From yawns to Charley horses: 6 weird body quirks explained
Sometimes our bodies do weird things we’d rather them not do — like when our eye twitches spastically in the middle of a job interview or when we get a mortifying case of the hiccups on a first date.
While we’re sure our anatomy has its reasons for its awkward and sometimes painful involuntary behaviors, those reasons aren’t always so clear to us when we’re desperately trying to eliminate them. To shed some light on these weird body quirks, we investigated the science behind them.
Perhaps the only downside to summer, brain freezes occur when we chug an ice-cold cup of water or heap an oversized spoonful of ice cream into our mouths on a hot day. The immediate and intense headache that follows is called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (aka brain freeze, ice-cream headache or cold-stimulus headache), and it has something to do with the combination of hot weather and that super-cold substance making contact with the roof of your mouth.
While the reason behind this reaction isn’t fully understood, an April 2012 study discovered a possible cause: Researchers found that the pain was associated with an intense and sudden rush of blood into an area of the brain called the anterior cerebral artery. When study participants drank warm water, the artery constricted and the pain dissipated. Those who suffer from periodic migraines are more susceptible to brain freezes.
If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with a shooting pain in your leg so intense that you want to scream, you’re familiar with the unpredictable muscle spasm colloquially known as a Charley horse. They usually attack in the leg, and afflict pregnant women and elderly people much more often than the rest of us.
A variety of causes are theorized to be behind these unexpected muscle contractions. Dehydration and vitamin and mineral deficiency are two hypotheses. Your body needs fluid and minerals like sodium, potassium and calcium to operate your muscles. When you’re deficient in those things, your body can’t function as well. This is why experts believe pregnant women suffer from them so frequently: Their babies are absorbing much of their calcium.
Charley horses can also result from overworking or injuring a muscle. Other possible causes include electrolyte imbalances; certain medications, such as antipsychotics and blood-pressure or diabetes drugs; and sitting in the same position for too long.
You know the feeling: You’re swimming to the bottom of the deep end of the pool or trying to pass out on a long flight and your ears suddenly feel blocked. You proceed to make bizarre facial expressions or yawn to get them to “pop” and relieve the discomfort.
The air in your ear canal (i.e., the inside of your ear you can touch) needs to have the same amount of pressure as the air in the middle ear (i.e., an inner part of your ear you can’t see or touch). When there’s an imbalance, your ears feel blocked. When your ears pop, your ear’s Eustachian tube — which connects the middle ear’s air chamber to the throat — is either releasing air from, or letting air into, the middle ear in order to equalize the pressure. Since that tube is connected to your lungs, yawning — or blowing into your nose while its pinched close — can help.
Those awkward, uncontrollable eye twitches that only seem to happen in uncomfortable situations are known as blepharospasms. Usually it’s the upper eyelid that spazzes out every few seconds and lasts for about one to two minutes.
The cause of this annoying body quirk can vary from consumption of alcohol, caffeine or cigarette smoke to fatigue, stress, physical exertion or irritation of the eye surface or inner eyelids, according to Mayo Clinic. In rare cases, eye twitching can be chronic and is commonly treated with Botox injections administered every few months.
You can thank the same muscle for both hiccups and that terrible drowning feeling you get when you have the wind knocked out of you. The diaphragm separates the chest from the abdomen and helps us breathe. When you hiccup, your diaphragm is contracting; your vocal cords close immediately afterward, which causes that “hiccup” sound.
Thankfully, hiccups usually don’t last long — usually only a few minutes, though in rare cases, months. (Can you imagine hiccuping for months?!) According to WebMD, causes include a full stomach from eating too much too quickly, drinking too much, swallowing too much air, smoking, a sudden change in stomach temperature (e.g., don’t drink ice-cold water immediately after ingesting a big cup of hot chocolate) and emotional stress or excitement.
We think you really need to yawn. Y-A-W-NNNNNNNNNN. Yawn yawn yawn yawn. :-O YAWN. Did you yawn yet? Yawning is a weird reflex that causes you to inhale a bunch of air, stretch your face and eardrums and exhale deeply — and reading too much about it or seeing someone else yawn can, for some reason, be contagious. (Fun fact: Writing about yawning also has this effect.)
While no one knows for sure why we do it, there are plenty of theories. One of the oldest suggests that we yawn when we have too much carbon dioxide in our blood; yawning allows us to inhale more oxygen and expel CO2. Another theory postulates that it’s our body’s way of stretching, so we stay alert and prepared in case we need to leap into action. And yet another hypothesis suggests it happens when the hypothalamus — a part of our brain that controls body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep and circadian cycles — is exposed to neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
A November 2011 study came up with something new: The research indicated yawning could be our body’s way of cooling off our brain. Yawning causes the walls of the maxillary sinus to expand and contract like a bellows, according to National Geographic, pumping air onto our brain and lowering its temperature.
And why can’t we help but yawn when the guy across from us does it? Once again, the answer is unclear. But many experts believe it’s related to mirror neurons or the part of our brain that controls motor imitation, empathy and social behavior. Evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup believed neurons in the brain are fired that make us feel what the other person is feeling and command us to go through the motions even though we don’t really need to.
In conclusion, here's a yawning puppy.