The tongue is an organ most commonly used for talking, tasting, chewing, swallowing, and engaging in lascivious activities. But others have imagined so much more potential in this sensitive extremity.
It’s a remarkable instrument with 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds that constantly regenerate themselves each week. The average adult tongue is about 8.1 centimeters (3.2 in) when measured from its tip to the epiglottis, which is the flap of cartilage that anchors it in the back of the mouth.
The tongue print is as original as a snowflake. Like a fingerprint’s unique stamp, each tongue could theoretically be used as a personal identification tool one day.
Some simply consider the tongue a tool to fulfill its most basic functions, but others have discovered all kinds of unique ways to push its possibilities beyond normalcy. They may have learned a party trick for giggles or a sideshow act to evoke awe. Meanwhile, others have learned techniques passed down through the generations that may be as ancient as language itself.
Some people are born daredevil junkies. They crave the heart-pounding adrenaline of seemingly impossible feats. Brad Byers wasn’t satisfied living a normal life within the confines of safety. He joined the circus straight out of high school.
He was accepted for his exceptional juggling skills, but he quickly upped the ante by learning the art of sword swallowing. He’s one of the few people alive who can swallow a curved sword. He outgrew the circus in just a couple years and became an international superstar.
Byers is a master of cringeworthy feats, but his iron tongue is a true oddity. He puts his tongue through all manner of torture chambers of his own creation. For example, he lets tarantulas and scorpions walk around on his tongue without a care.
In 2015, he even snapped 12 rattraps (because mousetraps would be too easy apparently) onto his tongue in a mere 60 seconds to break a world record. This caused an injury that left him scarred for life. That may seem like a wake-up call for a career change but not for Byers.
Two years later, Byers had the bright idea to stick his tongue inside an industrial fan with sharp metal blades circulating air at high speed. His iron tongue miraculously stopped the fan. One time wasn’t enough, so he did it seven more times in a row. If you are a skeptic, feel free to watch the video above.
There’s an adorable little trick that’s known by youngsters worldwide. It’s the technique of sticking out the tongue when one is trying to concentrate hard on a challenge. This behavioral instinct may actually work because a lot of brain power is channeled straight to the tongue. It’s a massive muscular organ that’s constantly on the move.
Sensitive receptors are always mentally mapping the mouth’s parameters and working to send this information to the brain, even when the owner’s not aware of it. The tongue is swallowing, staying clear of sharp teeth, and keeping a person from chocking.
When a person is thinking in words, he may even mouth the words unwittingly because the tongue is intimately connected with the language center of the brain. Biting the tongue down or lolling it to the side helps to stem this rush of data. Musicians can be seen doing this as well, especially when they’re attempting a solo. The boost of brain power increases one’s ability to concentrate.
Kuskoy is a rural mountain town in Turkey that’s largely isolated from the rest of the world, and it’s a linguist’s dream come true. This community stands out because the residents can communicate complex thoughts via a language of tonal whistles. This curious local tradition is called “bird language.”
Languages that are whistled usually appear in treacherous landscapes, like thick jungles or steep highlands. In these precarious locales, communicating across far distances is beneficial. In Kuskoy, the bird language can travel over great distances. Using the tongue, teeth, and fingers, the villagers create specific whistle tones that can be heard far away.
This whistled language sounds more like singing birds. It’s more music than language. This drives neuroscientists bonkers because the left hemisphere of the brain is mainly concerned with language while the right hemisphere oversees musical understanding, like pitch and melody.
However, time may be running out for linguists to study the whistling dialect. The younger generations don’t seem to be picking it up, and the tradition is slowly fading from existence. Only 10,000 people remain who can converse in this beautiful tongue.
Tying a cherry stem into a knot using only the tongue continues to be a popular party trick, but Al Gliniecki took it a step further. His first attempt required 20 minutes of perseverance. But a few months later, he was already setting world records. He knotted 679 cherry stems with his tongue is just one hour.
Since then, he’s beaten his own record on multiple occasions. Currently, he’s at 911 stems in one hour. He also holds a record for tying 14 stems in one minute!
Due to the sexual implications of tying a cherry stem with one’s tongue, Gliniecki is incessantly hounded by random women. He has a fiancee, but this doesn’t stop strangers from calling him up in the middle of the night to challenge his tongue-tying talents.
A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims to have figured out the world’s most challenging tongue twister, and it’s one you’ve probably never heard of. It goes: “Pad kid poured curd pulled cod.”
People either failed to repeat the phrase successfully 10 times, or they just stopped talking. Tongue twisters are notoriously fun to say because of their inherent difficulty.
Some people, like psycholinguist Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, dedicate their lives to studying this trick of the tongue. She says the “th” and “sh” sounds are particularly tough to say in a sequence or pattern. An example is the famous tongue twister: “Sally sells seashells down by the seashore.”
Shattuck-Hufnagel equates it to the act of rubbing your belly with one hand while you tap your head simultaneously. The alternating patterns are not intuitive, and they confuse the brain.
Fire-eaters have been performing in sideshow acts and on street corners for centuries. There are urban legends as to how one can consume fire and extinguish it in his mouth, like supposedly coating the tongue with fireproofing chemicals.
It all comes down to one simple scientific fact, however. Heat always travels upward. Supposedly, it’s as easy as snuffing out a candle with your fingertips. It just takes more practice.
In Slovakia, Pavol Durdik spends his free time setting bizarre world records. For instance, he can be seen on YouTube setting the world record for the longest time blowing milk bubbles. He also built the tallest tower of CDs stacked on a tennis ball.
It’s clear that Durdik has too much time on his hands, but he did perform a certain form of tongue torture that was fairly impressive. In 2017, he managed to extinguish 58 matches on his tongue in just one minute.
As if he hadn’t put his poor tongue through enough turmoil, he also decided to set the record for most clothespins clipped onto his tongue. He managed to clip on a total of 14 clothespins.
The creative exhalation of smoke rings isn’t what it seems. Smoke rings are a result of the laws of fluid dynamics. It’s really the art of displacing the air around the ring to form a circular vortex. You can disturb the air with an O-shaped mouth motion.
One technique to achieve this effect: Sharp coughs from the throat that develop in the diaphragm propel the smoke outward in a short burst of air. A long exhale simply won’t suffice. Otherwise, the smoke won’t hold its hoop position.
The tongue needs to be pulled back with the tip down, and this will actually shape the ring itself. You may not be pulling off Gandalf-style smoke sculptures anytime soon, but blowing a smoke ring is a straightforward trick that just takes practice.
A genetic study suggests that the clicking languages of southern and eastern Africa may have been one of the earliest forms of human language. This would have been about 40,000 years ago when humankind first branched out from the African continent, the cradle of civilization. Then, somewhere along the line, most humans lost their clicking skills and developed other languages in its place.
About 30 clicking languages remain in use. They’re spoken by rural communities of hunters, gatherers, and herders. By sucking the tongue down from the roof of the mouth, they form a variety of click noises. In each language, there are about five click sounds in total. This extraordinary language may provide clues to our species’ ancestral mother tongue.
Taste buds are clusters of cells that developed to help humans survive. The back of the tongue picks up on bitter flavors, for example, so early humans could speedily spit out poisonous or spoiled foods.
On the other hand, the salty and sweet tastes are so satisfying to our taste buds. This means that the food being consumed is nutrient-rich. There are ways, however, to trick the tongue into experiencing flavors that aren’t there.
Phantom flavors are those that linger on the tongue and cause other foods to taste different than normal—for instance, the foul taste of orange juice after brushing one’s teeth. Linda Bartoshuk is a taste scientist at the University of Florida, and she studies this phantom taste phenomenon. She found that key substances hit the tongue and trick the brain into tasting something that’s not there.
Bartoshuk performed an experiment that put various fluids on a subject’s tongue followed by a glass of water. When asked to describe the glass of water, they thought it was a sugary drink or a type of flavored beverage.
Bartoshuk says that you can knock out your ability to taste sweetness altogether by taking a pill with the Indian herb, Gymnema sylvestre. Known as the “sugar destroyer,” it will block sweet receptors from functioning for at least 30 minutes.
Another pill with miraculin has the opposite effect and destroys bitterness. It makes a lemon or lime taste like a sweet, sugary dessert.
Contrary to popular belief, the tongue is not one strong muscle. Eight different muscles interlace to form the tongue, similar to an elephant’s trunk. These interwoven muscles form a muscular hydrostat, and it is strong. The tongue’s stamina is absolutely jaw-dropping.
Gordo Gamsby is an extreme example of the tongue’s strength potential. He can pull an entire car that weighs 1,056 kilograms (2,328 lb) by attaching a hook to his tongue. It earned him a Guinness World Record title, one of nine world records for him. (He also broke the record for having the most concrete blocks smashed on his belly as he lies supine on a bed of sharp nails.)
Before Gamsby approaches the stage to perform these seemingly impossible feats, he slips into a meditative state to calm his body. After this, the pain doesn’t seem to faze him. He says, “I absolutely love what I do and wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.”