In our very brief time on this planet, science has managed to make some truly fascinating discoveries and achieve many things that were long deemed impossible. Modern humans have only been around for roughly 200,000 years in comparison with Earth’s 4.5 billion year lifespan, but already we have accomplished so much. In the last two centuries alone, great scientific minds have been responsible for creating electricity, discovering DNA and putting man on the moon.
Because of these and so many other achievements, we tend to think that science has the answer to everything, when in actual fact, scientists are still largely in the dark about so many commonly occurring phenomena. Despite the scientific milestones made concerning space travel and life-altering technology, a far more complex subject continues to baffle and bewilder the world’s greatest minds – humans.
We may not feel like it in some days, but we are a fascinating bunch. So fascinating in fact, that many of our everyday behavioural traits and bodily functions are still a mystery to science. Perhaps we may never fully get to grips with why we do what we do. To understand ourselves, after all, is close to understanding the very meaning of our existence – no wonder the scientific community has struggled to explain what it means to be human!
From why we dream and express ourselves artistically to why we laugh and pick our nose (maybe this is a form of artistic expression for some people), here are 15 things we do every day – more or less – that still has science completely befuddled.
Finding out the certified scientific explanation for dreaming is a bit like knowing the secret behind a really impressive magic trick. Dreams are surreal and puzzling, so maybe there’s something nice about not knowing why the heck you imagined yourself showing up to class naked or why you once spoke to a three-headed cat with the voice of Morgan Freeman.
Sigmund Freud famously theorised dreams as unconscious glimpses into our inner-most desires. This makes sense for dreams about reuniting with a beloved childhood pet or achieving an epic personal goal while your hero was watching, but not for the ones where our family members suffer a fate worse than a Game of Thrones character. Until dreams are truly figured out, we think we’ll try to ignore this theory if it’s all the same, Freud!
Charles Darwin was flabbergasted by the concept of blushing, calling it the “most peculiar” of all human expressions as he struggled to understand why we would alert others so obviously to our distress by turning red.
More than a century later, modern science is still pondering what the solid basis could be for blushing. Some believe we blush to show our anger, after being publicly humiliated or hurt. Other theorists have taken a different tack by suggesting that we developed blushing as a way of appearing submissive to dominant members of society. Thing is, blushing is an involuntary action, so not blushing seemed to equal ‘cocky traitor’ in the eyes of primitive leaders? Harsh.
13. Having Memories
Why is it that we manage to remember the great and small memories that occur throughout our life with the same level of clarity, from our wedding day to a dull math equation we’re never going to need? The act of forming and holding on to memories has puzzled scientists since time began and continues to do so.
Intriguingly, a memory recall study conducted at Montreal University has suggested that our memories can be altered each time we remember them. When neuroscientist Karim Nader recalled his memory of the morning of 9/11, he was sure he’d witnessed the first plane hit on TV. He later realized that television footage of the attacks were only broadcast the following day. A 2003 study confirmed he wasn’t alone in his misconception – out of 569 college students, 73% also remembered the morning of 9/11 this way.
The idea of memories changing each time we remember them sounds almost like a mental game of ‘Chinese whispers’ – the original memory may be completely transformed to the point that it bears no resemblance to the first real memory. And if this is true, this just puts the study of memories into even further question. Good luck, science!
When it comes to human intimacy, kissing is a pretty bizarre part of the ritual. Sexual intercourse has an obvious purpose. Even hugging make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as we would have needed to huddle together for warmth and survival. But the act of exchanging saliva to show our affection for one another? Humans are odd.
Some theories have connected kissing to our memories of being breastfed and a time when our primitive ancestors may have fed their children via the mouth. This supposedly initiated the link between pleasure and sharing saliva. On the other hand, we know that the act of kissing can release endorphins and get you in the mood. This leaves us and scientists wondering – do we kiss to reproduce or because we’re (subconsciously) expecting to be fed?
11. Using Intuition
Some people use their gut feeling to guide them through tough decisions in life. Some look to God for the answer, and some procrastinate about things way too much. Whenever you ‘feel’ what is and what isn’t right for you, you use your intuition and however we all use this weird little system of judgement within ourselves – it’s sure got scientists puzzled.
Some philosophical research into intuition suggests that it can work, but only in specific and very familiar circumstances. Going with your gut feeling while on jury duty, for example, probably isn’t a good move. However, ‘practiced intuition’, like the kind played by a master chess player may get some results. Regardless of whether or not intuition works for certain people, the biological cause and origin of a ‘gut feeling’ remains a mystery.
Yawning is a particularly weird one, mainly since it seems to lack any real purpose (except, maybe to send a not-so-subtle hint to someone that you’re bored of their conversation). A popular theory claims that our yawns are a way to cool our brain temperature.
This was put to the test by a psychology professor in Albany, who conducted an experiment using cool and warm compresses. Some students were asked to watch a footage of people yawning – one half of which held a cool compress to their heads while the other group held a warm compress. The cool compress half didn’t yawn at all. Interesting, but not entirely conclusive. Even if this explains the yawn, the question still remains: why is yawning so contagious?
Some theorists put this down to our evolutionary herd instincts, whereby one person’s yawn signalled to everyone else in the group that it was time to sleep. Still doesn’t account for why we yawn alone, whether our heads are warm or not.
9. Mood Swings
Whether you’re currently going through puberty, are on your period or are simply just having ‘one of those days’, half the world is experiencing a mood swing right now. But are hormones the only culprit? The raging sexual hormones in our body during puberty explain the ups and downs teenagers face and the dramatic change in body chemistry to prepare for having a baby cause mood fluctuations in a pregnant woman. But how do you explain the mood swings that can happen in everyday life?
Links have been made to an over-consumption of sugar and caffeine, but some extreme changes in mood can be attributed to external event or activity that can flip our mood. Science may never be able to pinpoint a universal mood swing trigger, bit when they do – parents of teenagers should be their first port of call!
Laughing feels good and can even make us live longer, but why do we let out a strange, involuntary noise in response to something funny? When you stop to think about it, laughter is a pretty bizarre form of human expression.
The specific brain mechanisms responsible for laughter are still largely unknown to science, but there are some plausible theories as to how laughing may have originated. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, suggests that the act of tickling may have initiated laughter as we know it. While playing around with our young, the happy panting and grunting noises we made in response to being tickled may have evolved and refined into the ‘ha ha’ sound we all produce today. Why do I get the feeling we’ll all be saying ‘LOL’ when we’re tickled in a thousand years time?
7. Nose Picking
When scientists have had a slow day in between deducing our dreams and why we make art, then naturally, they start investigating things like this. The disgusting but common habit of picking our nose offers no real benefit to us other than making our nasal passages a little clearer. But why have we evolved to do so? Boredom is a good guess.
Incessant nose-picking can eventually do us more harm than good anyway (relax, not in the way it harmed Ralph Wiggum). What it can do though is cause the spread of bacterial infections and in rare cases, damage your sinuses. A 53 year-old woman once managed to carve a hole in her nasal septum as a result of relentlessly digging for gold. Gross. If clearing out a few boogers now and then is worth almost destroying our nose structure, then I don’t wanna know why we do it, and neither does science!
6. Feeling Pain
From minor pain like stubbing your toe or getting a paper cut to moderate and chronic pain, every human being will encounter some degree of physical pain or discomfort throughout their day. But, why do we feel pain and why do humans have different pain thresholds to one another? Science isn’t too clued up on this one.
A psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Colorado even admits that as of now “There is no clinically acceptable way to measure pain other than to ask a person how they feel.” Brain scans have come closer to being able to detect when someone is experiencing pain, but until these become routine check ups, the study of pain has a pretty limited demographic to work with.
5. Altruistic Behaviour
In evolutionary terms, being nice for the sake of being nice hasn’t worked out so well for our survival. So why has altruism itself survived? This is something scientists have been trying to figure out for centuries.
In an admirable yet ultimately tragic quest to understand the human nature of altruism, the American scientist George Price gave up his home, his clothes and all his possessions. He then asked a group of homeless men to share his flat while he slept in his office. Eventually, he became increasingly ill – both physically and mentally – but still continued to help those in greater need. He later left his office to live in squalor in a cold and dirty hovel and one night, committed suicide. Altruism can work…but you might wanna find a balance between Ned Flanders and this guy.
4. Artistic Expression
Seeing as we share the planet with 7.4 billion people, it’s only natural for us to want to express ourselves creatively in a way that is unique to us. We all have an artistic side, but why? Perhaps, like dreams, art cannot (and should not) be scientifically dissected in a way that will produce a clear cut answer.
Whether we view art or create it ourselves, we perhaps do so to understand more about the world around us and help contribute to it. The Swiss artist Paul Klee once remarked that “art does not reproduce the visible; it makes things visible.” Art allows us to share our experience and personal grasp of the world with others – whether this is in the form of sculpture, dance or cinema. (Instagram posts don’t count).
3. Listening to Music
In a basic sense, we listen to music because it brings pleasure to our lives and creates a strong, emotional response. It can make us re-live happy (and often, painful) memories. Music makes us really sit and down and connect with ourselves and the world. But how can you explain this feeling scientifically?
Music activates the same area of the brain that sex and other pleasure-filled activities does. Because of this, some researchers have suggested that our love for music may have given us an evolutionary advantage somewhere down the line, like our instinct to survive, mate or hunt for food. Next time you clean the house to the Rocky soundtrack, don’t be ashamed to feel empowered – you were designed to! (apparently).
It may sound an unpopular and deeply unromantic notion, but nobody can actually prove love – not even the top scientific minds of the world. People in the first throes of love are known to experience classic symptoms like loss of appetite, sleeplessness, euphoria and a racing heart. But this could also explain the behaviour of a drug addict. So, is love a mysterious drug with no cure? Who knows.
If someone were to use a lie detector on their partner and ask them to explain why they loved them, they may refer to their best qualities or times when they made incredible gestures or acts just to make the other person happy – but no answer could conclusively and scientifically prove their love. Many would argue that their love is undefinable and “just a feeling.” Maybe it’s kinda romantic that love can’t be explained. Crooning about equations and chemical activity wouldn’t have made Barry White very popular.
1. Our Brain Function
The brain is easily the biggest human riddle of all time for scientists. The study of the very organ that makes us who we are – our hub of memories, the system responsible for our actions every minute of the day – is in its infancy.
Brain imaging and neurosurgery has helped invite many clues as to how the brain functions in the way it does, but not every process can be given a solid and scientifically sound explanation. We know that the brain sends signals to different parts of the body via neurotransmitters to make us move and think and talk. But we don’t know why this process all works so fast. How is it all so well co-ordinated? Why do we have smaller brains than some of the world’s animals and yet we are the ones able to speak and reason and imagine? I need to lie down for a sec…