchers at MIT, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack, proposed what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Mendell, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of pain and who worked with both men on their pain studies, explains that their research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers.

"The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate," Mendell says. "So you have this idea of a gate control sitting across the entrance of the spinal cord, and that could either be open and produce pain, or the gate could be shut and reduce pain."

The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage.

Of the two main types of nerve fibers—large and small—the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).

Mendell explains that in studies where electric stimulation is applied to nerves, as the current is raised, the first fibers to be stimulated are the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increases, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. "When you do this in a patient at low intensity, the patient will recognize the stimulus, but it will not be painful," he says. "But when you increase the intensity of the stimulus, eventually you reach threshold where suddenly the patient will say, 'This is painful.'"

Thus, "the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced."

Now back to your pain. When you suck on a jammed finger or rub a banged shin, you're stimulating the large fibers with "counter irritation," Mendell says. The effect is "a decrease in the message, or the magnitude of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You basically shut the gate. That is what reduces pain."

This concept has created "a big industry" around treating pain with mild electrical stimulation, Mendell says, with the goal of stimulating those large fibers in the hopes they will shut the gate on the pain signals from the small fibers.

While counter irritation may not help dull the pain of serious injury, it may come in handy the next time you experience a bad bruise or a stubbed toe.

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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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