What is it that makes us suddenly draw in a deep breath through a wide-open mouth? The beautiful thing about yawning is that researchers really don't know. Whether the answer is physical, mental or even contagious there is pretty much no chance you won't yawn during this episode.
Recording: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.
Josh Clark: Hey welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark with Charles (Chuck) Bryant, you getting comfy?
Chuck Bryant: Yeah.
Josh Clark: Okay. Well you put the two of us together and this is Stuff You Should Know the podcast.
Chuck Bryant: Frank was squeaking.
Josh Clark: I thought I was in Frank.
Chuck Bryant: Is that Frank?
Josh Clark: Yeah.
Chuck Bryant: Sorry. I meant Francine.
Josh Clark: Okay.
Chuck Bryant: Sorry Francine. She's squeaking.
Josh Clark: You aren't Frank. Oh my.
Chuck Bryant: That's real mature. People who have never heard this are like, "What are they talking about?"
Josh Clark: They've already turned off.
Chuck Bryant: We name our chairs people. Doesn't everyone? You name cars, boats and chairs.
Josh Clark: Yeah. A surprising amount of people name chairs. If you don't you should be paranoid because people will be talking about you. Chuck?
Chuck Bryant: Yes.
Josh Clark: Have you ever auscitated?
Chuck Bryant: I have. I've even pendiculated.
Josh Clark: You pendiculated before?
Chuck Bryant: I pendiculate every morning.
Josh Clark: You know what? We sound like people running for the Senate in 1950s Florida. Florida has a rich history of people running for political office using technical terms for things that sound way worse than they are to smear their opponents.
Chuck Bryant: Really?
Josh Clark: Yeah. There's this one guy who went and I can thank Uncle John in this [inaudible] who went after his opponent and said that his sister was a thespian in New York. And all of these people were like boo, boo, we hate thespians. And apparently the smear campaign was successful. That wasn't the only one but this guy used that, a couple of technical terms. We should probably tell people what we're talking about because you said you pendiculate every morning.
Chuck Bryant: Easily every morning.
Josh Clark: And that is a what?
Chuck Bryant: That is a yawn and a stretch combined together. And that is one of my favorite things to do in the morning.
Josh Clark: It is. Did you see that painting of the - it was an artist's self portrait. It seemed like it was from the 16th or 17th Century of him pendiculating. It's this awesome oil painting of this Renaissance man stretching and yawning.
Chuck Bryant: I love it because it feels good and it ties me to my pets because I see them do it, they see me do it and I'm like hey, we all eat, we all pee and poop and we all pendiculate. My little cat will stretch and yawn, my dogs will stretch and yawn and I will stretch and yawn.
Josh Clark: So do you guys make one another stretch and yawn?
Chuck Bryant: I'm going to start looking out for that because I have not noticed that but apparently yawning can be contagious to animals right?
Josh Clark: Yeah. There's a fun a little game you can play.
Chuck Bryant: With dogs only right?
Josh Clark: Dogs supposedly, chimps for sure.
Chuck Bryant: But probably not cats?
Josh Clark: I don't know. Just because it's not inherited doesn't mean it's not true. There's a fun little game you can play the next time you're hanging out if you feel like manipulating them on a biological level, just yawn and pay attention to how many people yawn as a result and it should start some sort of chain reaction among maybe 40 to 50 percent of the people because that's the statistic of how many people human adults yawn in reaction to seeing somebody yawn, seeing videos of somebody yawn, hearing about somebody yawning, reading about yawning. How many times did you yawn while you read this article?
Chuck Bryant: A bunch. And people will probably yawn while listening to this supposedly.
Josh Clark: It's pretty much impossible not to.
Chuck Bryant: This really shows how deeply disturbed I am. I will suppress or cover up a yawn if someone else has made me yawn sometimes just so I don't give them the satisfaction.
Josh Clark: I've done that before.
Chuck Bryant: Sometimes it's like I'm not [inaudible] just on a strange elevator they'll yawn and I'll be like no, not me buddy.
Josh Clark: One of those people who don't realize that - they're just your mortal enemy for no real good reason.
Chuck Bryant: When in fact they really don't even know you exist. They're like some guy's on the elevator? So yawning is involuntary and I've seen a range of weeks that a fetus has been observed yawning from 11 to 20. And that sort of disproves one of the - many things disproves one of the theories which is that we yawn to oxygenate ourselves.
Josh Clark: Yeah. A lot of people think that fetuses breathe amniotic fluid in the womb and that is not true. The oxygen is through the umbilical cord.
Chuck Bryant: Yes. So they're not clearing yawning to oxygenate themselves but we'll debunk that with other things in a minute.
Josh Clark: Sure. But that still is a bit of a mystery though. The other ideas for why we yawn don't really hold up in the fetus either. Feels like that's where the keys of the mystery of yawning is going to be found.
Chuck Bryant: In the fetus?
Josh Clark: In the womb.
Chuck Bryant: All right. Should we go over some theories then?
Josh Clark: Hold on. First you were saying it's involuntary. I found this one thing Chuck that there is a type of paralysis, a lesion in the brain where you can still if you yawn, you still pendiculate. So your paralyzed arm, if you yawn deep enough it will rise.
Chuck Bryant: Really?
Josh Clark: Yeah.
Chuck Bryant: Wow.
Josh Clark: Pretty weird huh?
Chuck Bryant: Yeah.
Josh Clark: There's only been a few cases of it over the last 150 years but it's been documented a number of different places. Also it's such a surprise.
Chuck Bryant: Yes seriously. They're like can I be tired more often? So when you yawn, physiologically speaking you're going to open your mouth, you're going to suck in air into your lungs. I read one place that your eyes usually close. They did this big study and found that most times your eyes close but I don't think it's all the time.
Josh Clark: That's sneezing you're thinking of.
Chuck Bryant: No. They did a study of the eyes of the yawner.
Josh Clark: That's part of the yawn too as far as cues go. It's not just the mouth opening. Your eyes squint.
Chuck Bryant: And I found the really good deep yawn my eyes will generally close. So you're going to flex your abs. It's a good workout. You're going to push your diaphragm down. You're going to fill your lungs with air and then exhale and that is a yawn and with a stretch you're pendiculating.
Josh Clark: Also parts of your brain become active. Basically what happens when you go through all this process, a bunch of neurotransmitters and dopamine are activated. That is why a guy named Robert Provine thinks - he says that yawns are basically a part of a change from one state of arousal to another.
Chuck Bryant: Like I was asleep, now I'm awake or I was alert, now I'm bored.
Josh Clark: Right. Or I was ho-hum and now I'm in the mood because there you can yawn when you're sexually aroused.
Chuck Bryant: That mood?
Josh Clark: Yes.
Chuck Bryant: The mood.
Josh Clark: The mood.
Chuck Bryant: Sorry.
Josh Clark: The Glen Miller mood. That's what they had to call it back then and that's what we have to call it today on this family friendly podcast.
Chuck Bryant: That's right. What's going on too is physiologically speaking is we are distributing something called a surfactant, which sounds gross and it kind of is. It's a wetting agent to coat alveoli in the lungs. But they're saying that's what happens or that's why it happens?
Josh Clark: That's why it happens.
Chuck Bryant: Okay. They're not saying the reason is to coat the alveoli with surfactant right?
Josh Clark: It could be. For all we know -
Chuck Bryant: [Inaudible].
Josh Clark: No. We still have no idea of what function yawning provides, same way the yawning as a symbol or arousal or is a sign of arousal. They think it's really just a byproduct of it but it explains why people who are nervous or dogs -- I'm sure you've seen dogs who are nervous -- and they yawn in a really kind of weird unsettling way.
Chuck Bryant: When they're super worked up.
Josh Clark: And humans too. People will yawn when they're nervous. It's a sign that you're in a state of arousal. And what that state is arousal is depends on the situation.
Chuck Bryant: They point to Olympians who yawn before a race and which poo poos one theory that - we're going to get to the theories. Can we just get to the theories?
Josh Clark: Let's get to the theories.
Chuck Bryant: It poos poos that theory that you have to be bored or you have to be sleepy or tired.
Josh Clark: There's the boredom theory and it's kind of been fully shot down just by casual observation. There's also the physiological theory which is that - this is the one that I'd always hear when I was younger, why you yawn is because you're oxygen deprived or you have an abundance of carbon dioxide so you're drawing in a bunch of oxygen and putting out a bunch of carbon dioxide. That's why you yawn.
Chuck Bryant: And Provine that you mentioned, he tested this one right?
Josh Clark: Yeah, pretty simple. He just said well let's give some athletes a bunch of oxygen and see if they yawn any less and they didn't. He also increased the carbon dioxide in the air and people still kept yawning.
Chuck Bryant: Okay. So that one's gone?
Josh Clark: But they didn't yawn any more. Yeah.
Chuck Bryant: So we can put that to bed.
Josh Clark: Yeah. Plus also there was a terrible proof associated with that hypothesis. That explains why people yawn in groups because when you have a big group there's more carbon dioxide and less oxygen.
Chuck Bryant: That's like you're all fighting over the oxygen.
Josh Clark: Right.
Chuck Bryant: So you're yawning.
Josh Clark: Yeah whoever can yawn the deepest lives.
Chuck Bryant: That doesn't sound right. Evolution could play a part. Some people think that maybe we used to yawn, [inaudible] a yawn to bear his teeth to intimidate folks around him or that it developed as a signal to give a signal to his mates that we've got to - we're hunting now and we need to go now, gather wood. So I will yawn to tell you that.
Josh Clark: Like pre-speech right?
Chuck Bryant: Yeah.
Josh Clark: A bird turning the whole flock.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah. That makes a little bit of sense but I still don't believe that one. I'm with the brain cooling theory.
Josh Clark: That's the most recent one. That seems to be the one that people are subscribing to.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Scientists generally are leaning toward the fact that when our brains are warmer yawning might cool it down and a cool brain is a more whatever - a better brain I guess.
Josh Clark: I should say -
Chuck Bryant: That's better for thinking.
Josh Clark: I just yawned.
Chuck Bryant: Did you?
Josh Clark: I did.
Chuck Bryant: Okay. I didn't see it.
Josh Clark: Well I covered my mouth. You may have thought I was burping.
Chuck Bryant: I think I did.
Josh Clark: So the brain cooling theory, that's the one that most people think is - lately that's the explanation to do it. There's another piece of research that people are going to, is the idea that contagious yawning is the result of empathy. You empathize - the more you empathize with other people, the more susceptible you are to contagious yawning. And we aid earlier that I think 41 to 55 percent of human adults are susceptible to contagious yawning.
Chuck Bryant: Which the myth busters confirmed by the way.
Josh Clark: Okay. So there is some sort of link between what we perceive as empathy and the susceptibility to yawning when you see somebody else yawn or reading about yawning or whatever.
Chuck Bryant: Or if it's like that guy's tired. Let me make him feel better.
Josh Clark: Well Provine again, he's really into yawning research. He has done MRI scans where he shows pictures of people yawning and talks about yawning and they yawn. And when they do he says that mirror neurons go off.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah, our old friends.
Josh Clark: So our mirror neurons are activated when you see somebody else yawn and apparently that triggers the yawn. But people take it a step further in this quest to prove that empathy and contagious yawning or we're hand in hand and saying people with autism, they shouldn't be able to be susceptible to contagious yawning.
Chuck Bryant: Right because they're known to have less empathy.
Josh Clark: Right. They have trouble connecting with others or they have trouble developing what's called the theory of mind about other people. And there have been a lot of studies about whether or not people who are - people who have autism are susceptible to contagious yawning.
Chuck Bryant: It's been proven - at least the data says that the more - the stronger your autism the less you will yawn even though they will yawn will someone's pretending to yawn. Was that what it was?
Chuck Bryant: I think it said when they were watching a video of people moving their mouths the non-autistic kids yawned more than kids with autism when it was really yawning. Does that make sense?
Josh Clark: Yes. Well hold on. Before we get to that - because this as a whole thing to me, the idea that if you have autism you're not susceptible to contagious yawning. I have a message break from our sponsor.
Chuck Bryant: You know Josh, when your entire team can get together it's really pretty awesome what we can get accomplished here when you, me and Jerry are all I the same room
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Josh Clark: That's right. With GoToMeeting we share the same screen so we all stay on the same page if you know what we mean and the built in HD video conferencing makes our online meetings like just being in the same room, like I see you in HD.
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Chuck Bryant: Remember S-T-U-F-F at gotomeeting.com.
Josh Clark: Nice.
Chuck Bryant: Okay Josh. I believe we were talking about autism and yawning which is I just learned a thing for you.
Josh Clark: Yeah. You said that there was - they have found that if you have been diagnosed with autism, you're less likely to be susceptible to contagious yawning. And they found that the higher on the autism spectrum you fall -
Chuck Bryant: The less likely you would even be right?
Josh Clark: Yeah which would suggest that there is that link because there's a link between empathy and autism and empathy and contagious yawning so this autism and studying kids with autism is kind of like the fulcrum. So yeah, it just seems to me to be kind of - I don't know. I don't buy all the studies that have been carried out. Another study's kind of contradicted. They - other studies have shown that kids with autism focus on people's mouths rather than their eyes.
Maybe they're missing the cue. Remember we said that your eyes crunch? So a yawn is not just people opening their mouths. It has all these other facial characteristics that might trigger a yawn in another person so maybe kids with autism are simply missing that.
Chuck Bryant: You're saying the data can be skewed by other factors?
Josh Clark: It could be. Plus I just remembered when I wrote this article years back I was kind of like this seems -
Chuck Bryant: Something stunk?
Josh Clark: Yeah. It just seems slightly off.
Chuck Bryant: You've got a good gut though.
Josh Clark: Thanks man. I've been working on it so bad.
Chuck Bryant: What we should also mention too, this goes back a long way. I believe was it Hippocrates was the first person to start postulating ideas and he was - he thought it was fever related sickness that could help cure you. So I got a fever and the only prescription is more yawning.
Josh Clark: That's why he was the father of medicine because he was the first guy to just start saying stuff.
Chuck Bryant: But that was pretty quickly disproven.
Josh Clark: Right. But the idea that yawning has something to do with increasing our alertness and awareness which is kind of one of the current views on yawning that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Chuck Bryant: It increases your heart rate during inhalation only, not during the - I think it increases and then levels off and then just drops back down to normal pretty quickly.
Josh Clark: I got you but only 30 beats per minute increase right?
Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I read a real heady article on this study that really just made my eyes cross but that was the long and short of it but that's one that dealt with the eyes like they really measured all kinds of stuff.
Josh Clark: And we said that fetuses from 11 to 20 weeks of development in utero. Did you see any of the 4D ultrasounds of fetuses yawning?
Chuck Bryant: No. Was it adorable?
Josh Clark: It's pretty cute. But it's also weird at the same time because they're not fully developed so it's like aww, eww.
Chuck Bryant: It's like a little baby platypus.
Josh Clark: Kind of. But you have to be around age 4 before you can - you're susceptible to contagious yawning. Is there any way to put it because susceptible to contagious yawning?
Chuck Bryant: I don't think so. I feel like you've said that 80 times.
Josh Clark: A lot and I've had trouble with it every time too.
Chuck Bryant: There's another couple of researchers who a couple of years ago, Andrew Gallop and Omar Tonsi Elbacar, they found that outside temperature could affect the amount of yawning. So if it's warmer than usual then you're going to yawn less frequently because their explanation is the outside air is useless to the organism because it doesn't need to suck in more oxygen. I don't get how temperature would affect that though.
Josh Clark: Well if it's warmer temperature and you're using the cooler air to cool your brain, if it's warmer then the temperature of your brain is going to be more -
Chuck Bryant: That makes sense, all right. Well they had other tests that showed the amount of yawning increased both when outside temperature and the inside of the temperature of the brain increased. So it's all over the place.
Josh Clark: No one knows anything about yawning except Robert Provine.
Chuck Bryant: The foremost leading authority.
Josh Clark: He's proven that seeing or hearing about somebody yawning triggers your mirror neurons.
Chuck Bryant: I think somebody should do a documentary on these people that become obsessed with -
Josh Clark: Yawns?
Chuck Bryant: No, just like a certain small thing. See you're yawning right now.
Josh Clark: And that was unsatisfying because you made me laugh in the middle of it.
Chuck Bryant: Like fast cheap and out of control. I talked about it before Errol Morris's documentary Distorted did that but that was about studying naked mole rats or lion taming or to comb when you clip the edges [inaudible] topiary gardening. But they should do things that are even mundane like this dude that has dedicated his life to yawning. I just think that would be interesting, what drives Provine to figure this out when it really doesn't matter. You know what I'm saying?
Josh Clark: Well I don't know because in a sense it's yawning. He frequently is cited as a yawning expert. He's an evolutionary biologist so - but yawning, since it's involuntary and since you find it in all vertebrates, it gives some kind of peek into our evolutionary past. Plus he probably just loves a good mystery.
Chuck Bryant: Sure.
Josh Clark: He had a great quote too. We were talking about arousal - yawning is a byproduct of a state of arousal. He was saying that yawns and orgasms share a neuro behavior heritage.
Chuck Bryant: Really?
Josh Clark: Yeah. They're possibly rooted in the same behavior. Remember you said it yourself. When you pendiculate it feels good, same with the orgasm.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I've heard those feel great.
Josh Clark: Right. So possibly if you trace the lineage of the behavior back far enough you'd see they both came from when humans used to stub their toe. They thought it was awesome and then a few things diverged into these two things.
Chuck Bryant: Interesting.
Josh Clark: Into yawning and what happens when you're in the mood.
Chuck Bryant: The Glen Miller mood.
Josh Clark: Right.
Chuck Bryant: You've got anything else?
Josh Clark: No man. That is yawning forever until somebody figures it out.
Chuck Bryant: It's a mystery.
Josh Clark: Yeah and I kind of like it like that but at the same time I think it's so amorphous that no one has a clue. Sometimes we've talked about stuff that science couldn't fully explain but we almost always pick a theory, this is the one. It just hasn't been proven yet. This one I don't feel like we did that. we both like the brain cooling one but it was kind of discarded.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah and I'm going to keep an eye on my pets. But then I don't know if - can you induce that by noticing more or maybe what I'll do is watch Emily around the pets so [inaudible] no one's in on it.
Josh Clark: Just be careful you don't accidentally change their behavior despite observing it [inaudible].
Chuck Bryant: Buckley farts every time he stretches too.
Josh Clark: See? That's what I'm saying.
Chuck Bryant: We'll see if Emily farts while she pendiculates. That will be the test.
Josh Clark: Nice, okay. I think if you guys want to know more about yawning, you can type that word into the search bar at howsstuffworks.com and since I said search bar that means it's time for listeners mail.
Chuck Bryant: Not quite yet my friend. We have a word from our sponsor and then we have a great listener mail about Rodriguez.
Josh Clark: Okay so this is time for message break. Chuck, we've all experienced it. You know I have. You know I like to send you all those silly videos. They're huge files and I go to attach and it's too big, sorry.
Chuck Bryant: Plus it could be confidential. Maybe there's not a way to do that securely. Maybe you're out of the office. You don't have access to [inaudible] spreadsheets, your PowerPoint. You know you're always making those cat video PowerPoints for me.
Josh Clark: Right and spreadsheets of all the cat videos I make. We have a solution to this problem that we've been running into. It's called ShareFile brought to us by Citrix.
Chuck Bryant: It's a powerful tool that millions of professionals rely on every single day.
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Chuck Bryant: Yeah that's pretty cool. It definitely enhances the workflow and it's easy and secure which is awesome. So guys we have a deal for you. You have to try ShareFile today.
Josh Clark: Today.
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Chuck Bryant: That's right. So go to Sharefile.com, click on the little radio microphone and enter our promo code as always STUFF. Remember visit Sharefile.com and type in the promo code stuff.
Josh Clark: Okay and now it's time for listener mail.
Chuck Bryant: Yes and I already gave it away because I wanted people to stick around for this and it is called I hung out with Rodriguez. So we mentioned Rodriguez, the singer/songwriter from the 60s who unbeknownst to him was a huge hit in South America and -
Josh Clark: No, South Africa.
Chuck Bryant: But I said South American? I'm such a idiot.
Josh Clark: No you're not.
Chuck Bryant: South Africa and then -
Josh Clark: They're both down there, one's on the left, one's on the right.
Chuck Bryant: And later in Australia. So we covered that in our [inaudible] podcast and you can see the documentary searching for Sugarman. It's super interesting.
Josh Clark: That's best documentary this year right?
Chuck Bryant: Heck yeah.
Josh Clark: Have you seen How to Survive A Plague? That was for best picture too.
Chuck Bryant: No. Best documentary?
Josh Clark: Yes.
Chuck Bryant: Was it good?
Josh Clark: Yes, it was really good. It was - it's about the early gay AIDS awareness movement and it's just what they were up against is mind boggling. Society was kind of like God's punishing you. Good luck with it pal.
Chuck Bryant: Geez.
Josh Clark: It's really something.
Chuck Bryant: I saw - go ahead.
Josh Clark: Our friend Stuart of Superhuman Happiness, they're fans of the show, he scored the soundtrack. He did a really good job with it too.
Chuck Bryant: I saw another trailer the other day for a documentary about this family of Jews who hid in underground for a year and a half during WWII and they never told their story because they didn't think anyone would believe it and this cave diver - caving guy found these human objects and traced them back to this family and it came out. The surviving ones told their story of it. It's amazing.
Josh Clark: Wow.
Chuck Bryant: I think it's called No Place on Earth.
Josh Clark: Cool.
Chuck Bryant: And it's coming out soon. It's awesome.
Josh Clark: All right. Well there you go everybody.
Chuck Bryant: I'd like to recommend documentaries around here. Okay Rodriguez, guys it's so funny for you to talk about Rodriguez because I've known him a little bit here and there. I'm glad he's getting recognition and here's the story about the first day I met him. September 2007 I moved into a 101 year old apartment building in the Cas Corridor neighborhood of Detroit. There was a bar across the street called The Bronze.
And after getting moved in my boyfriend and I went over there, had a night of celebrating and talking with some old and new friends. Dale pointed out this dude wearing all black with sunglasses on. He said, "Rodriguez -- that guy over there -- is bigger than Elvis in South Africa and Australia." I didn't understand the gravity of the statement at the time.
Being friendly people, we talked late into the night with Dale and Rodriguez. The bar closed. We decided to walk back across the street back to our apartment and Rodriguez followed us out with his guitar in tow. It was very quiet out, about 3 a.m. The apartment building was U-shaped with a big courtyard in the middle and low lighting.
It was really beautiful. There was a single picnic table and we sat there on it talking more and more. Rodriguez pulled out a pint of brandy, offered us some and then asked if we waned to hear his new song saying he'd just written it the other day. We said sure because he seemed so incredibly excited about it. He played the song for us and played it again which I thought was interesting. He played it twice. He said, "Did you like that? You want to hear it again?"
Josh Clark: Wait. Before you answer let me play it a second time.
Chuck Bryant: And then we talked some more about music and love and then he played it once again.
Josh Clark: No way.
Chuck Bryant: I guess he played it three times. I saw him many times over the next few years and met his middle daughter as well.
Josh Clark: And played the same song every time.
Chuck Bryant: But I'll never forget sitting under the stars all alone with him in a majestic old Detroit courtyard giving me and my boyfriend a private concert singing a song played thrice and passing the cheap brandy. He really is as kind and happy of a soul as the mood he says. When you watch [inaudible] in Sugarman you can see a couple of people talking at the Bronze Bar and you see my old apartment in the background. I hope I see you guys soon. Love, Julia.
Josh Clark: Well thanks Julia. Hats to you for being aware of the word thrice and for I guess waiting out the storm in Detroit.
Chuck Bryant: Yeah and for listening to that song three times, very patient and understanding.
Josh Clark: With that smile plastered on your face the last time.
Chuck Bryant: Very cool memory I imagine.
Josh Clark: Let's see. If you have a story about any sort of famous singer, songwriter, filmmaker, anybody - remember the guy who hung out with Henry Hill and became disenchanted as a result?
Chuck Bryant: Yeah.
Josh Clark: If you have a good story like that we're always in the mood for a good yarn especially if it's true. You can Tweet to us if it's a really short story to syskpodcast. That's our handle, the whole thing. You can join is on facebook.com/stuffyoushouldknow. That's our Facebook page. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and friends, Romans, countrymen, go to our website. What is your problem? It's called stuffyoushouldknow.com.
Recording: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 29 minutes
Topics in this Podcast: physiology