Human language

Why does sticking out my tongue seem to help me concentrate?

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Why does sticking out my tongue seem to help me concentrate?

Gillian Forrest Birkbeck, University of London, UK

It’s not so much that sticking out your tongue helps you focus, rather it’s something that most people do naturally when engaging in fine motor actionslike threading a needle.

We believe that this behavior has a long evolutionary history. When humans became bipedal about 4 million years ago, our hands took over competing activities like tool manipulation and communication gestures. We also believe that the modern human language system evolved from a visual-based gestural communication system incorporating hands, face and posture.

These concurrent hand actions created problems if we wanted to communicate and act simultaneously, such as when teaching someone how to make or use a tool. This may have created pressure for our communication system to switch from gestures to another signaling channel: voice.

“The actions of the hand and the mouth are closely related, and the mouth mirrors the actions of the hand during fine motor activities”

Neuroscientific evidence supports this, showing that our hand behavior for tool use engages the same brain regions used in speech. Behavioral evidence also shows that these two motor systems are closely related and that the the mouth reflects the action of the hand during fine motor movements.

Experiments show that when people are asked to pick up large objects and then smaller ones, their mouths open and close in proportion to the size of grip they use with their fingers.

Most children stick out their tongues when doing fine motor gestures. Adults probably still do these tongue actions, but social pressures teach us to keep our mouths shut so our tongues aren’t visibly hanging out.

Contee Seely Berkeley, California, United States

Sticking out your tongue and wagging it seems to stimulate a part of the brain that can make a difference in a person’s mental state. Doing this almost infallibly eliminates headaches from the back of my head.

Drew Barlow Kerikeri, New Zealand

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with many professional snooker players, who shake the middle finger of their “bridge” hand while concentrating on lining up a shot. It really stands out once you notice it.

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