Tagbiology

Review: Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart

In academic circles, we have a half-joking-but-not-really saying: “All Research Is Me-Search,” and Leigh Cowart’s new book has taken that dictum to titanic new heights and visceral, evocative depths.

Cowart is a former ballet dancer, a biologist who researched Pteronotus bats in the sweltering jungles of Costa Rica, and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist.” They wrote this book to explore why they were like this, and whether their reasons matched up with those of so many other people who engage is painful activities of their own volition, whether for the pain itself, or the reward afterward. Full disclosure: Leigh is also my friend, but even if they weren’t, this book would have fascinated and engrossed me.

Hurts So Good is science journalism from a scientist-who-is-also-a-journalist, which means that the text is very careful in who and what it sources, citing its references, and indexing terms to be easily found and cross-referenced, while also bringing that data into clear, accessible focus. In that way, it has something for specialists and non-specialists, alike. But this book is also a memoir, and an interior exploration of one person’s relationship to pain, pleasure, and— not to sound too lofty about it— the whole human race.

The extraordinarily personal grounding of Hurts So Good is what allows this text to be more than merely exploitative voyeurism— though as the text describes, exploitative voyeurism might not necessarily be a deal-breaker for many of its subjects; just so long as they had control over when and how it proceeds and ends. And that is something Cowart makes sure to return to, again and again and again, turning it around to examine its nuances and infinitely fuzzy fractaled edges: The difference between pain that we instigate, pain that we can control, pain we know will end, pain that will have a reward, pain we can stop when and how we want… And pain that is enforced on us.

Cowart writes again and again that if BDSM is not consensual then it is abuse, that the forms of training done in ballet have a direct effect on disordered eating and body image issues, and that the kinds of pain which are not in our control can contribute to lasting trauma. And they also discuss how healing it can be to take back the control of pain in consensual BDSM, or the story of a ballet dancer who found themselves drawn to mixed martial arts as a way to process what was done to them in the ballet studio, and how using therapy to recognize and grapple with what has been done to us can sometimes allow us to differently understand what we want for ourselves.

There are no firm answers, in Cowart’s book. There are multiple perspectives, from neuroscientists, to the aforementioned ballerinas-turned-MMA-fighters, to ultra-marathoners, to people who compete to eat the hottest chilies in the world, to people who pierce the skin of their backs to hang suspended from hooks and bars, in public, to polar bear plungers, and more. There are overlapping feelings and descriptions in all of these people who seek to experience pain on purpose, but there is also a stunning multiplicity of backgrounds, of beliefs, of reasons to seek these avenues out, each one helping the reader to understand something more about both individual psychology and whole cultures’ relationships to pain.

Hurts So Good

[Cover image for Hurts So Good, featuring various hot peppers, handcuffs, a  sword, a whip, a snake, a hook on the end of a rope, and pointe shoes, all arranged around the words “Leigh Cowart— Hurts So Good— The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose]

As someone who studies, among other things, the intersections of religious belief, ritual, and social life, I was absolutely fascinated by Cowart’s discussion of the role of ritual in how we experience pain and pleasure, both in the context of the preparations for dance or other sport or how competitors psych themselves up before a chili eating match or the constant call-and-response and check-in and aftercare process of a BDSM scene, but also in terms of literal religious ceremonies. Cowart discusses the flagellants of the Black Plague era, and mystics who fasted and meditated to achieve oneness with the Divine (a practice that also had clear gender-political valences, which Cowart also gets into). So one thing I’d’ve loved more of from Cowart is what other religious groups they found also use pain in a spiritual context. I know of a few, myself, including schools of Zen Buddhism, and would have loved to have them alongside Cowart’s examples, as well.

Similarly, I greatly appreciated Cowarat’s exploration of the link between the psychological, emotional, and the physical, in categorizing and inscribing pain in the bodymind. I know firsthand that graduate school and academic research is often about enduring the emotional and psychological kinds of pain, for the sake of something more coming out of it, as well as for what we believe we can achieve in that moment, and so I would have loved even a bit more in psychological and emotional veins, too.

But, of course, when writing a book, we have the time we have, and the time that Leigh Cowart took to research and write their book was well worth it.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose is an illuminating, joyous, deeply emotional examination of what makes pain what it is, what makes pain mean what means, and why. And what could be more fitting for one of the most intimate, personal, and universal experiences of the human species.

Hurts So Good is out now from Public Affairs and Hachette, and if you want more from Leigh, you can check out their appearance on NPr’s The 1a.

Gut–brain link could shed light on mental health

Nature reports:

Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design. […]

The evidence that probiotics affect human behaviour “is minimal to say the least”, Mazmanian acknowledges. Still, he says, a growing number of researchers are starting to look at some mental illnesses through a microbial lens.

Full Story: Nature: Gut–brain link grabs neuroscientists

Previously:

Networks, Bacteria, and the Illusion of Control

Can Bacteria Make You Smarter?

Humans Are Really Just Biomechanical Suit-Cities For Bacteria

How Stewart Brand Helped Kickstart the De-extinction Movement

Nathaniel Rich’s article on the de-extinction movement includes this letter by Stewart Brand to George Church and Edward O. Wilson:

Dear Ed and George . . .

The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.

George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.

The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century. . . . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival. . . .

Full Story: The New York Times: The Mammoth Cometh

The details of how it de-extinction would actually work are fascinating, and if you stick with the article long enough, it does include some criticism from mainstream biologists. For one thing, this isn’t really bringing back an old species so much as it easy creating a new species that is very close to the old. In fact, one environmental lawyer has already suggested that such species could be patentable.

(Thanks Bill!)

Humans Are Really Just Biomechanical Suit-Cities For Bacteria

Archigram's Walking City

“The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future” Matt Jones wrote in 2009, referencing Archigram‘s Walking City. As I’ve noted before we fill that same role for bacteria.

Food guru Michael Pollan has picked up on the “we’re more bacteria than human” meme and written an long, impressive New York Times article about it. He doesn’t go so far as to bring up the theory that oil is actually the excrement of bacteria that live beneath the earth’s crust, not the decomposed organic matter from the surface, as suggested by Thomas Gold (and apparently some unnamed Russians). If Gould is right then humans are not just city-suits for bacteria, but also a waste disposal system for bacteria. This idea led Reza Negarestani to obliquely postulate that global warming will actually function to make the surface of the earth hot enough for those particular bacteria to live on the surface of the earth as well. Which means we’re doing, like, triple duty for our bacterial masters.

No, Pollan doesn’t go into any of that weird shit. He’s more practical, writing instead about the role that bacteria has in our health. For example, obesity, heart disease and other health issues may depend on what kind of gut bacteria we’re carrying around. This may pose some more challenges for Soylent, the food substitute, because it turns out there’s stuff in food that we don’t digest but feeds our bacteria.

Of course this reminds me of the 90s gene craze (“the obesity gene,” the “addiction gene,” the “wearing white socks with dress shoes gene”) and the 00s neuroanatomy craze. The upside is that a bacteria-focused model of health is less fatalistic than the genetic or neuroanatomical models — you can change your bacteria, you can’t change your genes. But there’s plenty of room for woo and quackery and unfulfilled promises. That’s not lost on bacteria researchers. Pollan writes:

My first reaction to learning all this was to want to do something about it immediately, something to nurture the health of my microbiome. But most of the scientists I interviewed were reluctant to make practical recommendations; it’s too soon, they told me, we don’t know enough yet. Some of this hesitance reflects an understandable abundance of caution. The microbiome researchers don’t want to make the mistake of overpromising, as the genome researchers did. They are also concerned about feeding a gigantic bloom of prebiotic and probiotic quackery and rightly so: probiotics are already being hyped as the new panacea, even though it isn’t at all clear what these supposedly beneficial bacteria do for us or how they do what they do. There is some research suggesting that some probiotics may be effective in a number of ways: modulating the immune system; reducing allergic response; shortening the length and severity of colds in children; relieving diarrhea and irritable bowel symptoms; and improving the function of the epithelium. The problem is that, because the probiotic marketplace is largely unregulated, it’s impossible to know what, if anything, you’re getting when you buy a “probiotic” product. One study tested 14 commercial probiotics and found that only one contained the exact species stated on the label.

That didn’t stop Pollan from seeking out a little bit of practical advise, which mostly consists of: eat a variety of fiber sources, don’t load up too much on processed foods, relax a little about hygiene and eat pre-biotics like kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt. Your bacterial masters will thank you for it.

Full Story: New York Times Magazine: Some of My Best Friends Are Germs

Morlocks – The Future Of Human Evolution?

On two species of humanoids in HG Wells’ The Time Machine — Eloi and Morlocks — Edward Strickson writes:

So, is it likely that this is our future? We can speculate, but I’d lean pretty far towards a no. As we combine our cultures and try to spread equality, it’s less likely that entire branch of us will be isolated, unless there is a natural disaster or something similar that separates us. But this does not mean that we will not change, just that the extremes of Eloi and Morlocks are (thankfully) looking less likely as time goes on, at least in my point of view.

Full Story: Teen Skepchick: Morlocks – The Future Of Human Evolution?

The historic tendency of “masters” to have sex with slaves may also prevent our evolution from ever bifurcating along class lines.

Strickson thinks that of the two species we’re more likely to end up like the Eloi: “Many more of us are able to get on with our lives without immediate dangers, knowing that if anything befalls us we will be looked after.”

I disagree. Modern medicine has licked a number of diseases, and increased our likelihood of surviving accidents. Yet our lives are not without immediate dangers. We risk death every day in the U.S. when we step into automobiles. The rest of the world face other dangers, ranging from war lords to malaria. We still have no cure for AIDs, which is still one of the most common causes of death in world.

Meanwhile, global warming is baking our planet, necessitating more adaptation and/or evolution. Perhaps the Morlocks, with their underground habitats, are our species’ future after all.

The Biocurious DIY BioPrinters

Biocurious InkJetBioPrinter

bioprint petri dish

The Biocurious biohacker lab in the San Francisco Bay Area (Sunnyvale, specifically) is working on a couple of DIY bioprinters, InkJetBioPrinter and the HackteriaBot.

They’re built out of old CD-ROM drives, recycled ink cartridges and a open source Arduino boards. So far I think they just print bacteria? From the InkJetBioPrinter page:

We’ve disassembled an abandoned HP 5150 inkjet printer for use as a bioprinter. So far, we’ve pried open some ink cartridges, filles the black cartridge with arabinose, printed the BioCurious logo on filter paper, put the paper on a lawn of pGLO E. coli, and watched our logo light up in GFP!

Check out some pics on our Flickr group here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/bioprinter

Next, we want to start printing live cells, starting with E. coli. We’ll probably print the cells on a sheet of filter material and put it onto an agar plate, or pour a thin, dense layer of agar on a support material, and feed that into the printer directly. We’ll see…

(via H+ Magazine)

Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

Still playing catchup:

An intriguing new long-term study of Filipino men has discovered that becoming a father lowers a man’s testosterone level. More specifically, what really drops male testosterone is the amount of time spent caring for children; men who spent three hours or more per day caring for a child had significantly less testosterone than those dads who were less involved with their children. It’s not that men with lower testosterone were “naturally” more inclined to be caregivers in the first place; based on the voluminous longitudinal data, it’s the act of caring itself that reduced testosterone significantly.

An otherwise reasonable New York Times piece on the study begins with the somber warning, “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” But as several researchers in the article point out, this is actually great news for dads—and for all men. One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.

Full Story: The Good Men Project: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

Evidence Of Previously Unconfirmed Ancient Human Species Discovered

Homo rudolfensis skull

The BBC reports:

Anthropologists have discovered three human fossils that are between 1.78 and 1.95 million years old. The specimens are of a face and two jawbones with teeth.

The finds back the view that a skull found in 1972 ago is of a separate species of human, known as Homo rudolfensis. The skull was markedly different to any others from that time. It had a relatively large brain and long flat face.

But for 40 years the skull was the only example of the creature and so it was impossible to say for sure whether the individual was an unusual specimen or a member of a new species.

With the discovery of the three new fossils researchers can say with more certainty that H.rudolfensis really was a separate type of human that existed around two million years ago alongside other species of humans.

Full Story: BBC: New human species identified from Kenya fossils

A New Theory of Everything

Technology Review covers Stuart Kauffman‘s work to find a mathematical model for autocatalytic sets, the process by which life may emerge from molecules:

What makes the approach so powerful is that the mathematics does not depend on the nature of chemistry–it is substrate independent. So the building blocks in an autocatalytic set need not be molecules at all but any units that can manipulate other units in the required way.

These units can be complex entities in themselves. “Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think, for example, of the collection of bacterial species in your gut (several hundreds of them) as one big autocatalytic set,” say Kauffman and co.

And they go even further. They point out that the economy is essentially the process of transforming raw materials into products such as hammers and spades that themselves facilitate further transformation of raw materials and so on. “Perhaps we can also view the economy as an (emergent) autocatalytic set, exhibiting some sort of functional closure,” they speculate.

Could it be that the same idea–the general theory of autocatalytic sets–can help explain the origin of life, the nature of emergence and provide a mathematical foundation for organisation in economics?

Full Story: MIT Technology Review: The Single Theory That Could Explain Emergence, Organisation And The Origin of Life

(via Social Physicist)

I find this very interesting, but don’t get too excited. These sorts of grand unification theories are extremely elusive. I’m also skeptical of these sorts of models which try to find universal rules for all types of systems.

See also:

Social Physics with Kyle Findlay

Guest Post: Some resources for thinking about systems

Conjoined Twins with Connected Brains

Krista and Tatiana Hogan

Krista and Tatiana Hogan are conjoined twins joined at the head. But unlike all other known craniopagus twins the Hogans’ brains are also linked, by a small bridge connected the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of the other. Susan Dominus wrote for The New York Times last year:

Suddenly the girls sat up again, with renewed energy, and Krista reached for a cup with a straw in the corner of the crib. “I am drinking really, really, really, really fast,” she announced and started to power-slurp her juice, her face screwed up with the effort. Tatiana was, as always, sitting beside her but not looking at her, and suddenly her eyes went wide. She put her hand right below her sternum, and then she uttered one small word that suggested a world of possibility: “Whoa!”

New York Times Magazine: Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind?

(Thanks Trevor)

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