In Your Brain, Feet and Sex are Old Friends

Strange and perplexing meanders the path of science news in any given day.

Earlier, I came across a story over at BBC News about the effect of celebrity endorsements of shoes on women’s brains. A Dutch team of researchers scanned the brains of 24 women as they looked at 40 pictures of celebrities and of non-famous, but sexy, people wearing stylish shoes.

When looking at a celebrity sporting the shoes, women’s brains showed heightened activity in the medial oribitofrontal cortex (a part of the brain linked to “warm” feelings of affection). The same thing didn’t happen when they looked at pictures of sexy shoe-wearing non-celebrities.  So these women seemed to really love the shoes–in a more literal sense than usual–at least when they were modeled by celebrities.  And the impact appears to be long-term, according to the researchers; such is the emotional imprint of famous folks donning inviting footwear.

Which leads me to a related topic (well, at least I’m going to relate it for the purpose of this post)–namely, what’s going on in the brain of a foot fetishist? In the research above, the pivotal variable seems to be less the sex appeal of the shoes, or the feet wearing them, and more the emotionally potent influence of the celebrity rubbing off on the footwear. But in your common, run-of-the-mill foot fetishism, the feet and/or shoes in question might belong to just about anyone.  So clearly there’s a different dynamic at work, but what is it?

This question takes me to an illuminating graphic created by Emily Nagoski, the self proclaimed “Sex Nerd,” who believes she’s uncovered the connection. Actually, she’s illustrated a connection that was made some time ago by neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who proposed that foot fetishism is caused by the feet and the genitals occupying adjacent areas of the somatosensory cortex, possibly entailing some “neural crosstalk” between the two.

Here’s Emily’s graphic. Note that the genitalia and feet/toes are right next to each other along the somatosensory cortex (illustrated by Emily via a somatosensory homunculus–the instructive “little human” of the brain).

Emily’s explanation of the graphic warrants a direct quote:

Even though your feet are at one end of you actual body and your genitals are in the middle, as far as your brain is concerned, they’re right next to each other.

A phenomenon known in the nerd world as “spreading activation” takes us the rest of the way along this story. The foot sensation part of your brain “lights up” and lights up a little bit of the genital part of your brain along with it, or vice versa, and suddenly there’s a link between sexual arousal and foot sensations.

And so over time the guy (it’s usually a guy – not always, but usually) begins to feel sexual desire around feet, in the same way that he feels sexual desire around the genitals of his partner.

Makes sense.  A little cross-wire activity bridges parts of the brain that are already neighbors, and there you go. Why, however, would this necessarily be a predominantly male phenomenon?

That will have to remain a question for another day. Many thanks to the Sex Nerd for a great little graphic that sheds light on one of the more peculiar twists of the noggin.


How Our Brains Outwit Cruel Gods

God as portrayed by Michelangelo in "Crea...

Image via Wikipedia

Consistent across the big three Western monotheisms is a theme notable only for its inconsistency: God is love, except for when he’s a belligerent tyrant with an unquenchable bloodlust.

Ask most people in the big three if their God condones cruelty, and you’ll get a definitive “no!” But anyone can flip through the sacred texts and find line after line that illustrates exactly the opposite.  Ask believers if theirs is a God of war and you’ll probably get another “no,” though passages aplenty make clear that the God(s) of Western religions are wholly committed to war as a means to get what they want, or what they want their chosen people to have.

What explains this disconnect?  If you ask a Christian if his/her God condones sexual violence, and the response is a likely “no”—you might ask for an explanation of a passage like this one:

When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house.  But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb.  After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.  However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion.    (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Or you could allude to God’s cavalier attitude toward rape with a passage like this one:

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father.  Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.   (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Or his general attitude toward women as mere spoils of war with a passage like this one:

They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man. (Judges 5:30)

My point here is less about exegesis of sacred texts, and more about why people choose to focus on that which supports their positions and ignore, or rationalize, that which doesn’t.  We know this tendency by its psychological moniker: confirmation bias. And we also know this bias’ partner in crime that fuels the mental myopia: selective perception.

But I think there’s something else going on here as well.  One of the chief tenets of Western religion is that God made humans in his image.  If you read the sacred texts and take to heart the passages above and the many like them, then you’re left with an uncomfortable conclusion about who you are.

Try, for example, to imagine yourself as someone who would applaud this sort of unequivocal declaration of horrific violence against children (and more sexual violence as well):

Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword.  Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes.  Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off.  The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows.  They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18)

Hard to do, isn’t it?  And yet, if we’re created in God’s image, then are we not manifestations of this same cruel nature–of the “For I will” nature underlined above?

So to undermine that conclusion, we have to mentally shelve those illustrations—the ones that make any reasonable person cringe—and focus on those that don’t short circuit our brain’s need for comfort and stability. We don’t believe in God and participate in the social support network of any given church or temple because we want to become even more stressed and confused than we are in our day-to-day lives. Much the opposite. We’re there to reign in the blood cortisol levels that drive us to the brink at work, in traffic and all too often at home.

If all we did in church was talk about God’s penchant for violence, that wouldn’t make for a very psychologically reassuring atmosphere. If we are going to talk about it, then we need to clarify that all of that rage and sexual cruelty is directed against God’s enemies.  That feels much better, because if we’re believers, then God’s enemies are also our enemies. Babies, whatever—they had it coming.

This balancing act, I’d argue, is what allows sane, intelligent people (note that I am not talking about unbalanced militants here) to focus on that which edifies and push from immediate view that which alarms.  Around that which edifies, we build a public-facing persona of tolerance and love. We can then build into that persona all of the attributes we deeply value. The rest—those dark, awful corridors of our belief—we avoid, or venture into only when we need to show our enemies what the dark side of our God looks like, or remind ourselves what could happen to us if we wander.

Another way of saying this is that to fully embrace the notion that God created us in his image is actually a very frightening thing to do.  But our brains are exceptionally clever and know how to work around discomfort to preserve stability. Gods of war and conquest, no matter how explicitly cruel, are simply no match for our powers of cognitive navigation.

'PepsiGate' Rocks the Science Blogging World

Other current Pepsi logo (2003-2010). Pepsi Wi...

Image via Wikipedia

The latest buzz in science blog circles–and quickly spilling out into more mainstream venues–is that SEED magazine, owner of the well-regarded ScienceBlogs network, has stepped in a steaming pile of marketing dung.

If you’re not familiar with ScienceBlogs, it’s a network of several pros from all walks of the science world who enjoy communicating the ins and outs of their disciplines with an audience that includes a hefty percentage of lay readers.  I have many friends in their ranks and think they are a fine group of writers with a genuine interest in communicating the ongoings of credible science to the public.  These folks earn a pittance for their work, derived mainly from advertising dollars.  Clearly, they don’t do it for the money.

SEED recently decided to allow Pepsi to have its own blog on the network, called “Food Frontiers”–which, of course, they would pay for, not unlike a block of continuous advertising space. Many bloggers at ScienceBlogs are not happy about this.  The standard for any credible science journalism network is that writers earn their space on merit, not because they have products to pitch. The ‘partnership’ SEED entered into with Pepsi stomps all over the merit-based model, and is frankly pissing a lot of people off. 

Among those people are Rebecca Skloot, the bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who announced yesterday that she is closing down shop at ScienceBlogs and moving on.  This is the rough equivalent of the Lakers losing Kobe Bryant.  Another well-known writer at ScienceBlogs, PZ Myers, summed up the issues in this post, as did top-notch science journalist David Dobbs, here, who has also resigned his post at ScienceBlogs.

Aside from great writers leaving its network, SEED is taking serious heat from media critics as illustrated in this scathing slamfest in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.  Quoting from that piece:

For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity.

Editorial-looking sections or pages that are not produced by a magazines editors are not editorial content. They should be labeled Advertisement, Special Advertising Section or Promotion at the top of every page in type as prominent as the magazines normal body type.

Advertisers should not pay to place their products in editorial pages nor should they demand placement in return for advertising.

The bottom line is that if you’re going to mix marketing with science journalism (or, really, any journalism worth its salt), then you’d better be damn sure to clarify that the commercial content is just that: PAID FOR CONTENT. Print magazines learned this lesson a long time ago and as a result “advertorials” are clearly identified as such. How was this lesson lost on the owner of one of the best known science blogging networks out there? 

As I write this, I just received an update that it seems SEED has heard the message and is changing direction. According to this post by SEED Media founder and CEO Adam Bly, it appears that Food Frontiers has been cancelled.

PepsiGate may be over, but the questions it has raised about the commingling of marketing and journalistic content are just beginning to swarm in the blogosphere. And, clearly, much damage to the credibility of SEED and ScienceBlogs has already been done.

A Tour of Dubious 'Science' and Other Strange Claims in Vintage Advertising

Today our tour of vintage advertising is going to cover some unusual/disturbing territory. First, we’re going to review  “scientific” claims in vintage ads, then we’re going to check out a few ads concerned with your sexual health, followed by a random medley of goodies. (click on the ads for full size)

Behold, the “Dentaphone,” which best I can tell was a mouthpiece device of some sort marketed as a cure for deafness. I like the hook line: “The deaf hear…through their teeth.”

Wow, what a deal!  If you give the wife PEP vitamins, not only will she work harder, but she’ll look cuter too!

How soon is too soon to start your baby on…cola?  “Laboratory tests” have proven that the earlier you get your bambino sucking down the cola, the happier he’ll be throughout his entire life. You don’t want to deprive him of that, do you?

And if starting cola early results in a toothache for baby, just numb her up with a few cocaine drops!

Getting back to serious science — how would you handle a “truss rupture”?  Nothing I can say will do this ad justice…read it, and hazard a guess as to what “truss torture” is.

There’s something about a giant hand pouring chemicals onto the countryside of India that just doesn’t sit well.

Nothing to add to this one — the picture says it all.

I couldn’t do a vintage ads post without at least one cigarette ad.  In this case, smoking filterless Camels gives the user an “energizing effect.”  That’s right before it gives you the “coughing effect” and the “wheezing effect,” followed by the “dying of lung cancer effect.”

She may “look clean” guys, but…

And you make think she’s “just your gal,” but….

She’s got everything. EVERYTHING.

This projector clearly works best in the shade.

“You can’t afford to be skinny.” This sounds like reverse liposuction in a pill.

Let’s wrap this post up along with the babies, in Cellophane.

FDA Study: Roach Carcasses in Airline Food Factory 'too numerous to count'

Roaches eating cheesecake small

Image via Wikipedia

Courtesy of Vanity Fair (by way of USA Today), reporting on a recent FDA study of airline food safety — the news for anyone who travels is not good:

According to USA Today, the F.D.A. “found live roaches and dead roach carcasses ‘too numerous to count’ inside the Denver facility of the world’s largest airline caterer, LSG Sky Chefs. They also reported finding ants, flies and debris, and employees handling food with bare hands.” Of the 46 food-production facilities—“kitchens” seems like a misnomer—27 of them engaged in problematic provision-preparation practices. (Phew!) Such culinary crimes include: doubling as hotbeds of rodent colonization and reproduction, storing seafood at improper temperatures, undercooking meats, and being gross about ice. According to the paper, “[a]irlines say they require their caterers to provide government inspection reports, and they do their own unannounced inspections.”

Oil Companies Spend Huge to Find Oil, Almost Nothing to Clean it Up

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

Five companies – Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp., BP America – together spent about $33.8 billion to explore for new oil and gas in the past three years, according to answers the companies provided this month to a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee.

Let’s compare that figure with how much three of these companies told Congress they have spent on research and development to prevent and clean up oil spills.

–ConocoPhillips said it spent $1.3 million over three years on research on safer drilling technologies, but did not specify how much it spends on accident prevention and spill-related research.

–ExxonMobil said it spends $50 million a year on oil spill response, drilling and deepwater development research activities.

–BP said the company spent $29 million over three years on safer drilling operations research, but does not have a budget for oil cleanup research. (BP has now pledged $500 million for cleanup research.)

And the calculator says…it’s not even worth calculating: the safety and cleanup budgets are just a wee tiny fraction of these companies’ oil exploration budgets.

But surely the federal government was picking up the slack, right?  Hardly. Congress appropriated only $5 million of the $30 million in research grants to universities authorized under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster, according to the Coastal Response Research Center.  What happened to the other $25 million?

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement – formerly the ultra corrupt Minerals Management Service until earlier in June – collects $13 billion a year in oil drilling royalties. But the agency has been spending between $6 million to $7 million a year since 1995 on oil spill research.  That’s barely enough to warrant mention.

What this all tells me is that there is blame a plenty on all fronts for what’s happening in the Gulf.  And in the end, all roads come back to the major influence that fueled years of shameful neglect: greed.

Source: AP

Dear Sarah: It's not too Late to Start Your Science Education

Gov. Sarah Palin has breakfast and visits with...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a sense that Sarah Palin is feeling a twinge of cognitive dissonance these days. I think she knows that she doesn’t possess even rudimentary knowledge about the science issues she comments on (evolution and environmental science, to name two), yet as a figure standing precariously on the edge of right-wing populism, she feels obliged to make one self-assured sounding statement after another. Recall her now famous, “global warming studies based on snake oil science stuff” quote, and her disparaging of fruit fly research in Europe without having any idea what the research was about or why it was important, among others.

Granted, the prerequisite knowledge requirement for the position she occupies is not high; parroting skills are valued more, and those she has in spades. But I want to step back for a moment, ignore ideology and manipulative politics, and openly wonder if Sarah could–if she chose–get the basic science education she is obviously lacking.  I don’t mean go back to school, but rather challenge herself to really investigate the science behind the issues.  I say yes, she could, but with a crucial caveat: she’d have to step away from the podium and really get serious about learning.

Imagine how hard this would be for any public figure whose stock in trade is making endless public appearances, rallying mobs of followers, and putting on the air of impenetrable confidence at all times.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a public figure, of course, but I think it requires so much time, and so strongly colors the mindset of the person in question that genuine learning (the sort that demands self questioning and uncomfortable critique) seldom fits.  The figure would have to be willing to take a vacation from the maelstrom to engage subjects with a perspective even vaguely approaching objectivity.

Maybe I’m giving her more benefit of the doubt than warranted, but a big dose of “doubt” is exactly what I think Sarah needs.  If she stepped away from her firebrand mouthpiece persona and started asking hard questions about these things she dismissively comments on, she might be surprised at what she finds.  And I’ll go even further and say that I think she has enough going on upstairs to make it happen, if a sincere willingness was there–though, regrettably, I doubt it is.

I think instead that she’s found a niche in the vanguard of a political movement that simply doesn’t value science beyond its political utility.  That’s why so many scientists just shake their heads and try the best they can to ignore the political arena. They aren’t elitists, they’re just tired of credible scientific investigation being ignored while politically motivated “science” gets the main stage. Who can blame them for becoming jaded?

In any case, Sarah, if you’re reading, at least consider what I’m telling you. It’s not too late, and you might even enjoy the experience.