The human body is a strange and mysterious place filled with gross guts and gurgling magic potions. There are all sorts of confusing or nonsensical processes our own bodies perform that we just shrugged off and accepted way back in childhood. Fortunately, good ol’ science is finally here to explain things like …
#6. Why You Get Squiggly Shit in Your Vision
Your eyes are immensely intricate machines built through millions of years of evolution, so it’s only reasonable that they should have developed a few glitches along the way. For instance, the dots or squiggly lines that are sometimes visible off to the sides of your visual field. They float around and then dart out of sight immediately if you try to get a good look at the bastards.
And then you have the bright spots that appear in front of your eyes (“seeing stars”) when your body suddenly strains really hard. Maybe you sneezed, or pulled an intense, full-body Valsalva maneuver trying to squeeze out a dissident turd, or just rubbed your eyeball.
Both phenomena are completely normal, yet the explanations are weirder than you think.
It Happens Because …
First of all, “eye floaters” are not a) just lint and shit that fell into your eye or b) unusually upstart sperm that got really really lost.
Your eyes are mostly made up of a jelly called vitreous fluid, and this gel undergoes many changes as you age. As it slowly shrinks, it loses its smoothness and starts to look stringy. The vitreous can also become more liquid, and this allows for tiny fibers in your eye to come together and form (relatively) large clumps. These get big enough to become visible and freak us out, but they eventually sink down and settle at the bottom of your eyes where you can’t see them. So technically, they’re your little buddies for life.
As for the bright dots that flash and move in front of your eyes, they’re called phosphenes, and they’re caused when cells in your retina are messed with (by rubbing your eyes or having a large person slap you in the dark), causing them to misfire. Strangely, scientists have found that they can also stimulate phosphenes by running electricity across the visual cortex part of your brain. Try it on a friend!
But wait, it gets weirder: Have you ever gone out and stared up at a clear blue sky, only to see faint white dots dancing around the edge of your vision? Most people can see it if they really look, and it’s worth it because you are seeing the goddamned white blood cells shooting through the blood vessels in your fucking eyeball. The blue light causes the vessels and other cells to be invisible to your eye, so you wind up seeing the white blood cells zipping around like tiny ghosts, just chasing diseases and shit. Maybe there’s a tiny ship full of scientists in there.
#5. Why Cold Foods Cause “Brain Freeze”
Anyone who has enjoyed frozen treats ranging from ice cream to Slurpees has had, at least once in their life, a brain freeze. The name sums it up pretty well — you’re halfway through a tasty dessert when suddenly your head hurts like Ben and Jerry simultaneously drop-kicked your face in some twisted Mortal Kombat finisher. But why would it happen? It’s not like a mouthful of frozen treats can actually lower the temperature of your brain or anything (if it could, a single trip to Dairy Queen would kill your ass).
It Happens Because …
Researchers at Harvard, the University of Ireland, and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs teamed up to figure out why the hell such a great thing can be so unpleasant (we guess it’s marginally better than spending your tax dollars on another bank bailout). They came to realize that they could trigger the headaches just by placing an ice cube in the subject’s mouth and pushing it to the top of the palate, which messes with the brain’s thermostat.
The brain wants to keep a constant temperature, so when you’re stuffing your head with ice cream, your palate gets chilled and your brain freaks out, thinking you’re trapped somewhere near the peak of Mount Everest (“Holy shit, it’s so cold here that the inside of his mouth is freezing!”). It opens up arteries to pump more blood to the area to warm it up, but instead of making you super smart, the increased blood pressure just causes an “ice cream headache.”
People usually respond to these shooting pains by pressing their hands to their head, as if manually warming the skull will fix it (which, as you can guess, does nothing). No, the only known way of getting rid of the brain freeze is to warm up the top palate and constrict those arteries back to normal size. Sometimes pressing your tongue against the top of your mouth can help. Or you can shove a Hot Pocket in there, whatever.
#4. Why Orange Juice (and Other Things) Taste Weird After You Brush Your Teeth
If you’ve never tried it, go do it now. Brush your teeth (with toothpaste) and then run to the fridge and take a drink of orange juice. Holy shit! Your sweet, sweet juice has turned into some kind of horrible chemical-tasting cleaning solution. A witch has cursed your refrigerator and/or beverages!
It Happens Because …
Actually, this bizarre reaction was, for some of us, our first childhood introduction to chemistry. The weird horriblization that occurs with orange juice and lots of other foods after brushing is due to a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate. The white coats making your hygiene products know just how much you like it when your cleaning products foam up, so they have to add totally useless enfoameners (may not be the actual name). The aforementioned SLS is one such animal, and gives you that great frothy mouth-feel you need to make it seem like your toothpaste is doing something.
But one side effect of SLS is that it wreaks havoc on your tongue’s taste receptors — it numbs the little guys in your mouth that detect sweetness and erodes the fatty shield that blunts the taste of bitterness. For a while, anyway.
So your mouth is getting double-teamed into a gustatory lethargy, which has the effect of significantly changing the way certain foods or drinks taste to you. Obviously it’s more noticeable on substances that are normally super sweet yet acidic (other foods may just taste a little lifeless). If this bothers you, there are actually toothpaste brands that don’t have SLS or its sweet foaming action. But if you live with someone else, you’ve got about one day before they start screaming from the bathroom that your toothpaste is broken.
#3. Why Men Get “Blue Balls”
Oh, the good ol’ blue balls. The bane of the boner, the painful reminder of a man’s failed romancing. Blue balls, for those of you who don’t know (congratulations!), is when a man gets really close to orgasm but doesn’t follow through. Say a man is on a date with a prospective mate and invites the person on a trip to the city of pound town, but right when things start getting heavy, he does something that makes the partner leave. We don’t know what — maybe he farted or got really racist or something. Either way, he is left with good old Catholic guilt and a painful ache in his nut sack.
It Happens Because …
Once again we can blame blood vessels. When the man is fully aroused and ready to unleash a payload of DNA, the arteries open, allowing blood to flow into the genitals, but then restricting the blood flow going away — one result of this is what scientists call a “boner.” When an orgasm occurs, the arteries almost immediately open, allowing the blood to leave because the deed is done.
But when sexual activity stops all of a sudden, the body gets all confused and can’t figure out how you didn’t seal the deal. This means that the blood lingers, and since it isn’t oxygenated, it is “blue” — and thus the term “blue balls” came into the vocabulary. The pressure of that blood is what makes the experience painful and causes tension in the man’s balls — that’s right, it’s basically getting an ice cream headache to the junk.
Fun bonus fact: This blood-trapping mechanism is the reason why Viagra, a pill originally intended to treat high blood pressure, also helps erectile dysfunction.
#2. Why Sunburns Hurt (and Turn You Red)
A sunburn is the point at which something desirable progresses into something painful and annoying. It’s a suntan that’s gotten too buff and now has to use a claw attached to a bent plastic handle just to wipe its own ass. A modest amount of sunlight to your skin yields a light roast and therefore a nice golden sheen that is absolutely painless (along with scoring you some free vitamin D). A little too much exposure, however, and you’re in a world of hurt where suddenly your skin is hypersensitive to even the gentlest of caresses.
So why would something that isn’t painful while you’re experiencing it be excruciating when you’re recovering afterward? And why would it change the color of your skin in the process?
It Happens Because …
First of all, what you’re seeing is a radiation burn. Blast yourself with radiation from a leaking nuclear reactor or certain medical procedures and your skin will look the same angry red. In this case, it’s UV radiation, but it’s still directly damaging your DNA and your body still responds with inflammation, increasing blood flow to the site and bringing with it all of your body’s tiny repair crews. The angry red color is your body’s attempt to heal it before tumors and mutations start sprouting everywhere.
All right, so why is your skin suddenly hypersensitive to touch? If you roll your eyes and say, “Duh, because it’s a sunburn,” not so fast — it’s actually always been a mystery to scientists. Recent research says it might all be due to one obscure protein that helps manage the immune response, which happens to have the side effect of aggravating nerve receptors. Figuring out how to counteract that protein could one day actually fix the pain of sunburns (and other types of inflammation) instead of the current lotions and sprays that work for about the amount of time it takes to apply them.
#1. Why Asparagus Makes Your Pee Smell Weird
If you’ve heard somebody joke about “asparagus pee” and had no idea what they were talking about, either a) you don’t eat asparagus or b) you’re one of the people who are genetically unable to perceive the scent (about 30 percent of you). As for the rest of us, it seems to be one of the only substances on earth that makes your urine smell like the sulfuric piss of Satan himself. Even Benjamin Franklin noted the effects in a letter sent to the Royal Academy of Brussels; in it, he mentioned a “disagreable odour” that accompanied a meal containing asparagus stems.
What the hell? Does asparagus change our body chemistry so fundamentally that our own fluids start to smell like the discharge from a chemical plant? Then why do they allow us to eat it?
It Happens Because …
The odor is the result of an organosulfur (an organic compound containing sulfur) called asparagusic acid. And yes, that’s the real name, we’re not joking — we’re told that at least one person in the world calls it that. You might be asking yourself why asparagus doesn’t smell like that, then, and the answer is that asparagusic acid itself isn’t so potent — the smell mainly comes from the compounds it breaks down into, which can manifest themselves in urine in as little as 15 minutes. Sulfur, of course, is the same stuff that makes your farts (and skunks) smell bad.
Parents: If your little boy refuses to eat his asparagus, tell him it will let him pee farts. It’ll work wonders!