Why Do We Bite Our Nails?

iStock
iStock

It can happen anywhere. Maybe you're waiting in the lobby of your doctor's office or studying at home for a big test—and then, without you even registering it, your fingertips are in your mouth and your teeth are gnawing away.

Even the people who do it tend to see nail biting as a nasty habit, but that doesn't make it any less prevalent. Twenty to 30 percent of people admit to biting their nails on a regular basis. Though reasons for the behavior vary, research has shown that most people do it because they need a psychological crutch, and not because they like having dirty, ragged fingernails.

According to Kieron O'Connor, a researcher at the University Institute of Mental Health at Montreal, there’s no one mood associated with nail biting. “People think you only bite when you’re stressed, but it’s not so simple,” O'Connor tells Mental Floss. “People will also bite when they’re bored and alone.” Nail biting feels good (in moderation at least), so when some people have nothing to do, or want to avoid the task in front of them, they bring their nails to their mouth out of habit. This same thing happens when nail biters feel overwhelmed by a stressful situation, or when they’re ruminating over some past behavior they feel embarrassed about. In all cases, nail biting is used as a mood regulator: a tool that distracts them or provides temporary relief or stimulation whenever an unwanted feeling comes up.

A study co-authored by O’Connor found that nail biting is more common in perfectionists. After speaking with 48 subjects, half with habit disorders like nail biting and half without, they found that the nail biters tended to be organizational perfectionists, or people who tend to over-plan, work too much, and become restless when they don’t have enough to do. “When people are perfectionists, they get bored and frustrated very easily and hold themselves to higher standards,” O’Connor says. “They plan too much, and when they can’t do all of it they have a sense of failure.”

So what is it about nail biting specifically that makes some people turn to the behavior when they’re feeling less than fantastic? Like many of our worst habits, nail biting is an evolutionary adaptation kicked into overdrive. Even before we had access to aisles worth of beauty products, humans practiced self-grooming, which includes getting rid of the occasional hangnails. But even nail biters with short, clean nails will engage in the behavior: They use it as a way to get the mental reward our brains associate with grooming without any of the cosmetic benefits.

Nail biting manifests itself at different levels of intensity. At one extreme there’s onychophagia, a condition where compulsive nail biting requires medical attention. Like skin picking and hair pulling, nail biting can be a symptom of a body-focused habit disorder. When it gets to the point that someone is harming themselves by chewing their nails so often, they usually require a mental health professional to help them curtail the behavior.

But for far more people, nail biting is just an annoying habit that’s hard for them to quit—no matter how much the squeamish people around them wish they would.

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

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

What Is the Shelf Life of Donated Eyes?

iStock.com/Pedro_Turrini
iStock.com/Pedro_Turrini

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

I can only answer for cornea and eye donation.

The FDA does all oversight (no pun intended) of organ disposition.

The main organs—heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, etc.—are transplanted within hours. They are just not viable if they are not being perfused constantly.

The other tissues—like bone, skin, tendons, etc.—do not need to be transplanted immediately. But I am not sure on the regulations of when they need to be transplanted.

With the eyes, there are four tissues that can be recovered.

We recover whole eyes for research and education purposes. These usually go much faster, but we can hold them up to a year.

Conjunctiva can also be recovered; conjunctiva is a clear covering over most of the eye (it is what gets irritated when you have pink eye). I have been working as a recovery tech for five years, and our office has not had a request for "conj" in all that time. I believe it is mostly used for research, but I could be wrong.

Sclera is the white area of your eye. It is fairly thick and flexible. If you have ever touched a reptile egg, that is what it reminds me of. We recover sclera for transplant. They use it for several things, but mainly to patch punctures. Similar to if you pop the inner tube of your bike and repair it. Sclera can also be used to repair ear drums. We can hold on to this for up to a year.

The main thing we recover is corneas. In the U.S., we must transplant these within seven days of recovery. (Recovery is usually within hours of death, but we can push it up to 20 hours after if needed.) Sometimes we have more corneas than we need, and then they are shipped overseas and transplanted up to 14 days after recovery. There is no real different outcome with the later transplant time, but the FDA in the U.S. made the rules. (You can sign up to be an organ, tissue, and eye donor here.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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