facts about the mouth

Illustration: Samantha Hahn/CWC-i.com

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Naomi Barr peeks inside the most versatile place on your face.

The mouth—a marvel of Wonka-factory proportions, a bonanza of the fascinating and fantastical. How many other body parts can put chewing, tasting, slurping, enunciating, whistling, singing and kissing on their résumés?

The nose, eyes and ears all participate in the symphony of the senses, but the mouth is the most multifaceted player. Its front gates, the lips, are a system of capillaries, glands, muscles and nerves encapsulated by come-hither flesh. We press them together to say our p's and b's—essential for calling someone "pretty" or "baby"—and round them for o's and u's, as in "Hello, you." When our lips kiss another pair, our nerve endings are set aflame, triggering a chemical cascade that turns us on.

Just past the lips' entrance is the great hall of the whole operation, the oral cavity, home of the incredible tongue. There you'll find thousands of taste buds, as well as the tongue's eight muscles—including the prehistoric-sounding styloglossus and hyoglossus—which enable it to lick, lap and transfer food to the elevator shaft of the esophagus. And it talks! The tongue moves forward, back, up, down and sideways; whirls itself around; presses itself against the teeth or the hard and soft palates. About those: The soft palate, made of muscle and tissue, rises when we yawn and laugh; the hard palate, made of bone, anchors our upper teeth and can serve as the tongue's backstop when we belt out the score to Oklahoma!

And that dangly guy in the back? The uvula is a sophisticated structure that scientists only partially understand. It secretes saliva, making your throat a moister, happier place and is thought to differentiate human beings from other animals—because nobody in the mammalian world has one like ours. (Think of the uvula as our very own Everlasting Gobstopper.)

The mouth gives us so much—the sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. It can recite Shakespeare, quote The Simpsons, coo to babies, sing "Happy Birthday." It can tell someone off, then kiss and make up. The mouth is a magical site of poetry, passion and Pop-Tarts—a veritable golden ticket to life's delicious experiences.