If you only watch one thing today, it should probably be this video of someone beatboxing while having an MRI scan. If you’re not familiar with the human tongue, it may surprise you to see how enormous it really is, consisting of a lot more than the part we see when we open our mouths.
Dr Mark Abbott, PhD student at Ohio State Medical and Western University, recently recounted an interaction with a student who had expressed their surprise at the tongue's sheer enormity. They were referring specifically to how it looks in a sagittal section – that is, when observed in a scanning or dissection technique allowing observation of the body divided into left and right sections.
An MRI scan is one way to look at the anatomy of the head like this – especially preferable if your patient is still alive. A perk of examining living patients is that you don’t have to rely on still scans to get a better understanding of our inner machinations. And with video capabilities comes great opportunity.
In a Tweet about the conversation with the student, Abbott says, “I bet they would be equally surprised to see what it looks like while beatboxing, because I certainly was the first time I saw this video.”
The video shows a person beatboxing while inside an MRI scanner, enabling them to show off their tongue contortions from a whole new perspective. While the quality of the beatboxing isn’t something we're qualified to comment on (big love for the “that’s fresh” at 27 seconds in, though) seeing the tongue in this way undeniably transforms the way you see your mouth tentacle.
While many of us consider the amateurs’ “boots and cats” to constitute beatboxing, the finest the art has to offer can use their vocal tracts to create a mind-blowing variety of sounds that mimic percussive instruments. In 2018, the researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) concluded that some of these musicians are capable of producing sounds totally unique from those used in any known language.
While being able to recreate the sound of a snare using the equipment in your face might not exactly be life-changing stuff, the importance of our (massive) tongues the fact we have agency over the movements was demonstrated quite succinctly when science attempted to make a robot mouth. Human speech is dictated by many things, but one of the key processes is how air leaves our lungs and is manipulated by our mouths on its way out.
This manipulation of the escaping air is what enables us to create such a rich diversity of sound. A rich diversity which, arguably, wasn’t quite captured in the resulting robot mouth.
When the robot revolution arrives, maybe we could beatbox them to death?