MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: Why do I stick my tongue out when I concentrate?

Date: Sun Dec 19 15:22:20 1999
Posted By: Seth Boatright-Horowitz, Post-doc/Fellow, Neuroscience, Brown University
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 944258890.Ns

The tongue has one of the largest representations both in motor cortex and 
sensory cortex of any appendage.  It's role in basic taste/odor as well as 
communication and sensation makes it a major attentional "draw" for the 
brain (try and ignore a bad taste or not play with a loose tooth with 
it).  When you are carrying out a difficult task, (particularly one which 
is both motor and sensory based such as playing a musical instrument), 
sticking out your tongue while it is compressed between your lips is 
providing a static "white noise" signal across a big chunk of your brain.  
With your tongue stuck in place outside the mouth, you rapidly habituate 
to that signal and are not likely to be distracted by sensory input from 
your mouth, or tempted to do things like talk to yourself.

Alternatively, some people when they are deep in thought, but not 
necessarily concentrating on a specific task, often leave their mouths 
open and their tongues slightly protruding, but NOT compressed.  One 
potential explanation for this is that if you are not paying much 
attention to your surroundings, "tasting" the air is a very old way to 
stay attuned to what's going on without actually paying attention.  So you 
see, the same organ (tongue) can actually help maintain your attention 
internally or externally based on your behavioral manipulation of it.

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