Monday, January 25, 2021

Yawning, singing in the shower: science’s few remaining mysteries

There are things that we habitually do without even noticing. But psychologists and social scientists are watching and they later pose questions about our everyday conduct that we are at pains to answer.

We only become aware of some of these behaviours when someone draws our attention to them.
For example, why is it that when someone laughs, people around that person also start laughing without even knowing what’s funny?
People get PhDs for noticing and studying ‘simple’ things like that.
And that’s not all.

Take yawning for example; why do you yawn when I or someone next to you yawns? And why do we yawn in the first place?
Dr. Barry Make, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colorado, says the answer is not because we are tired or bored ÔÇö although that’s the common perception.
So what the hell is it?
“The truth is that we don’t completely understand why people, or animals for that matter, yawn. It’s widely assumed that yawning occurs because we are tired or bored or because we see someone else doing it, but there isn’t any hard evidence to support these beliefs.”

Yawning is extremely contagious, says ‘Ask Yahoo’, adding that 55 percent of people who witness someone yawning end up yawning themselves within five minutes.

“If a visually impaired person hears a tape of someone yawning, he or she is likely to yawn as well. The likelihood of you making it to the end of this explanation without looking like you want to yawn is unlikely.”
The most plausible explanation, and the one that is taught in medical school, is that we yawn because oxygen levels in our lungs are low, says ‘Mysteries of the Universe’ Bulletin Board. Studies have shown that during normal, at-rest breathing, we don’t use anywhere near our lung capacity; for the most part, we just use the air sacs at the bottom of the lungs. It continues to say that if the air sacs, called alveoli, don’t get fresh air, they partially collapse and the lungs stiffen a bit. As a result, it’s believed, our brain prompts the body to either sigh or take a yawn to get more air into the lungs.

But certain aspects of yawning remain even more mysterious, chimes in MSNBC Interactive. Fetuses, for instance, it says, have been observed yawning in the womb, yet it’s known that they don’t take oxygen in through their lungs.
Another puzzling phenomenon is that some male animals, men included, yawn in association with penile erection but we cannot say that they are bored with their sex lives, can we?

Ask Yahoo says that although the contagious nature of yawning is well established, we know less about why this is so. One theory suggests it’s a holdover from a period in evolutionary history when yawning served to coordinate the social behavior of a group of animals. A recent study postulates that contagious yawning could be part of the “neural network involved in empathy.”

And is it possible to drink too much water?
The University of Florida’s College of Health and Human Performance says there’s a condition known as “water intoxication”, or hyponatremia, which isn’t uncommon among marathoners and triathletes.

It goes on to say that as these athletes consume large amounts of water over the course of a race, blood plasma increases and dilutes the salt content of the blood. While this is happening, the athlete is also losing salt by sweating. Consequently, the amount of salt available to the body tissues decreases, and, over time, the loss interferes with brain, heart, and muscle function.
According to the experts at iVillage, consumption of large amounts of water is often associated with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. When a person consumes too much of this good thing, essential electrolytes in the blood stream become diluted and affect the control of the heart beat.

“Healthy adults require approximately three quarts of fluid each day, half of which comes from food and half from beverages,” says iVillage, “Drinking 8 to 12 glasses a day should have your body working on all cylinders.”

And why does the shower make people want to sing?
This is one mystery that may never be solved. However, it is generally believed that the sound of a person’s voice actually improves in the small, confined space of the shower.

“When you sing in an open area,” says the San Francisco Exploratorium, “you basically only hear your voice as it is produced. However, in the shower, the sound waves reflect off the walls, producing a much richer sound, improved bass, and more volume.”

This cannot be the explanation I am looking for because we also tend to sing in “high wind” as anyone who has ridden in the back of an open truck can attest. When riding in the back of a lorry, there is always a tendency to sing against the wind so the above explanation does not help me much.
“Some theories are less scientific,” admits Ask Yahoo. The book, ‘Sounding the Silence’, believes people are inclined to sing in the shower because they feel safe and relaxed.
“The quiet solitude creates a space in which our spirit can freely express itself.” Or, to put it another way, a shower’s privacy allows people to relax and let loose.

“In the end, we suspect it’s a combination of the improved vocals and the relaxation that comes with being completely alone.”
It’s a comfort to know that once you pull that shower curtain shut, not only will you sound better, no one’s going to laugh if you don’t.

And turning to things outside our insides, does hot water really freeze faster than cold water?
The phenomenon, says Ask Yahoo, is one of modern science’s few remaining mysteries and the source of much debate in certain circles.

“Given the right set of conditions, hot or warm water can freeze faster than cooler water.”
This strange phenomenon was described by the likes of Aristotle, Bacon, and Descartes, yet is named after the Tanzanian high-school student who demonstrated it in 1969.

“The Mpemba effect only occurs under very specific sets of conditions and is still not completely understood.”
Ask Yahoo says that although the effect has been reproduced successfully in a number of experiments, no one can say with certainty why it happens due to the great number of variables involved. However, it is generally believed some combination of factors, such as evaporation, convection, conduction, and super cooling, may account for the Mpemba effect.

You’ll be glad to know that, however mysterious the phenomenon is, the Mpemba effect is put to good use by many ice-cream makers, who use warm milk instead of cool milk to help their ice cream freeze more quickly.
You may also be interested to know that for such a seemingly simple substance, water is surprisingly complex, and its behavior is poorly understood. The Mpemba effect is just one of 38 anomalies of H2O.

Then there is that ‘thing’ that only those of us who love to soak in the bath tub for hours on end relaxing know about. Or that Phakalane-spoiled species that has access to swimming pools. Why does your skin wrinkle up when you’ve been in the bathtub or swimming pool for a long time?

“Your skin is comprised of two layers ÔÇö the epidermis and the dermis,” big-headed Yahoo says. “The epidermis produces an oily protein called sebum, which is effective in repelling water.” It’s also the material that causes fingerprints.

Inevitably, a nice long soak in a bathtub sloughs off the excess sebum from your epidermis.

“As a result, your skin starts to take on water. The top layer of the epidermis is known as the stratum corneum. These are the tough, dead skin cells that are constantly being sloughed off your body in your clothes, your bed, and in the form of dandruff.” Disturbing, but true.
It goes on to explain that your fingers and toes have especially thick layers of stratum corneum.

“Once deprived of sebum, they swell up with water, causing wrinkles. This osmosis effect is harmless and temporary. Once you get out of the tub, the extra water evaporates, leaving your skin even drier than before because there is no sebum to help retain moisture.”

This, then, is a good time to apply lotion or oil to help your skin retain some of the water.
Now, like me, you don’t know!


Read this week's paper