11 Insightful Facts About Eyes

iStock.com/Paffy69
iStock.com/Paffy69

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the eyes. No, sitting too close to the TV won't damage your vision, and reading in dim light won’t hurt either. It’s understandable that various parts of the eye are so little understood, though. Each eye has more than a million optic nerve cells and over 106 million photoreceptor cells, making it one of the most complex organs we have. Here are a few more things you should know about your “windows to the soul.”

1. Newborn babies see the world in black and white—and red.

“It is a myth that babies see in black and white,” Anna Franklin, leader of the University of Sussex's Baby Lab, told The Guardian. While newborns do see black, white, and shades of gray, they can also detect red objects against a gray backdrop, Franklin says. The reason why they can’t see more colors is because the cones in their eyes—the photoreceptor cells responsible for picking up colors—are too weak to detect them. Those cells quickly get stronger, though. After about two months, babies can distinguish between red and green, and a few weeks later they can tell the difference between blue and yellow.

2. Your eyeballs grow as you age.

Another common misconception is that your eyes remain the same size from birth to adulthood. As a newborn, your eyes measure about three-fifths of an inch from front to back, compared to a little under an inch in adults. Your eyes actually grow a great deal in the first two years of life, and another growth spurt occurs when you go through puberty. The confusion likely stems from the fact that your eyes as a 6-month-old infant are two-thirds the size they will be when you’re an adult.

3. The length of your eye partly determines how well you'll be able to see.

If your eyeball is too long or too short, you might end up having problems with your vision. Nearsighted people have eyes that are longer than average, while farsighted people have eyes that come up a little short. If you were to magically add or remove a millimeter of length from your eye, it would completely change your prescription. Aside from eye length, the shape of your cornea (the outer part of the eye where contact lenses are placed) and lens (the part of the eye located behind the iris and pupil) are other key factors that determine the quality of your vision. That's because both of these parts work together to refract light.

4. Contact lenses can't really get lost behind your eye.

Although it may feel like a dislodged contact lens is stuck behind your eye, that isn’t exactly what’s happening. The thin membrane covering the white part of your eye and the underside of your eyelid—called the conjunctiva—forms a pouch and prevents objects from getting behind your eyeball. If a contact lens gets shifted out of place to the point where you can no longer see it, it’s just stuck underneath your upper eyelid, which isn’t nearly as scary.

5. Blue-eyed people share a common ancestor.

Originally, everyone in the world had brown eyes. It wasn’t until around 6000 to 10,000 years ago that the first blue-eyed person was born as a result of a genetic mutation, according to a 2008 study. That mutation of the OCA2 gene essentially “turned off the ability to produce brown eyes” and diluted the color to blue, Professor Hans Eiberg of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement.

6. Parts of the eye can get sunburned.

There’s a good reason you should wear sunglasses when it’s bright outside. Too much exposure to UV rays can damage the surface of the cornea and conjunctiva, causing a condition akin to sunburn called photokeratitis. Symptoms include pain, red or swollen eyes, the sensation of a foreign body in the eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and seeing halos around lights. While the discomfort is temporary and tends to go away within 48 hours, longer exposure to UV rays can have a long-term effect on your vision and lead to macular degeneration (deterioration of the retina, which is often age-related) and cataracts (clouding of the eye's lens, which reduces the amount of light coming in).

7. Your eye muscles are the fastest muscle in your body.

Extraocular muscles are what let you look around in all directions. You have six of these muscles in each eye, and many of the motions they make are involuntary. This lets you flick your eyes to one side and notice something in your peripheral vision without consciously looking in that direction. When both of your eyes move in the same direction, the movement is called a saccade, which comes from the French word for “jerk” (the verb, not the person). These jerky movements are extremely rapid, lasting about 50 to 60 milliseconds per saccade, according to Dr. Reza Shadmehr, professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. “Saccadic eye movements are the fastest voluntary movements that we can make. The eyes move at around 500 degrees per second or more,” Shadmehr tells Mental Floss.

8. Your eye movements might give away your next move.

Shadmehr and other researchers conducted an experiment in 2015 to test the relationship between saccades and decision-making. Participants were placed in front of a computer and asked to choose between two options that appeared on the screen: an immediate reward and a delayed reward. For instance, one option might be “get $10 today,” while the other might be “wait 30 days and get $30.” Their eye movements were tracked the entire time, and researchers discovered that these movements gave away the choice they were about to make before they made it. At the last minute, their eyes would move at a faster velocity towards the option that they preferred.

“What’s interesting is that as the saccades are being made, the velocity of the eyes starts out being equal between these two stimuli, but then right before you decide ‘I like A better than B,' the saccade that you make toward A has a higher velocity than the one you make toward B,” Shadmehr explains. “The idea is that the way you’re evaluating things is reflected in the way you move toward them.”

In another experiment, Shadmehr found a correlation between faster eye movements and impatient and impulsive behaviors. Similarly, other studies have shown that our eye movements are linked to moral decisions and even our political temperament.

9. You can tell some animals' place in the food chain by looking at a part of their eye.

In 2015, vision scientist Martin Banks and his colleagues looked at the eyes of 214 species in an attempt to answer the question, “Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes?” By the end of their study, they noticed a few patterns. Predatory animals like big cats and snakes tend to have pupils in the shape of vertical slits. This particular shape gives them the advantage of being able to accurately judge the distance separating them and their prey, so they'll know exactly how far they have to pounce. On the other hand, horizontal pupils are more common in goats, deer, cattle, and other herbivores. This shape improves an animal’s panoramic vision, which helps them look out for predators.

10. An eye condition may have been partly responsible for Leonardo da Vinci's artistic genius.

Visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argued in a recent paper that the master artist behind Mona Lisa had strabismus, a disorder where the eyes are misaligned. Essentially, one of his eyes turned outwards, and he was able to use both of his eyes separately (monocular as opposed to binocular vision). Tyler believes this actually aided his art by improving his ability to render three-dimensional images on a flat canvas. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted,” Tyler said. We’ll never know for sure whether or not this was true for Leonardo, but it’s an intriguing theory.

11. SURGEONS HOPE TO BE PERFORMING WHOLE EYE TRANSPLANTS BY 2026. 

Currently, only cornea transplants to improve vision are possible, but a team of Pittsburgh-based transplant surgeons said in 2016 that they hoped to be performing whole eye transplants in humans within the next decade. Transferring an eye from a deceased donor to a recipient certainly won’t be easy, though. A complicated network of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves connects the eyes to the brain via the optic nerve. However, further studies into the optic nerve and recent advances in immunosuppressive drugs and surgical techniques have brought them several steps closer to achieving this goal. If successful, the surgery could restore vision to people who have suffered severe eye injuries. Their research is backed by the Department of Defense, which is concerned about the number of soldiers who sustain eye injuries in combat.

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
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.

What Purpose Does the Belly Button Serve?

misuma/iStock via Getty Images
misuma/iStock via Getty Images

While your eyelashes are protecting your eyes, your lungs are letting you breathe, and virtually every other part of your body—inside and out—is performing its own relatively well-known task, your belly button is just sitting there collecting lint. And while it’s true that your navel served its most important purpose before you were born, it’s not totally useless now.

According to ZME Science, back when you were a fetus, your belly button was more of a belly portal: Your umbilical cord extended from it and connected you to the placenta on your mother’s uterine wall. That way, the placenta could channel nutrients and oxygen to you through the cord, and you could send back waste.

Your umbilical cord was cut when you were born, creating a tiny bulge that left behind some scar tissue after it healed. That scar tissue is your belly button, navel, or umbilicus. Though you may have heard that the shape of your belly button is a direct result of the scissor skills of the doctor who delivered you, that’s not true. Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that a belly button's shape “has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby’s body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie.” About 90 percent of people have innies.

Regardless of how your belly button looks, you probably don’t use it on a daily basis. However, if you’ve studied anatomy, medicine, or a related field, you might recognize it as the central point by which the abdomen is divided into the following quadrants: right upper, left upper, right lower, and left lower. Another way of classifying that area is into nine regions—including the hypochondriac, lumbar, iliac, epigastric, and hypogastric regions—with the umbilical region at the very center.

Abdominopelvic regions diagram
Blausen Medical, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Your belly button can also serve as the opening for laparoscopic surgery, which can save you from having a scar elsewhere on your abdomen.

The navel is a great central landmark outside of medicine, too. If you’ve taken yoga or Pilates classes, you may have heard it referred to as the center of balance or center of gravity. Because it sits right on top of your abdominal muscles, your belly button is an easy marker for your instructor to mention when they want you to access your core, which helps you balance.

And, of course, belly buttons are notorious for storing quite a bit of lint, which always seems to be blue (you can learn more about that here).

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

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