11 Insightful Facts About Eyes

iStock.com/Paffy69
iStock.com/Paffy69

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the eyes. No, sitting too close to the TV won't damage your vision, and reading in dim light won’t hurt either. It’s understandable that various parts of the eye are so little understood, though. Each eye has more than a million optic nerve cells and over 106 million photoreceptor cells, making it one of the most complex organs we have. Here are a few more things you should know about your “windows to the soul.”

1. Newborn babies see the world in black and white—and red.

“It is a myth that babies see in black and white,” Anna Franklin, leader of the University of Sussex's Baby Lab, told The Guardian. While newborns do see black, white, and shades of gray, they can also detect red objects against a gray backdrop, Franklin says. The reason why they can’t see more colors is because the cones in their eyes—the photoreceptor cells responsible for picking up colors—are too weak to detect them. Those cells quickly get stronger, though. After about two months, babies can distinguish between red and green, and a few weeks later they can tell the difference between blue and yellow.

2. Your eyeballs grow as you age.

Another common misconception is that your eyes remain the same size from birth to adulthood. As a newborn, your eyes measure about three-fifths of an inch from front to back, compared to a little under an inch in adults. Your eyes actually grow a great deal in the first two years of life, and another growth spurt occurs when you go through puberty. The confusion likely stems from the fact that your eyes as a 6-month-old infant are two-thirds the size they will be when you’re an adult.

3. The length of your eye partly determines how well you'll be able to see.

If your eyeball is too long or too short, you might end up having problems with your vision. Nearsighted people have eyes that are longer than average, while farsighted people have eyes that come up a little short. If you were to magically add or remove a millimeter of length from your eye, it would completely change your prescription. Aside from eye length, the shape of your cornea (the outer part of the eye where contact lenses are placed) and lens (the part of the eye located behind the iris and pupil) are other key factors that determine the quality of your vision. That's because both of these parts work together to refract light.

4. Contact lenses can't really get lost behind your eye.

Although it may feel like a dislodged contact lens is stuck behind your eye, that isn’t exactly what’s happening. The thin membrane covering the white part of your eye and the underside of your eyelid—called the conjunctiva—forms a pouch and prevents objects from getting behind your eyeball. If a contact lens gets shifted out of place to the point where you can no longer see it, it’s just stuck underneath your upper eyelid, which isn’t nearly as scary.

5. Blue-eyed people share a common ancestor.

Originally, everyone in the world had brown eyes. It wasn’t until around 6000 to 10,000 years ago that the first blue-eyed person was born as a result of a genetic mutation, according to a 2008 study. That mutation of the OCA2 gene essentially “turned off the ability to produce brown eyes” and diluted the color to blue, Professor Hans Eiberg of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement.

6. Parts of the eye can get sunburned.

There’s a good reason you should wear sunglasses when it’s bright outside. Too much exposure to UV rays can damage the surface of the cornea and conjunctiva, causing a condition akin to sunburn called photokeratitis. Symptoms include pain, red or swollen eyes, the sensation of a foreign body in the eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and seeing halos around lights. While the discomfort is temporary and tends to go away within 48 hours, longer exposure to UV rays can have a long-term effect on your vision and lead to macular degeneration (deterioration of the retina, which is often age-related) and cataracts (clouding of the eye's lens, which reduces the amount of light coming in).

7. Your eye muscles are the fastest muscle in your body.

Extraocular muscles are what let you look around in all directions. You have six of these muscles in each eye, and many of the motions they make are involuntary. This lets you flick your eyes to one side and notice something in your peripheral vision without consciously looking in that direction. When both of your eyes move in the same direction, the movement is called a saccade, which comes from the French word for “jerk” (the verb, not the person). These jerky movements are extremely rapid, lasting about 50 to 60 milliseconds per saccade, according to Dr. Reza Shadmehr, professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. “Saccadic eye movements are the fastest voluntary movements that we can make. The eyes move at around 500 degrees per second or more,” Shadmehr tells Mental Floss.

8. Your eye movements might give away your next move.

Shadmehr and other researchers conducted an experiment in 2015 to test the relationship between saccades and decision-making. Participants were placed in front of a computer and asked to choose between two options that appeared on the screen: an immediate reward and a delayed reward. For instance, one option might be “get $10 today,” while the other might be “wait 30 days and get $30.” Their eye movements were tracked the entire time, and researchers discovered that these movements gave away the choice they were about to make before they made it. At the last minute, their eyes would move at a faster velocity towards the option that they preferred.

“What’s interesting is that as the saccades are being made, the velocity of the eyes starts out being equal between these two stimuli, but then right before you decide ‘I like A better than B,' the saccade that you make toward A has a higher velocity than the one you make toward B,” Shadmehr explains. “The idea is that the way you’re evaluating things is reflected in the way you move toward them.”

In another experiment, Shadmehr found a correlation between faster eye movements and impatient and impulsive behaviors. Similarly, other studies have shown that our eye movements are linked to moral decisions and even our political temperament.

9. You can tell some animals' place in the food chain by looking at a part of their eye.

In 2015, vision scientist Martin Banks and his colleagues looked at the eyes of 214 species in an attempt to answer the question, “Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes?” By the end of their study, they noticed a few patterns. Predatory animals like big cats and snakes tend to have pupils in the shape of vertical slits. This particular shape gives them the advantage of being able to accurately judge the distance separating them and their prey, so they'll know exactly how far they have to pounce. On the other hand, horizontal pupils are more common in goats, deer, cattle, and other herbivores. This shape improves an animal’s panoramic vision, which helps them look out for predators.

10. An eye condition may have been partly responsible for Leonardo da Vinci's artistic genius.

Visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argued in a recent paper that the master artist behind Mona Lisa had strabismus, a disorder where the eyes are misaligned. Essentially, one of his eyes turned outwards, and he was able to use both of his eyes separately (monocular as opposed to binocular vision). Tyler believes this actually aided his art by improving his ability to render three-dimensional images on a flat canvas. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted,” Tyler said. We’ll never know for sure whether or not this was true for Leonardo, but it’s an intriguing theory.

11. SURGEONS HOPE TO BE PERFORMING WHOLE EYE TRANSPLANTS BY 2026. 

Currently, only cornea transplants to improve vision are possible, but a team of Pittsburgh-based transplant surgeons said in 2016 that they hoped to be performing whole eye transplants in humans within the next decade. Transferring an eye from a deceased donor to a recipient certainly won’t be easy, though. A complicated network of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves connects the eyes to the brain via the optic nerve. However, further studies into the optic nerve and recent advances in immunosuppressive drugs and surgical techniques have brought them several steps closer to achieving this goal. If successful, the surgery could restore vision to people who have suffered severe eye injuries. Their research is backed by the Department of Defense, which is concerned about the number of soldiers who sustain eye injuries in combat.

11 Squeaky-Clean Facts About Spit

iStock/fotolinchen
iStock/fotolinchen

Though most people find the thought of saliva rather disgusting, spit plays a vital role in our lives. It allows us to comfortably chew, swallow, and digest. It fights off bacteria in our mouths and elsewhere, and leads the mouth’s bold fight against cavities. Here are 11 facts that might have you reconsidering that unsung hero of bodily fluids: spit.

1. Spit is mostly water.

Saliva consists of about 99 percent water. The other 1 percent is made up of electrolytes and organic substances, including digestive enzymes and small quantities of uric acid, cholesterol, and mucins (the proteins that form mucus).

2. There's a medical standard for how much spit you should have.

Healthy individuals accumulate between 2 and 6 cups of spit a day. That’s without stimulation from activities like eating or chewing gum, which open the spit floodgates [PDF].

3. Saliva production has a circadian rhythm.

Your body typically produces the most saliva in the late afternoon, and the least at night. Salivation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (much like your heartbeat), meaning it’s an unconscious process.

4. There are five different kinds of spit.

Salivation has five distinct phases, most triggered by the passage of food through the body. Not all of them are a good thing. The first type of salivation is cephalic, the kind that occurs when you see or smell something delicious. The buccal phase is the body’s reflexive response to the actual presence of food in the mouth (which aids in swallowing). The esophageal involves the stimulation of the salivary glands as food moves through the esophagus. The gastric phase happens when something irritates your stomach—like when you’re just about to puke. The intestinal phase is triggered by a food that doesn’t agree with you passing through the upper intestine.

5. Spit can battle bacteria.

There’s a reason the phrase “lick your wounds” came about. Spit is full of infection-battling white blood cells. And, according to a 2015 study in the journal Blood, neutrophils—a type of white blood cell—are more effective at killing bacteria if they come from saliva than from anywhere else in the body. So adding saliva to a wound gives the body a powerful backup as it fights off infection.

6. Spit keeps you from getting cavities.

The calcium, fluoride, and phosphate in saliva strengthen your teeth. Spit also fights cavity-causing bacteria, washes away bits of food, and neutralizes plaque acids, reducing tooth decay and cavities. That’s why chewing gum gets dentists’ stamp of approval—chewing increases the flow of saliva, thus protecting your oral health.

7. You need spit if you want to taste anything.

Saliva acts like a solvent for tastes, ferrying dissolved deliciousness to the sites of taste receptors. It also keeps those receptors healthy by preventing them from drying out and protecting them from bacterial infection. Many people who have dry mouth (or xerostomia) find their sense of taste affected by their oral cavity’s parched conditions. Because many medications have dry mouth as a side effect, scientists have developed artificial saliva sprays that mimic the lubrication of real spit.

8. Swapping spit exchanges millions of bacteria.

A 10-second kiss involves the transfer of some 80 million bacteria, one study found.

9. People aren’t born drooling.

Babies don’t start drooling until they’re 2 to 4 months old. Unfortunately, they also don’t really know what to do with their spit. They don’t have full control of the muscles of their mouth until they’re around 2 years old, so they can’t really swallow it effectively. Which is why we invented bibs.

10. Stress can leave you spit-less.

The body’s fight-or-flight response is designed to give you the energy and strength needed to overcome a near-death experience, like, say, running into a bear or giving a big presentation at work. Your blood pressure goes up, the heart beats faster, and the lungs take in more oxygen. This is not the time to sit around and digest a meal, so the digestion system slows down production, including that of saliva.

11. A lack of spit was once used as an admission of guilt.

In some ancient societies, saliva was used as a basic lie detector. In ancient India, accused liars had to chew grains of rice. If they were telling the truth, they would have enough saliva to spit them back out again. If someone was lying, their mouth would go dry and the rice would stick in their throat.

13 Facts About Genes

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iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd, stock_colors, RapidEye, b-d-s

In 2003, after 13 years of study, international researchers working on the groundbreaking Human Genome Project published their findings. For the very first time, the genetic building blocks that make up humans were mapped out, allowing researchers “to begin to understand the blueprint for building a person,” according to the project's website. Humans are now known to have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but researchers still have much to learn about these small segments of DNA. Below, we’ve listed a few facts about gene expression, genetic diseases, and the ways genes make us who we are.

1. The word gene wasn’t coined until the 20th century.

Although “father of genetics” Gregor Mendel conducted his pea plant experiments in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1909 that Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen became the first person to describe Mendel's individual units of heredity. He called them genes—derived from pangenesis, the word Charles Darwin used for his now-disproven theory of heredity (among other ideas, Darwin suggested that acquired characteristics could be inherited).

2. On a genetic level, all humans are more than 99 percent identical.

Humans have a lot more in common than we might be inclined to believe. In fact, more than 99 percent of our genes are exactly the same from one person to the next. In other words, the diversity we see within the human population—including traits like eye color, height, and blood type—is due to genetic differences that account for less than 1 percent. More specifically, variations of the same gene, called alleles, are responsible for these differences.

3. Genes can disappear or break as species evolve.

Thanks to a combination of genes, most mammals are able to biologically produce their own Vitamin C in-house, so to speak. But some point throughout the course of human history, we lost the ability to make Vitamin C when one of those genes stopped functioning in humans long ago. “You can see it in our genome. We are missing half the gene,” Dr. Michael Jensen-Seaman, a genetics researcher and associate professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “Generally speaking, when a species loses a gene during evolution, it’s usually because they don’t need it—and if you don’t use it, you lose it. All our ancestors probably ate so much fruit that there was never any need to make your own Vitamin C.” Jensen-Seaman says humans also lost hundreds of odorant receptors (proteins produced by genes that detect specific smells) because we rely mostly on vision. This explains why our sense of smell is worse than many other species.

4. Elizabeth Taylor’s voluminous eyelashes were likely caused by a genetic mutation.

A mutation of the aptly named FOXC2 gene gave Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor two rows of eyelashes. The technical term for this rare disorder is distichiasis, and while it may seem like a desirable problem to have, there can be complications. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, this extra set of lashes is sometimes “fine and well tolerated,” but in other cases they should be removed to prevent eye damage.

5. Genes involved in sperm are some of the most rapidly evolving genes in the animal kingdom.

Throughout much of the natural world, a class of genes called sperm competition genes are becoming better and better at fertilizing eggs. This is true for various species, including some primates and marine invertebrates. Consider promiscuous primates, like chimpanzees, whose females mate with multiple males in a short period of time. As a result, the males are competing at the genetic level—via their sperm—to father offspring. “What’s happening, we think, is there’s sort of an arms race among genes that are involved in either sperm production or any aspect of male reproduction,” Jensen-Seaman says. Essentially, the proteins in these genes are changing to help males rise to the occasion.

6. A “zombie gene” in elephants might help protect them from cancer.

In a 2018 study published in Cell Reports, researchers from the University of Chicago found that a copy of a cancer-suppressing gene that was previously “dead” (or non-functioning) in elephants turned back on at some point. They don’t know why or how it happened, but this reanimated “zombie gene” might explain why elephants have such low rates of cancer—just 5 percent die from the disease, compared to 11 to 25 percent of humans. Some have suggested that a drug could theoretically be created to mimic the function of this gene in order to treat cancer in humans.

7. Octopuses can edit their own genes.

Cephalopods like squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses are incredibly intelligent and wily creatures—so much so that they can rewrite the genetic information in their neurons. Instead of one gene coding for one protein, which is normally the case, a process called recoding lets one octopus gene produce multiple proteins. Scientists discovered that this process helps some Antarctic species “keep their nerves firing in frigid waters,” The Washington Post notes.

8. The premise of the 1986 film The Fly isn’t completely absurd.

After a botched experiment in The Fly, Jeff Goldblum morphs into a fly-like creature. Surprisingly, that premise might, uh, fly—at least on some genetic level. Although different researchers come up with different estimates, humans share about 52 percent of the same genes with fruit flies, and scientists figure that the number is roughly the same for house flies.

So, could Jeff Goldblum theoretically turn into a human-fly hybrid if his genes got mixed up with the insect's in a futuristic teleportation device? Not exactly, but there are some scientific parallels. “With genetic engineering, we can select genes and insert them into other organisms’ genomes,” DNA researcher Erica Zahnle tells the Chicago Tribune. “We do it all the time. Right now there’s a hybrid of a tomato that has a fish gene in it.”

9. Our genes might prevent us from living more than 125 years.

Despite advances in medicine, there might be a biological cap on how long humans can stick around. Several studies have suggested that we’ve already peaked, with the maximum extent for human life falling between 115 and 125 years. According to this theory, cells can only replicate so many times, and they often become damaged with age. Even if we’re able to modify our genes via gene therapy, we probably can’t modify them fast enough to make much of a difference, Judith Campisi from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tells The Atlantic.

“For such reasons, it is meaningless to claim that most human will live for 200–500 years in the near future, thanks to medical or scientific progress, or that ‘within 15 years, we'll be adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancy,’” the authors of a 2017 study write in Frontiers in Physiology, citing previous studies from 2003 and 2010, respectively. “Raising false hopes without taking into account that human beings are already extremely ‘optimized’ for lifespan seems inappropriate.”

10. The idea that a single gene determines whether you have attached or unattached earlobes is a myth.

Forget what you may have learned about earlobes and genetics in middle school. While your genes probably play some role in determining whether you have attached earlobes (a supposedly dominant trait) or unattached earlobes, the idea that this trait is controlled by a single gene is simply untrue. On top of that, earlobes don’t even fall into two distinct categories. There’s also a third, which University of Delaware associate professor John H. McDonald calls intermediate earlobes. "It doesn't look to me as if there are just two categories; instead, there is continuous variation in the height of the attachment point," McDonald writes on his website. A better example of a trait controlled by a single gene is blood type. Whether you have an A, B, or O blood type is determined by three variations—or alleles—of one gene, according to Jensen-Seaman.

11. No, there isn’t a "wanderlust gene" or "music gene."

Every now and then, new studies will come out that seem to suggest a genetic source for various personality traits, preferences, or talents. In 2015, there was talk of a “wanderlust gene” that inspires certain people to travel, and several other reports have suggested musical aptitude is also inherited. However, like many things in science, the reality isn’t so simple. “Part of the problem is that when we’re in school, we learn examples of traits that are controlled by a single gene, like Mendel’s peas, and we start to think that all variation is determined by a single gene,” Jensen-Seaman says. “But other than a variety of rare genetic diseases, most of the interesting things in medicine, or in human behavior or human variation, are what we call complex traits.” These complex traits typically involve hundreds—if not thousands—of genes, as well as the environmental factors you’re exposed to throughout your life.

12. DNA testing kits can’t tell how smart you are.

Much like your talents and personality, intelligence is also a complex trait that's difficult to measure because it’s influenced by many different genes. One 2017 study identified 52 genes associated with higher or lower intelligence, but the predictive power of those genes—or ability to tell how smart you are—is less than 5 percent. Another study from 2018 identified 538 genes associated with intelligence, which have a 7 percent predictive power. Put simply, no DNA testing kit can accurately predict whether you're a genius or dunce, even if the company claims it can. And, even if scientists make improvements in this field of study, DNA tests can't account for the environmental factors that also influence intelligence.

13. Your genetic makeup determines whether you think your pee smells funky after eating asparagus.

Do you recoil from the scent of your urine after eating asparagus? If so, you’re among the nearly 40 percent of people who are able to detect the smell of metabolized asparagus in pee, according to a study of nearly 7000 people of European-American descent that was published in The BMJ's 2016 Christmas issue. (The BMJ has an annual tradition of publishing strange and light-hearted studies around this time of year, and the asparagus pee study is no exception.) Again, there isn’t one gene in particular to pin the blame on, though. Multiple olfactory receptor genes—and 871 sequence variations on said genes—are involved in determining whether you have a talent for sniffing out asparagus pee.

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