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Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Sword Swallowers, Belly Buttons and Flatulent Fish: the Ig Nobel prizes

9 Dec

In a world where high-speed neutrinos and melting ice caps hog the limelight, it’s sometimes nice to pay tribute to the sillier side of science. Because for every Einstein there’s a physicist trying to understand why toast always lands butter-side down; for every Darwin, a biologist who studies fish farts.

Once a year, scientists come together to honour the unsung heroes of science, awarding ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes to achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. A parody of the Nobel Prizes, these awards celebrate science that is eccentric, bizarre, or just downright ridiculous ­– studies “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobel awards – making people laugh, and then making them think (credit: Improbable Research)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the Ig Nobels for a while. So, here it is at last – a rundown of my all-time favourite prizewinners. Happy holidays! Continue reading

The Science of Swearing

17 Oct

Out, you green-sickness carrion,” bellowed Capulet to a Romeo-smitten Juliet. “Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!

Swear words may have evolved since Shakespeare’s day, but cursing has never gone out of fashion. Today, we swear when we stub our toe, we cuss when the GPS sends us down a dead end, and we take God’s name in vain when our computer crashes for the fifth time in a row. In other words, we utter expletives to express sentiments that milder words simply wouldn’t do justice to.

Slubberdegullions! Odd-toed ungulate! Champion swearer, Captain Haddock

It is estimated that around 0.5% of words in typical everyday speech are swear words. Given an average rate of 15,000 words spoken in a day, this amounts to an impressive 75 daily profanities – a figure that even Captain Haddock would be proud of. Continue reading

Childhood Dreaming: Jung and Easily Freudened?

14 Jul

Sigmund Freud claimed that they reveal our innermost desires, Gabrielle never stopped insisting that they can come true, and Inception piled on so many layers of them that by the end of the film things were all getting a bit silly.

Whether we like it or not, we all have dreams once we enter the Land of Nod. Dreams have the power to inspire us, frighten us, and make us vow never again to scoff Cheddar before bedtime. In the 2006 film, The Science of Sleep, Stéphane gave his own cutely original explanation of what goes on in our heads when we dream…

There is, believe it or not, a branch of science dedicated purely to dreaming: oneirology. It turns out that understanding how and why we dream is a preoccupation of experts in neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and a lot more -ologies besides.

During childhood, many people have particularly vivid dreams – sometimes recurrent – that leave a lasting impression. These early reveries can help scientists to understand why we dream, as well as revealing more about the development of human consciousness.

Childhood dreams were of great interest to the two big guns of dream psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) and Carl Jung (1875 – 1961). Freud believed that they provide evidence for his ‘wish fulfillment’ theory, where dreams are our unconscious attempts to satisfy impulses and needs.

Dream brothers...Freud and Jung

On the other hand, Jung believed that childhood dreams are related to the ‘collective unconscious’, a universal consciousness that has no relation to personal experiences, but is a kind of repository of worldly knowledge. For Jung, then, childhood dreams are often highly significant, with intense imagery and connections to religious and mythological themes.

A few years ago, Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a self-confessed dream nerd, led a study into childhood reveries, asking eighty-five adults in a rural area of northeast America to recall the very first dream that they remember having.

After separating the dreams into categories (e.g. ‘mystical’, ‘family’, ‘threatening’, ‘wish fulfillment’), the overwhelming picture was that of a very unhappy slumberland: three-quarters of the dreams were nightmares, with the most common theme being threats from creatures such as the Bogeyman, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, and a mysterious wolf:

"I had a dream about a wolf standing on the edge of my bed..." Credit: Brad Wenner

“I had a dream about a wolf standing on the edge of my bed with his forepaws on the brown metal frame. He was just looking at me. He made a noise similar to a low growl but it was not menacing. He climbed onto the bed. I woke up, frightened in real life.” (Dream 11, from an 11-year-old girl).

Other common nightmarish themes included threats to family members and the feeling of being lost in a strange, abstract environment, as in Dream 18 from a 5-year-old boy:

“I am in the fields, like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz. It is light out. I hear booms from a cannon or something. I do not recall anyone else being there but I remember being alone in the field. That was the scary part…the aloneness.”

"I am in the fields, like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz..." Credit: Trapac

Happily, a quarter of the dreams were lighter in tone. These included fantasies about wish fulfillment and spiritual beings, as well as lucid sensations of flying.

So do these childhood dreams agree with the theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud? Well, yes and no, according to Bulkeley and friends. Although there were some ‘wish fulfillment’ dreams, Freud’s theory cannot account for the full range of dream imagery: “children’s imaginations are capable of more complex thought and creative expression than Freud gave them credit for”.

Jung fares better: his assertion that childhood dreams are intensely memorable ‘big dreams’ is backed up by the vivid accounts of the participants. Several dreams also contained religious elements, such as appearances by Jesus and Mary. However, the weakness in Jung’s theory is that it is rather ambiguous and cannot really be disconfirmed.

The large number of threatening situations in these dreams may also support the theory of another psychologist, Antti Revonsuo, who believes that the primary function of nightmares is to prepare us for threats in the real world. He would argue that we are more likely to experience these nightmares at an early age, when we feel more of a primal threat from the world around us.

Heavy stuff, maybe, but the authors of this study finish with some words of reassurance for parents with young kids: nightmares are a natural part of child development, and discussing them can even help to turn the nightmares around. They give an example of a girl who turned a threatening octopus in one dream into a friendly, huggable octopus in a later dream. Awww.

Right, on that note, I’m off to bed for some quality dreams about affable molluscs…

ResearchBlogging.orgBulkeley, K., Broughton, B., Sanchez, A., & Stiller, J. (2005). Earliest Remembered Dreams. Dreaming, 15 (3), 205-222 DOI: 10.1037/1053-0797.15.3.205

Screen Culture

10 May

I just finished watching this webcast of a très interesting talk given at the Oxford Internet Institute last month by Susan Greenfield, entitled ‘Does the Mind Have a Future?’.

Susan Greenfield at the Oxford Internet Institute, April 2011

The story is that by spending more and more time interacting with screens, rather than other human beings, our brains may be adapting in new ways. Greenfield picks up on one positive effect (higher IQ), and a whole load of negatives (e.g. shorter attention span, less empathy, lower sense of identity).

I don’t know enough about psychology or neuroscience to make an educated comment, but it seems a no-brainer than someone who spends every day reporting their life on Facebook / Twitter is going to miss out on some pretty important features of human interaction (body language, physical contact, eye contact, etc.). On the other hand, I doubt a quick blast on FIFA 2011 or Call of Duty could do too much harm.

When Stephen Fry gave his thoughts on social networking, I loved his comment that certain people were worried when the postbox first came along, because a daughter could send love letters to her sweetheart(s) for the first time without having to pass by her father. Maybe all these fears about information technology’s long-term impacts will prove to be similarly unfounded. Or maybe not. In any case, Susan Greenfield’s talk is really thought-provoking. Right…better finish this blog post before another brain cell dies!

[Webcast] Baroness Susan Greenfield – Does the Mind Have a Future?

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