Drumroll please. You are about to witness my most popular anatomical party trick. In fact, years from now, it will likely be the only thing that my former students remember about me.
The image above shows my uvula (better known as "that thing dangling in the back of your mouth") in its relaxed, more-or-less normal configuration. Now, watch what happens when I tighten up my soft palate...
It's pointing straight forward like a little pistol. Impressive, eh? I've met only one other person who could do it. It appears to be a congenital anomaly, not a trait you can develop through practice.
Anatomically, the uvula is basically an extension of the soft palate. Using my lesser known uvula trick -- touching my uvula with the tip of my tongue -- I've confirmed that the uvula is indeed remarkably soft. Like the soft palate, it even has its own named muscle: the musculus uvulae, which shortens the uvula when it contracts.
Functionally, I doubt the uvula serves any important purpose, but I could be wrong. A popular anatomy text book says that the uvula "assists in closing the nasopharynx during swallowing." This makes me wonder if people without uvulas are more likely to have milk come out their nose when they laugh. It's a testable hypothesis, since there are, in fact, a number of people who have their uvulas removed surgically as a treatment for excessive snoring or sleep apnea (e.g. laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty ). Anyone have some good anecdotal evidence?