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10 Vital Facts About the Scrotum

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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.

The scrotum may appear to be nothing more than a bit of baggy skin, but it serves some very important functions for human health and reproduction. The testicles, which produce sperm, would be unprotected and subject to the elements without the scrotum—so without it, none of us might exist. To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Brian Levine, a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist at the New York office of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. 

1. THE SCROTUM HAS BUT ONE HUMBLE PURPOSE.

"The scrotum is a genius," Levine tells Mental Floss. While that may be a stretch, he says that the main purpose of the scrotum "is to hold the testicles outside of the body," which helps to keep the testicles cooler than body temperature. Because sperm are so sensitive to temperature fluctuations, this helps preserve their health.

2. HOT TESTICLES CAN CAUSE HEALTH AND FERTILITY PROBLEMS.

"Increased body temperature or temperature in general [such as a hot tub] leads to chromosomal abnormalities. By keeping the temperature lower you protect the DNA being formed to put the sperm together from having inborn errors," Levine explains.

3. TEMPERATURE REGULATES TESTICLE HEIGHT.

As the body gets colder, muscle fibers bring the scrotum closer to the body to regulate them. When the person is warmer, they will hang lower from the body. "The average person has one testicle higher than the other," Levine says. Size and shape variance of testicles is not in and of itself cause for concern—unless you experience a sudden change.

4. COOLER SPERM ALSO SWIM BETTER …

Also by keeping the testicles at a lower temperature, metabolically, Levine says, "you keep sperm swimming slower, so you end up preserving them."

5. … WHICH IS WHY SOME HAVE SUGGESTED EXPOSING THE SCROTUM TO OPEN FLAME OR A HOT-WATER SOAK.

A 2013 study [PDF] on birth control methods of an indigenous culture in Zimbabwe describes how men were instructed to expose their testicles to "above average heat from fire" in the belief that this would weaken the sperm. While there is a connection between temperature and sperm health, this is not a recommended practice for birth control as it is unlikely to successfully reduce the sperm count. In addition, the study notes, "testicles with too high of a body temperature are associated with testicular cancers," though others argue that the jury is still out on that purported connection. Either way, you should probably keep your scrotum away from open flame.

In a similar vein, Marthe Voegeli, a Swiss doctor and early pioneer in fertility in the 1950s, designed a study in which men sat in a shallow or testes-only bath of 116°F for 45 minutes daily for three weeks. Her study claimed that this resulted in between four and six months of infertility. Fertility returned to normal eventually, and children born of those men were healthy and normal. She took her method to India, to help families suffering from famine and poverty prevent further pregnancies. While she claimed her methods to be successful, most doctors today would not recommend this as a reliable contraceptive practice.

6. YOU CAN GET MELANOMA OF THE SCROTUM.

Even the scrotum is susceptible to cancer, Levine points out. "Wherever there's skin, you can get melanoma," he says. This can be a result of metastases of cancer that spread from somewhere else in the body, or, if you're a nude sunbather, be warned: "If you expose it to sunlight, you can get melanoma."

7. LACK OF A SCROTUM CAN MEAN THIS …

If you are male, not prepubescent, and don't have a scrotum, it may mean you have undescended testicles, Levine says, "which can end up leading to infertility." Most testicles will descend eventually, but sometimes they can be helped along by surgery.

8. BE AWARE OF THESE COMMON CONDITIONS OF THE SCROTUM.

Common issues of the scrotum that may require surgical intervention include varicoceles, which are essentially varicose veins in the scrotum that can cause infertility by pooling blood, which can effect sperm count and motility. Varicoceles can also cause testicles to fail to develop normally or shrink. A hydrocele, which doctors informally call "water on the testicle," Levine says, is simply a fluid-filled cyst that surrounds a testicle and causes swelling in the scrotum. Levine adds that since the scrotum allows for good evaluation of testicles, "If you feel any lumps, bumps or abnormalities, you should see a medical professional."

9. SURGICAL TECHNIQUES FOR THE SCROTUM AND TESTICLES HAVE COME A LONG WAY.

Should you need surgery for one of those conditions, or for a vasectomy, Levine reassures that modern day surgical techniques "mostly spare the scrotum and require a minimal, barely visible incision in the testicle." Weill Cornell Medical Center has even perfected what they call a no-scalpel vasectomy that uses specialized forceps instead.

10. WHY WERE CHIMNEY SWEEPS PRONE TO SCROTAL CANCER?

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, chimney sweeps—who were often young boys because they were small enough to fit—would develop scrotal cancer from creosote collecting between the skin folds on the scrotum.

Sir Percival Pott, an English surgeon considered the father of orthopedics and the first to draw the connection between occupations and certain illnesses, also made the connection between chimney sweeps and scrotal cancer, writing: " … there is a different disease peculiar to a certain set of people, which has not, at least to my knowledge, been publicly noticed; I mean the chimney-sweeper's cancer. It is a disease which makes its first attack on, and appearance in, the inferior part of the scrotum; where it produces a superficial, painful, ragged, ill-looking sore, with hard and rising edges: the trade call it the soot-wart." (We know now that a chemical in soot caused genetic damage to chromosome 17.)

After this connection was made, physicians recommended that chimney sweeps change their clothes weekly and wash their genitals daily.   

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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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The American Museum of Natural History
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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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