12 Facts About the Penis

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Of all the body parts, none may elicit more questions—and myths—than the penis. One of the male sexual organ's main roles is to make procreation happen, but the penis also has cultural significance. Here are 12 facts to clear up the confusion.

1. THE PENIS HAS TWO PRIMARY FUNCTIONS.

The penis has two main biological roles, according to Michael Reitano, a physician-in-residence and an expert in sexual health and wellness for Roman Health. One is the elimination of waste in the form of urine; the second is the means for transferring semen, which carries sperm from the testes out of the body to somewhere else, such as the vagina for procreation. Another of its functions is, of course, sexual pleasure.

2. IT DEVELOPS FROM A CLITORIS-LIKE ORGAN.

All mammalian embryos start life as female in presentation, before the chromosome process is activated, with an external, undifferentiated clitoris-like structure. Eventually, embryos with XX chromosomes will develop a clitoris, labia, and vagina, while those with XY chromosomes will grow a penis and testes.

3. THE PENIS IS COMPOSED OF THREE TUBES.

The penis may look like one long tube, but there are actually three columns of tissue that run along the inside of the penis. Two are corpus cavernosum columns, which extend from the base to the end of the penis and fill with blood to allow for erection. The other is the corpus spongiosum; it surrounds the urethra, the tube through which urine and semen passes. The corpus spongiosum also fills with blood during erection, but remains pliable to keep the urethra open.

4. HUMANS MAY HAVE THE LARGEST PENIS OF ALL PRIMATES ...

When girth is considered, the human penis is quite a bit larger than those of its primate cousins. "A gorilla, for example, has a penis just 2 inches long. Human males walk upright, and it is thought that larger genitalia might have acted as a sexual attractant in competitive situations," Reitano says. But according to the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny, chimpanzees and bonobos' penises are more slender but comparable to the length of an average human penis (which is 5.16 inches long and 4.59 inches around when erect, 3.61 inches and 3.66 inches around when not). Scientists theorize that our unique proportions are a result of natural selection through female mate choice.

5. ... AND THOSE PENISES MAY ONCE HAVE BEEN BARBED.

The human penis is most definitely among the smoothest in the animal kingdom. "In the distant past, it probably had sharp barbs, like some of our primate cousins, to make sex with another partner soon after coitus unlikely," Reitano says. Chimp penises still have small barbs that "hold the female in place, and when the penis is removed, it irritates the female's vagina so she avoids other chimps who might want to mate with her," he explains. (Let's not get started on the exploding corkscrew penis of the Muscovy duck, which looks like it makes for some irritating coitus.)

6. IN THE 15TH CENTURY, MEN FEARED WITCHES WHO COULD STEAL THEIR PENISES.

One of many bizarre beliefs put forth in the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German witch-hunting manual by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was the opinion that witches could steal men's penises. Kramer wrote that witches "can take away the male organ." He didn't mean Lorena Bobbitt-style, clarifying, "not indeed by despoiling the human body of it, but by concealing it with some glamour."

In a 2002 paper published in the Journal of Folklore Research, Moira Smith pointed to male sexual insecurity as a driver of the witch hunts. "Many of the crimes (maleficia) attributed to witches concerned sexuality: copulation with incubus devils, procuring abortions, causing sterility and stillbirth, and impeding sexual relations between husbands and wives," she wrote.

7. ERECTIONS ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THEY SEEM.

Achieving an erection is one of the most complex functions to happen in a man, Reitano says: "For starters, hormones must be released on demand, arteries need to carry six times more blood to the penis with perfect efficiency, the nervous system must transmit its signals without a hitch, and the mind must be working in perfect harmony with the body."

The ability to get and sustain an erection, he says, depends upon "a body that is perfectly tuned physically, psychologically, and emotionally." The inability to achieve an erection, a.k.a. erectile dysfunction, is usually the first sign of poor health, according to Reitano.

8. UNLIKE OTHER MAMMALS, HUMANS LACK A PENIS BONE …

Many mammals, including gorillas and chimpanzees, have a penis bone or "baculum," says Arash Akhavein, a urologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. In some animals, like whales, the baculum hangs back inside the abdomen until mating time, and then it slides into the penis to help maintain an erection. Instead of relying on this kind of structure, the human penis requires blood flow and engorgement for erection.

9. … AND YET IT'S POSSIBLE TO "FRACTURE" A PENIS.

Unfortunately, the penis can be fractured during sex, Reitano says. While penile fracture is relatively uncommon, it can happen when the thick sheath called the tunica albuginea, which gives an erect penis its rigidity, is injured by blunt force. "When it fractures, there is usually a clear popping sound, extreme pain, and the rapid loss of erection," Reitano says.

And yes, researchers have studied the sexual positions associated with the problem in heterosexual couples. A 2014 study in Advances in Urology found that the woman being atop the man was the primary position associated with penile fracture; the man being behind the woman was the second most commonly linked. A 2017 study in the International Journal of Impotence Research found that man-behind-woman was most often associated with fracturing a penis, followed by man-atop-woman.

10. MASTURBATION FEARS MAY HAVE DRIVEN MASS CIRCUMCISION.

In an uncircumcised penis, the glans (head) of the penis is covered by skin known as the foreskin, which can be pulled back from the glans. Circumcision, the removal the foreskin, is an ancient surgical practice performed for religious reasons and to prevent issues stemming from poor hygiene.

One thing circumcision doesn't prevent is masturbation. But in English-speaking countries in the 19th century, a general attitude against sexual profligacy, fueled by religious ideology, led to fears about the effects of masturbation and a spike in circumcision. Religious leaders and physicians warned people to avoid "self-abuse" for fear it could cause physical and mental disorders such as tuberculosis, memory loss, and epilepsy. As Tom Hickman writes in his book God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis, "What made circumcision common among the proliferating 19th-century middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic was the hysteria about masturbation; removing the foreskin helped its prevention, doctors declared, and also cured bed-wetting and other conditions."

11. ADULT MEN GET CIRCUMCISED, TOO.

It's most common for boys to be circumcised as newborns, and in some cultures as adolescents, but there are a number of reasons why adult men may choose to have a later-in-life circumcision, Akhavein says. These include tears in the skin where the tip of the penis attaches to the foreskin; when the foreskin is too tight to be retracted easily, a condition called phimosis; and a buildup of smegma, a whitish waxy substance made up of dead skin cells and oils. Men who had an incomplete circumcision (too little skin removed) in childhood would also be good candidates.

12. ICELAND HAS A PENIS MUSEUM.

In 1974, an Icelandic history teacher named Sigurður Hjartarson received a cattle whip made out of a bull penis, which apparently gave him the idea to collect other penises, because hey, why not? The result is the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which holds a collection of more than 238 penises and penile parts from nearly all the fauna in Iceland. Yes, including Homo sapiens.

The largest penis on hand, from a sperm whale, stands at 6 feet tall and weighs nearly 150 pounds. "You’ll learn that as with everything in nature, the diversity in this department is as great as in any other; even within the same species the difference in size and shape is often quite remarkable," Hjartarson told Mental Floss in 2015.

Why Can You Sometimes See Your Breath?

Chalabala/iStock via Getty Images
Chalabala/iStock via Getty Images

The human body is made up of about 60 percent water, meaning that when we breathe, we don’t just exhale carbon dioxide—we also exhale a certain amount of water vapor.

Water molecules need a lot of energy in order to remain in a gaseous form. When the warm water vapor molecules from your lungs reach colder air, they condense into “tiny droplets of liquid water and ice,” according to Wonderopolis. In fact, this process of condensation is also how clouds are formed.

But it’s actually relative humidity, not just temperature, that determines whether you can see your breath. The water vapor in your breath condenses into a liquid when it hits dew point—the temperature at which the air is saturated and can’t hold any more water in gas form. Since cold air can’t hold as much water vapor as warm air, you're much more likely to see your breath on a chilly day, but that's not always the case.

On more humid days, you may be able to see your breath even when it’s relatively warm outside. That’s because the air is already more saturated, making the dew point higher. And on especially dry days, even if it's cold outside, you may not be able to see your breath at all. Dry, unsaturated air can hold more water vapor, so you can huff and puff without seeing any evidence of it at all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

7 Facts About Blood

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Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

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