- Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018
As the world learned a few days ago, scientists have discovered an entirely new, previously unknown organ in the human body. This astonishing discovery (We missed noticing a major organ? Oops!), covered in news outlets worldwide (click here), was published first in the journal Scientific Reports. Because this column usually concerns itself with music and popular culture, I’ll try to dispense with the science quickly here.
Researchers, including endoscopists from Mount Sinai Beth Israel teaching hospital and a pathology professor at Langone Medical Center, New York University analyzed images from a newly developed laser-accompanied microscope inserted in the body via flexible tubes. What they observed was a network of fluid-filled tissue jammed into spaces between the major organs and elsewhere in the body cavity. Why were these things never before “seen?” Because under normal examination procedures a body part would be cut open and, uh, examined. But in the case of this “new” organ, the procedure caused the fluid inside to drain away and the remaining thing appear to be just a flat membrane. For the first time, researchers were able to see the living “organ”—think of a sequence of connected water balloons, or estuaries, containing interstitial fluid, dispatching white blood cells etc. where needed. Crazy. Scientists hope this new organ—they’re calling it the Interstitium—will provide insights into the containment of diseases. Fingers crossed!
But another—perhaps less urgent—result of the discovery of this organ is a new understanding of the way sound and music enter our bodies. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, it comes in through my ear and the auditory canal and my tympanic membrane and Boom! I hear it!’ Now reflect on the fact that more than two-thirds of the human body consists of water and 20% of that is contained in the newly discovered Interstitium, whose outer layer is tightly stretched. Like a drum head.
You might intuitively assume that sound travels faster through air than it does water. Not true. Sound waves travel much faster through solids and liquids than through gases—over 4 times faster in water than air, which I find strange. So they don’t just enter your ear—they go right through your body. Here’s a simple little instructional demo showing how sound waves move physical objects (feel free to ignore):
But let’s get back to the newly discovered drum organ (Interstitium, terrible name for an organ). Because it’s filled with fluids and tightly wrapped in a strong membrane, it functions like an internal drum we never knew we had. And with it’s greatest concentration in the torso, humans are better equipped than we realized to “feel” the beat. Now because of the density of water and flesh, sound waves at low volumes, in the mid to upper ranges, are unlikely to be felt, even as they’re heard. This could be another reason “easy listening” music is so easy—it demands little of the rest of the body. (No offense, Kenny G.)
But turn up the volume, hit the kick and bass harder, and you will feel the music, not simply “hear” it. In the exuberantly annoying song “Azukita” by Steve Aoki + friends, the 2-fisted beat puts bodies in motion when sound waves enter the torso, not just the ears. Come on, you wanna dance? Let’s see watchu got!
Now, let’s recall that several years ago researchers discovered two unique neural pathways to the brain for music alone—no other sounds. (All other sounds have their own pathways to the brain.) This was considered a breakthrough in understanding how and why we hear music as we do. So: combine brain memory for music as we understand it (an “earworm” melody, for example) with the physical impact & penetration of a powerful, low end beat, and you begin to understand why, when the DJ at your cousin’s wedding plays “Billie Jean” after the speeches, the tables empty and the dance floor fills. (Not that the champagne hasn’t had some part in that…)
If you’ve seen Black Panther, you understand why the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack is a blockbuster sonically, with its body cavity-filling low end bass, West African talking drums and Marvel action sound design.
So what do we do with this new Interstitium and its as-yet not fully understood functions? Hell if I know. But I’d say if your audio communication is framed in a way that causes forced-entry into the torso, make sure it’s the right message. And has a good beat. In other words, don’t mess with your new organ.