This week, Paul Mazzeo, a board-certified neurologist with Coastal Neurology in Beaufort, discusses why some of us -- especially kids -- stick our tongues out when concentrating.
Question. I've noticed that when someone -- usually kids, but not always -- is really focused on completing a physical task, such as cutting a straight line or shooting a free throw, they stick their tongues out. Why is that?
Answer. Lingual protrusion syndrome is a diagnosis neurologists dread giving to patients. Otherwise known as Michael Jordan syndrome, LIPS sufferers may be the subject of ridicule and social ostracism due to the involuntary sticking out of their tongues when concentrating.
Actually, there is no such medical disorder. Tongue protrusion during certain physical activities is one of those medical curiosities that provokes questions to physicians (particularly pediatricians) but generally does not indicate any pathological medical condition. Perhaps the most famous example of tongue protrusion is Michael Jordan, who stuck his tongue out while dribbling and shooting a basketball. In his case, he consciously developed the mannerism to the point where it became a habit.
A number of theories attempt to explain why some individuals protrude their tongues when engaged in tasks. Unconscious tongue protrusion when concentrating may have different implications depending upon age. Children frequently have what neurologists refer to as "overflow" movements, extraneous physical signs that develop while distracted with a particular motor task. This is simply a reflection of the nervous system's immaturity and often, although not always, goes away by the time the adult brain is fully developed.
Scientists have also suggested that sticking out the tongue may be a way of reducing unneeded sensory input to the brain (e.g. taste, texture) that might interfere with our ability to concentrate on the task at hand. An even wilder theory goes back to our infancies. Breast-feeding babies stick their tongues out to push the mother's breast away when full. Keeping the tongue out signals that the baby is full and tells mom to stay away. When we are trying to complete an important job, tongue protrusion may send conscious and unconscious signals to others that we want to be left alone.
Whatever the reason, it appears that tongue protrusion when concentrating is hard-wired into our nervous systems. It is an entirely benign condition of those who are focusing their attention. If you have LIPS, with a little luck, you might even be the next Michael Jordan.
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