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13 Surprising Facts About the Armpit

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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.

Tucked away in that damp crevice between your arm and torso, the armpit—a.k.a. the axilla—is often the source of unpleasant odors and embarrassing wetness, and a hairy font of annoyance. But it's also an important juncture that protects important lymph nodes and soft tissue. Mental Floss spoke to microbiologist Alex Berezow, a senior fellow of biomedical science with the American Council on Science and Health, about this often overlooked spot. Here are 13 things we learned.

1. YOUR ARMPITS ARE CHOCK FULL OF LYMPH NODES.

In the small hollow of each armpit are a surprisingly large number of lymph nodes, approximately 20, in two clumps, though you can't usually feel them unless they're swollen. (One clump is closer to the surface than the other.) These lymph nodes are actually an important part of your body's immune system and serve to filter toxins out of tissues. They also produce a variety of immune cells known as lymphocytes that fight infection. In some kinds of breast cancer, these affected lymph nodes may have to be surgically removed.

2. THEY PRODUCE A DIFFERENT KIND OF SWEAT FROM OTHER BODY PARTS.

Not all sweat is created equal. In fact, your skin has two types of sweat glands that help to cool you down: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands cover most of the surface of your body, and are responsible for that thin sheen of sweat on your brow and extremities during heat and exercise. However, your armpits are abundant in apocrine glands (also found in your groin). These glands are copious in places with more hair follicles, and the sweat they secrete tends to be thicker.

3. YOUR PITS ARE TEEMING WITH BACTERIA.

Your skin is home to many different kinds of bacteria, some of which are quite beneficial, collectively known as a microbiome. This microbiome can vary depending on the body part—so the bacteria on your hand can be vastly different from the moist, warm, dank environment of your armpits.

"Because of oil and sweat secretion, the armpit provides a nice home for many different kinds of bacteria," Berezow tells Mental Floss. Compared to other parts of our skin, armpits are rather densely populated, he explains. Not only that, but armpit microbiomes vary from person to person. "One study showed, after sampling nine people, that there were three types of armpit bacterial communities: One was dominated by Betaproteobacteria, a second by Corynebacterium, and a third by Staphylococcus. So one person's armpit bacteria won't necessarily be the same as somebody else's."

4. IT'S NOT YOUR SWEAT THAT STINKS.

"The secretions our armpits make don't stink. Bacteria break down the compounds, and those breakdown products stink," says Berezow. The bacteria that live in the moist crevices of your armpits interact with your sweat, which contains volatile fatty acids and odorous steroids (among other compounds). That creates a product known as thioalcohols, whose oniony, meaty scents you're likely familiar with if you've ever been stuck in a crowded elevator, subway, or gym at peak workout time.

5. SCIENTISTS ARE WORKING ON A DEODORANT THAT WOULD KILL ONLY SOME BACTERIA…

The researchers plan to engineer a deodorant that would kill only the stink-producing bacteria, instead of the entire armpit microbiome. That's because some good bacteria also live under there, like those that help protect you against fungal infections.

6. …BECAUSE REGULAR DEODORANTS CHANGE YOUR ARMPIT MICROBIOME.

…and not necessarily for the better. "Deodorants change the composition of the microbiome," Berezow says. He cites a study that found "antiperspirant reduces the number of bacteria in our armpits, but interestingly seems to encourage a greater diversity of microbes." He adds, "deodorant seems to increase the number of bacteria compared to people who don't wear deodorant."

Scientists have also found that the pits of people who usually use antiperspirants or deodorants, but stopped for a couple of days as part of the study, grew crowded with an overabundance of Staphylococcaceae—the bacteria that causes staph infections. The individuals who habitually did not use products were dominated by the friendlier—and yet stinkier—Corynebacterium. We just can't win. 

7. WHY DON'T YOUNG KIDS' PITS STINK?

While teenagers often exist in a funk so tangible you can almost see it, most children do not begin to have stinky pits until their tweens. A process called adrenarche begins around age eight for some kids (but often even later) in which the adrenal glands start to secrete hormones called androgens. While these are typically thought of as male hormones, both boys and girls produce them in different quantities. At this stage, not only can sweat start to take on its pungent stench, but children can begin to grow armpit and groin hair. Not much is understood about adrenarche, except that it may be a necessary step in order to trigger puberty. Which may explain why middle school locker rooms do tend to get whiffy.

8. WOMEN'S PITS SMELL LIKE ONIONS AND MEN'S LIKE CHEESE.

Researchers from Firmenich, a company in Geneva, set out to understand the subtle nuances in body odor to better market deodorant products to consumers. In their 2009 study, published in Chemical Senses, they discovered that your unique bouquet may be different depending on whether you're a cisgender man or woman. Women's sweat contained higher levels of an odorless sulphur-containing compound that produces a pungent oniony thioalcohol when combined with the bacteria in the underarm. Men's sweat held higher levels of a fatty acid that produced a "cheesy" scent when the bacteria of the armpit came in contact with it.

9. WOMEN DIDN'T ALWAYS SHAVE THEIR ARMPITS.

Since women were socialized to keep most of their bodies covered for centuries, exposing an armpit was an unlikely event in a public place before 1915. However, an ad in Harper's Bazaar changed everything when it suggested that in order to engage in "Modern Dancing," women should first remove their "objectionable" underarm hair. By the Roaring Twenties, many women's pits were as hairless as the day they were born.

10. SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS SHAPE OUR COMFORT WITH ARMPIT HAIR.

Despite armpit hair being as natural as the hair on our heads—and everywhere else it grows—women's armpit hair tends to be controversial. A feminist scholar set out to explore some of the reasons for this in a 2013 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly and found that social expectations play a huge role in women seeing body hair—on themselves and on other women—as "disgusting" or simply socially unacceptable. Even women who purposely grew their pit-hair out to flout societal expectations felt self-conscious showing armpit hair in social settings.

11. …AND SO MIGHT OUR ANIMAL NATURE.

The 2013 study, conducted by a professor at Arizona State University, suggests that this revulsion with armpit hair may be a Western aversion to our primal roots as animals. Other animals send out chemical signals called pheromones to attract mates. We still don't know whether pheromones exist in humans, but plenty of evidence indicates we are highly sensitive to each other's biochemicals. If pheromones do exist, body hair around the groin and armpits could be a likely place to find them. But as "civilized" people, we believe the process of finding a partner lies in our hearts and minds—not in our armpits. Maybe one day we'll find out it's all of the above. 

12. YOUR ARMPIT LYMPH NODES MAY WARN YOU OF BREAST CANCER.

Most of the time a swollen lymph node in the armpit is little more than a sign of a cold or flu virus attacking your body. However, it can also be an early symptom of inflammatory breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that is best treated when caught as early as possible. Other areas that may swell in this cancer are your breast itself, and around your collarbone. If you have these kinds of sudden swellings, it's a good idea to see a doctor.

13. SOME PEOPLE GET THEIR ARMPITS BOTOXED.

A condition known as hyperhidrosis—excessive sweating—can be frustrating for those who'd like to be able to simply wear clothing they don't drench. According to Dr. Sonam Yadav, medical director of a cosmetic dermatology clinic in New Delhi, India, Botox is used to treat underarm sweating (yes, here in the U.S. too). Yadav tells Mental Floss, "It works by regulating the synergy between the neuromuscular junction and the sweat glands."

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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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