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.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

10 Facts About Your Tonsils

iStock/Neustockimages
iStock/Neustockimages

Most of us only become aware of our tonsils if they become swollen or infected. But these masses of lymphatic tissue in the mouth and throat are important immunological gatekeepers at the start of the airways and digestive tract, grabbing pathogens and warding off diseases before they reach the rest of your body. Here are some essential answers about these often-overlooked tissues—like what to do when your tonsils are swollen, and whether you should get your tonsils removed.

1. People actually have four kinds of tonsils.

The term tonsils usually refers to your palatine tonsils, the ones that can be seen at the back of your throat. But tonsillar tissue also includes the lingual tonsil (located in the base of the tongue), tubal tonsils, and the adenoid tonsil (often just called adenoids). "Collectively, these are referred to as Waldeyer's ring," says Raja Seethala, the director of head and neck pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a member of the College of American Pathologists Cancer Committee.

2. Tonsils are one of the body's first responders to pathogens.

The tonsils are a key barrier to inhaled or ingested pathogens that can cause infection or other harm, Seethala tells Mental Floss. "These pathogens bind to specialized immune cells in the lining—epithelium—to elicit an immune response in the lymphoid T and B cells of the tonsil," he says. Essentially, they help jumpstart your immune response.

3. Adenoid tonsils can obstruct breathing and cause facial deformities.

If the adenoid tonsils are swollen, they can block breathing and clog up your sinus drainage, which can cause sinus and ear infections. If adenoids are too big, it forces a person to breathe through their mouth. In children, frequent mouth breathing has the potential to cause facial deformities by stressing developing facial bones. "If the tonsils are too large and cause airway obstruction, snoring, or obstructive sleep apnea, then removal is important," says Donald Levine, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Nyack, New York. Fortunately, the adenoids tend to get smaller naturally in adulthood.

4. As many of us know, sometimes tonsils are removed.

Even though your tonsils are part of your immune system, Levine tells Mental Floss, "when they become obstructive or chronically infected, then they need to be removed." The rest of your immune system steps in to handle further attacks by pathogens. Another reason to remove tonsils besides size, Levine says, is "chronic tonsillitis due to the failure of the immune system to remove residual bacteria from the tonsils, despite multiple antibiotic therapies."

5. Tonsillectomies have been performed for thousands of years ...

Tonsil removal is believed to have been a phenomenon for three millennia. The procedure is found in ancient Ayurvedic texts, says Seethala, "making it one of the older documented surgical procedures." But though the scientific understanding of the surgery has changed dramatically since then, "the benefits versus harm of tonsillectomy have been continually debated over the centuries," he says.

6. ... and they were probably quite painful.

The first known reported case of tonsillectomy surgery, according to a 2006 paper in Otorhinolaryngology, is by Cornélio Celsus, a Roman "encylopaediest" and dabbler in medicine, who authored a medical encyclopedia titled Of Medicine in the 1st century BCE. Thanks to his work, we can surmise that a tonsillectomy probably was an agonizing procedure for the patient: "Celsus applied a mixture of vinegar and milk in the surgical specimen to hemostasis [stanch bleeding] and also described his difficulty doing that due to lack of proper anesthesia."

7. Tonsil removal was performed for unlikely reasons.

The same paper reveals that among some of the more outlandish reasons for removing tonsils were conditions like "night enuresis (bed-wetting), convulsions, laryngeal stridor, hoarseness, chronic bronchitis, and asthma."

8. An early treatment for swollen tonsils included frog fat.

As early practitioners struggled to perfect techniques for removing tonsils effectively, another early physician, Aetius de Amida, recommended "ointment, oils, and corrosive formulas with frog fat to treat infections."

9. Modern tonsillectomy is much more sophisticated.

A common technique today for removing the tonsils, according to Levine, is a far cry from the painful early attempts. Under brief general anesthesia, Levine uses a process called coblation. "[It's] a kind of cold cautery, so there is almost no bleeding, less post operative pain, and quicker healing. You can return to normal activities 10 days later," Levine says.

10. Sexually-transmitted HPV can cause tonsil cancer.

The incidence of tonsillar cancers is increasing, according to Seethala. "Unlike other head and neck cancers, which are commonly associated with smoking and alcohol, tonsillar cancers are driven by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)," he says. "HPV-related tonsillar cancer can be considered sexually transmitted."

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