12 Facts About Belly Buttons

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Belly buttons are many things bundled up into one tiny knot: Collectors of lint. Harborers of bacteria. Objects of desire. Symbols of creation and birth. From the gross to the sexy to the spiritual, there’s a lot to unpack about the belly button’s place in history, culture, science, and religion. Let's get started.

1. THEY'RE REALLY JUST SCARS.

That little spot in the center of your belly marks the place where your umbilical cord once connected you to your mom’s placenta. When that cord is cut, a little, shriveled piece of it gets left behind. It eventually falls off—usually within the first week of a baby’s life—and what remains is a scar. Of course, “belly button” sounds a lot cuter than “belly scar.”

2. DOCTORS CAN’T CHOOSE A BABY'S BELLY BUTTON SHAPE …

Whether your belly button caves in or sticks out has nothing to do with how your doctor cut or clamped your umbilical cord. It all comes down to the amount of space between the skin and the abdominal wall, which determines how much skin—and scar tissue—is left behind. "You can't do anything to make sure babies have an innie or outie," Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. "It has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby's body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie." About 90 percent of people have innies, and the rest are outies. In some cases, an outie orientation is the result of an umbilical hernia, which occurs when part of the intestine pokes through the umbilical opening in the abdominal wall. It usually seals up naturally by the time a child reaches the age of 2, but more persistent cases may require surgery.

3. … BUT A COSMETIC SURGEON CAN TURN AN OUTIE INTO AN INNIE.

For those who don't like their outie, cosmetic surgery is an option—albeit a drastic one. Umbilicoplasty is a surgery that alters the size or shape of the belly button, often by removing excess skin or tightening abdominal skin. A 1971 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called belly button beautification the “newest gimmick in the cosmetic surgery game.” The article cited a Japanese physician who had performed more than 3000 navel operations in the ‘60s and early ‘70s for about $80 to $150 a pop. (Now, the surgery costs about $2000 in the U.S.)

An article in The Ottawa Citizen suggested that the surgical technique dates back to the early 1900s, when it was usually done as a corrective measure in conjunction with tummy tuck surgeries, which often displace the belly button. Even if there’s no medical need, a patient can now opt for umbilicoplasty to get the “ideal” shape. “What was favored through the Greek, Roman, and Western civilization to our time is an oval belly button that is more or less vertically oriented,” New York City cosmetic surgeon Bruce Nadler told the paper in 2002, when these surgeries were starting to become more popular. By contrast, Nadler said, horizontal belly buttons are considered more desirable in Asian cultures because they’re associated with good fortune.

4. MOST MAMMALS HAVE ONE.

Dogs, chimpanzees, lions, and armadillos have one, but their navels aren’t always easy to spot. For one, most mammalian mothers chew off the umbilical cord attached to their newborns, leaving a flat scar that’s harder to detect than a human belly button. Gorillas and chimpanzees are an interesting case for navel-gazers because they have what some scientists call an “in-betweeny”—a navel that looks like a human’s but is neither an innie nor an outie.

However, there are a few notable exceptions to the mammal belly button rule. Platypuses, which lay eggs, have no umbilical cord and therefore no belly button. As for marsupials like kangaroos and koalas, their umbilical cords generally fall off while they’re still inside mom's pouch, so a scar never forms.

5. THE FEAR OF BELLY BUTTONS IS CALLED OMPHALOPHOBIA.

Some people feel anxious, afraid, or disgusted when their belly button is touched or when someone else's bare midriff is on display. This is called omphalophobia, which stems from the Greek word omphalo for navel. This fear is believed to be linked to the navel's association with umbilical cords and wombs, or perhaps the irrational childhood fear that a belly button will come undone, letting one’s guts spill out. The phobia has gained more national exposure ever since TV personality Khloé Kardashian admitted she has a fear of belly buttons.

6. IF YOU POKE IT, YOU MIGHT SUDDENLY GET THE URGE TO PEE.

Speaking of touching your belly button (and all the grossness that comes with it), you may feel a tingly sensation when you stick your finger in it. That’s because you're stimulating fibers lining the inside of your abdomen, which then send a message to your spinal cord. As Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth of NYC Surgical Associates explained to BuzzFeed, “Because your spinal cord at that level is also relaying signals from your bladder and urethra, it feels almost the same. You interpret this as discomfort in your bladder."

7. THEY CAN LEAK URINE.

In a similar vein, a rare abnormality can cause urine to leak out of the belly button. In the early stages of pregnancy, a tube called the urachus connects a fetus’s bladder and belly button and allows urine to drain. It usually atrophies and turns into a scar on the bladder at birth or soon after, but not always. Some people may never know they still have all or part of their urachus attached because it only becomes a problem if the tube doesn’t close up. In those cases, urine can travel up through the urachus and leak out of the umbilicus (navel). Surgery is generally needed to fix this issue.

8. THEY GROW SPECIAL FLUFF-CATCHING HAIRS.

Have you ever wondered why bits of lint keep collecting in your belly button, despite your best efforts to keep clean? Blame it on a special type of hair that grows in navels. These hairs have tiny barbs that protrude and rub against your clothing, causing small fibers to scrape off. The hairs are arranged in concentric circles, which act as a funnel and suck fluff into your navel. Those who shave their stomachs or don't grow a lot of body hair to begin with likely don't have many problems with lint.

9. THEY CONTAIN THOUSANDS OF KINDS OF BACTERIA.

Beyond lint, a lot of dead skin, discarded fat molecules, and thousands of bacteria also live in your navel. One 2012 study led by the aptly named Belly Button Biodiversity project documented 2368 types of bacteria in the navels of 66 study participants. Fret not, though: They help to protect you against harmful pathogens. “We know that without these microbes our immune systems won’t function properly,” the head of the project, Dr. Rob Dunn, said in a statement. “In fact, this collection of microbes must have a certain composition—must form a certain microbial ecosystem—in order for our immune system to function properly."

10. THEY USED TO BE BANNED ON TV.

In Western culture, belly buttons have been regarded as "a feminine sexual center since ancient times," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. As such, they were deemed too lewd to show on television, according to the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, established by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1951. Barbara Eden, who played the titular role in I Dream of Jeannie, said network executives at NBC held meetings over whether to let her flash her navel during the show’s run in the ‘60s. Her producer, George Schlatter, “said he had never seen so many suits sitting around a table in his life discussing someone's anatomy,” Eden told the TODAY show. Although Eden’s genie get-up never ended up revealing her belly button, other shows started to push the envelope around the same time. The belly-button ban technically remained in effect until 1983, but it wasn’t exactly enforced. Yvette Mimieux of Dr. Kildare became the first actress to bare her navel on television in 1964, and others followed suit soon after.

11. THEY ARE THE SOURCE OF A LONGSTANDING THEOLOGICAL DEBATE.

Among Christians, the debate over whether Adam and Eve had belly buttons is a little like the age-old “chicken or egg” question. One popular argument holds that Adam and Eve weren’t born naturally from a mother, and thus they wouldn’t have had umbilical cords or belly buttons. Others disagree for various reasons and insist that navels have been around since the dawn of time. Both Raphael and Michelangelo depicted Adam and Eve with navels in their artwork (including the Sistine Chapel's ceiling painting), leading one 17th-century doctor and philosopher to decry these “vulgar errors,” according to the book Umbilicus and Umbilical Cord by Mohamed Fahmy. Other artists tried to avoid the issue altogether by concealing the couple’s abdomens with foliage, forearms, or long hair.

A few centuries later, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee refused to distribute a booklet called Races of Man to World War II soldiers because it contained pictures of Adam and Eve with navels. Members of the committee ruled that this image “would be misleading to gullible American soldiers.”

12. THEY ARE CELEBRATED IN SOME CULTURES.

Think of Middle Eastern belly dancing and midriff-baring Indian attire. In some places around the world, the navel holds cultural and even spiritual significance. Some Hindus believe that a lotus emerged from the god Vishnu’s navel, and at the center of the flower was Brahma—the creator of the universe. Likewise, in Japan, the belly button may represent the point where life begins. In the Middle Jōmon period (2500-1500 BCE), Japanese artists emphasized the appearance of navels on their human-like figurines. Today, a belly button festival is held annually in the town of Shibukawa in central Japan. “The belly button is traditionally believed to be located in the middle of the body and the most important part,” festival organizer Kazuo Yamada told Reuters. “Our town, Shibukawa, is also called the belly button of Japan, and that is how this festival began.”

Why Do We Get Shivers Up Our Spines?

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iStock.com/martin-dm

Picture this: You're sitting on your couch in the dark alone, watching a scary movie. The killer is walking toward an unsuspecting victim, then suddenly jumps out at her. In that moment, the hairs on your body stand up, and you get a shiver down your spine. When you go for a walk on a crisp morning, the same thing happens. When the music swells during your favorite song, you get the shivers again, this time with the little goosebumps on your arms that appear when you get that sensation.

There's a good reason for shivers and goosebumps: they're your body's response to emotion or stress. We got this from our animal ancestors. When they were cold, the hair on their bodies would stand up—the movement of the arrector pili muscle would cause the skin to contract, raising each hair—to provide an extra layer of insulation. This response is also in play when animals feel threatened: their natural reaction is to try to look bigger than their attacker, so their skin and hair expand to play up that effect. The part of the brain called the hypothalamus is what controls this reaction.

So why do goosebumps—also known as cutis anserina or piloerection—appear, aside from the functional purpose of looking larger or creating insulation? It's because our emotions are also connected with the hypothalamus, so sometimes goosebumps are just our body reacting to our brain's signals of intense emotion.

When we feel things like love, fear, or sadness, the hypothalamus sends a signal to our bodies that produces adrenaline in our blood. The signal triggers the arrector pili muscles to contract, and then we have goosebumps caused by emotion. The sudden adrenaline rush may also cause sweaty palms, tears, increased blood pressure, or shivers.

When we listen to music and get shivers, it is a mixture of subjective emotions toward the music and physiological arousal. If we hear a song we get excited about, or a song that makes us sad, the hypothalamus reacts to the sudden change in emotion and we physically feel the shiver along our spine.

This article was republished in 2019.

10 Facts About the Lungs

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iStock/pixelfit

Every cell in your body needs oxygen in order to function properly. Your lungs are obviously crucial in achieving this goal—once you take air into your lungs, oxygen enters the bloodstream and moves through your body. Each cell makes a trade, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide—which your bloodstream then transports back to the lungs. When you exhale, you’re actually expelling carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen, and water vapor.

So how does your body make this happen? Bronchial tubes connect your lungs to your throat and mouth. These are lined with tiny little hairs called cilia that move in wave-like patterns, which pushes mucus up your throat. At the base of the bronchial tubes are tiny air sacs that hold the air you breathe in, called alveoli. Your right lung has three balloon-like sections, called lobes, which are full of spongy tissue. Your left lung has only two lobes, to make room for the heart. They sit in a special membrane called the pleura, that separates your lungs from the wall of your chest. Altogether, your lungs are a highly efficient machine—and they do a lot more than you might think.

1. Taking in oxygen is only one of your lungs' most important jobs. 

Yes, you need oxygen to live, but if you didn’t expel the carbon dioxide in your lungs, you would die. Carbon dioxide acts as an acid in the body and is generated by muscle action, Wendie Howland, a nurse with Howland Health Consulting, tells Mental Floss. “Your body operates optimally at a fairly narrow pH range, and when you generate extra CO2 by, say, running up the stairs, you bring your pH into the normal range almost immediately by excreting CO2 by breathing deeply.” So exhaling that more toxic CO2 is as important as taking in oxygen.

2. Think of your lungs as big ol' buckets.

Rather than thinking of your lungs as big balloons, Cascari says, “Think of your lungs as buckets of blood with air bubbles going through them.” In fact, your lungs contain as much blood as the entire rest of your body, which is why your center of gravity is above your waist. They produce blood cells as well. Every time your heart beats, it sends an equal amount of blood to your lungs as it does everywhere else in your body. “It’s this incredible system that can respire—an exchange of gas from the air into the blood and the lungs—without leaking. The fact that that goes on day in day out for our whole life is pretty amazing,” he says.

3. Your lungs are huge.

Your lungs are one of your biggest organs, but you might be surprised to learn that if you spread out the surface area of the alveoli, the sacs where oxygen and blood interface, you could cover an entire tennis court, Schroeder says.

4. Without mucus, your lungs would dry up. 

You may not be a big fan of mucus when it’s clogging your chest or nose during a cold, but it’s a “highly underrated, powerful infection-fighting agent in your body with some pretty cool features," says Ray Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “It’s actually cleaner than blood,” Casciari reveals. “If you take bacteria and expose it to mucus, the mucus will stop the growth of the bacteria. Whereas blood will actually support the growth of the bacteria.” (In fact, researchers in laboratories often deliberately use blood to grow bacteria.) Your mucus is such an important protective agent that you’d die without it. “If you didn’t have mucus in your lungs, you would dehydrate, losing so much water through evaporation that you would die within minutes,” he says. On the other hand, too much mucus production is dangerous.

5. Whatever you inhale quickly goes from your lungs to your brain. 

In under seven seconds, to be precise. Because of your lungs’ enormous surface area and “its intimate relationship with blood vessels that surround it,” says Scott Schroeder, director of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at the Floating Hospital of Tufts Medical Center, an inhalation of smoke or a vaporized medicine can reach the brain very quickly.

6. Coughing isn't always bad for your lungs.

Even when you aren’t sick, a normal person coughs about 10 times per day, says Schroeder—whether due to a sticky piece of food, an allergen you accidentally inhale, or your own mucus generated by exercise.

7. Asthma isn't just one disease affecting lung function.

Asthma, which causes wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, is actually a number of different illnesses under one name, Schroeder says. The good news is that deaths due to asthma are very uncommon, and have decreased significantly over the last 20 years, he reports (with one notable exception—African-American men age 18–24). But it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Women are much more likely to develop asthma as adults than men, especially if they are overweight. And people in urban areas are more likely to suffer from asthma than those in rural areas, likely due to increased particulate matter in the air from car exhaust and industrial pollutants.

8. Exercise can make asthma—and your lung function—better.

Asthma is actually improved by cardiovascular exercise. Schroeder says there are no sports that people with asthma cannot participate in, “except scuba diving, but I don’t consider that a sport.”

9. You can get lung cancer even if you've never smoked.

“You can spend your whole life in a very clean environment, never having smoked, and still get lung cancer,” Casciari says. Not all lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking (though the majority is). Casciari cites occupational exposure, radiation exposure, and potential genetic risk factors, although researchers are still exploring the role genetics play. “Folks tend to think of their lungs very little, and when they do, they think, ‘I don’t smoke, so I’m ok,’ but that’s not completely true.”

10. Breakthroughs in lung cancer treatments has improved survival rates. 

For decades, toxic chemotherapy has been the best medicine for treating lung cancer, but it comes with intense side effects. However, several new breakthroughs have recently improved outcomes for patients, says Casciari. Thoracic CT scans, for example, improve survival by 20 percent by providing earlier diagnosis and treatments. Furthermore, new minimally invasive surgery techniques have made recovery from lung cancer surgery much easier, with people being discharged on the same day of surgery. Finally, immunotherapies that target specific cancer markers and harness the immune system itself to fight cancer cells have improved outcomes—and decreased side effects—for lung cancer patients.

This story was first published in 2017.

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