10 Flexible Facts About the Tongue

The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

Your tongue is good for a lot more than eating an ice cream cone or a giving a rude gesture during a moment of road rage. Not only does the tongue play a crucial role in your sense of taste, it’s important to breathing, swallowing, speaking, and singing.

Your tongue is actually made of eight interwoven, striated muscles that can move in any direction. It’s thick with glands and fat, and covered in a mucus membrane, which is why it’s always moist. Here, Erich Voigt, otolaryngologist and clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, reveals to Mental Floss some underappreciated facts about the tongue.


They're also clustered along the sides and at the back; the middle of the tongue is the least receptive area. The tongue is covered with tiny nodes called papillae, which house your taste buds, as well as the serous glands, required for the act of tasting.


That tongue map with different zones for different flavors that we all grew up learning? It's wrong. All taste buds are capable of detecting the five types of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory), though different receptors are more responsive to different flavors.


If you’ve ever wondered why you used to be able to enjoy a mouthful of sugar and now find candy too sweet, it’s probably because the types of taste buds you have change as you age. Kids' taste buds are more sensitive to sweet tastes than adults' tongues are. “It explains why children really enjoy sweets and candies, as compared to adults who may enjoy more complex flavors and spices,” Voigt says. There are likely evolutionary reasons for this sweet, er, tongue.


When a fetus is developing, says Voigt, the embryonic thyroid gland “starts in the tongue and then descends down the neck as a child forms.” In certain rare cases, the thyroid doesn’t drop, and can be located in the base of the tongue at birth. This is called a lingual thyroid, and requires removal and medication. This condition may not be caught right away—usually doctors don’t notice until symptoms of hyperthyroidism turn up, or a goiter, a swelling of the thyroid, appears.


It's a common misconception, says Voigt. But depending on how you measure strength, that title could be more justifiably claimed by the heart, the jaw bone's masseter, or the gluteus maximus in your butt. While the tongue is very strong because “it’s made up of many muscles both intrinsic and extrinsic,” Voigt says, its notability lies in its flexibility. The tongue has unique biomechanics—unlike other muscles, it doesn't surround any supporting bones, and it needs to be able to make three-dimensional changes in shape to handle all the speaking, eating, and swallowing we require of it.


Can’t make a fleur de lis with your tongue? Not your mom’s fault. It turns out that the longstanding belief that the ability to roll, flip, and bend your tongue is a genetic trait is not true. John McDonald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Delaware, recently debunked this myth in an NPR interview. If such an ability were genetic, then identical twins would both be able to do it, which is not the case, as was shown in a 1952 study by geneticist Philip Matlock.


Actually, it has two, and they're distinctly different, which Voigt says is atypical. “The tongue has very unique nerve innervation. The anterior [forward] two-thirds gets a different nerve from the posterior [back] one third,” he says.


Geographic tongue is an unusual condition in which a loss of the tiny papillae that normally cover the tongue’s surface creates irregular raised, red patches on the tongue that can resemble continents or islands on a map. Doctors don’t understand the causes of this bizarre condition, though stress, allergies and eating habits may be responsible. Voigt says, in some cases, those patches “might even grow hair.”


The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease that typically afflicts the genitals of humans. It can result in genital warts and is a risk factor for cervical cancer. Unfortunately, says Voigt, “The base of the tongue is one of the increasing forms of cancer due to infection from HPV, which is spread there through oral sex.” Other forms of tongue cancer can result from drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, and chewing betel nut.


In Tibet, sticking out your tongue is a considered a polite greeting between two people when they meet. And among the Maori people of New Zealand, sticking out the tongue is part of a ritual called a haka, where men stick out their tongues in a simulated war dance to intimidate the enemy.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

30 Pungent Facts About Farts

This man is clearly not trying to hide the fact he just passed gas.
This man is clearly not trying to hide the fact he just passed gas.
BrilliantEye/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you openly admit it or desperately try to hide it, it’s an undeniable fact that every living and breathing human being farts. And while passing what you thought was going to be silent gas only to be wrong in certain situations can definitely be embarrassing, there’s something undeniably humorous about flatulence—no matter your age.

If you do love a good fart joke, you’re in good company. The very first recorded joke, which was written by the Sumerians and dates all the way back to 1900 BCE, was about—you guessed it—breaking wind. And some of the world's great thinkers, from William Shakespeare to J.D. Salinger, have slipped a fart joke (or 10) into their work.

In this episode of The List Show, we're sniffing out 30 fascinating facts about farts—from why humans expel gas to how often the average adult squeezes the cheese. You can watch the full episode below.

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