Autumn rain: being damp is inferred rather than truly felt. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

On our nerves: what makes us itch or feel wet?

Michael Brooks’s science column. 

We’re all going to feel some unwanted damp on the skin over the next few weeks – welcome to autumn. But for those who feel wet due to a medical condition rather than the weather, researchers at Loughborough University have made what might just prove to be a welcome breakthrough.

It starts with a seemingly innocuous question: what makes wet stuff feel wet? By the end of this exploration, we will have encountered Joni Mitchell, patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) and a host of people suffering in ways that evoke Dante’s Inferno.

To some animal species, wetness is so critical to survival that evolution has equipped them to determine their state of external hydration: insects have humidity sensors. Human beings, however, don’t have wetness sensors on their skin, so understanding how we differentiate the sense of wetness from other sensations is a puzzle.

We have found clues in some of the tricks one can play on our species. The Loughborough researchers have shown that if you reduce the skin’s temperature using a dry cooling method, people feel as though their skin is wet. If you put something wet in contact with the skin, but at a temperature warmer than it, people don’t perceive it as wet.

So, clearly, we don’t feel wetness, we infer it. Our skin has an array of sensors for temperature and pressure, and it is a combination of these senses which tells us that something we are touching is wet. To find out what that combination might be, the Loughborough team experimented on 13 students, blocking and releasing their nerve sensitivities.

It turns out that crucial to wetness perception are nerves known as A-nerve fibres. Block the blood supply to these – using something like a blood-pressure cuff – and you become far worse at sensing wetness. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to sense cold wetness than warm wetness. The interplay of these different sensitivities enabled the researchers to create a model for the brain’s interpretation of wetness; in essence, it applies a weighting to each set of inputs in order to come to a probability-based conclusion on the body’s state.

This is more than an academic discovery because skin sensitivity is a serious medical issue. People suffering with MS frequently report an unpleasant feeling of cold wetness on their skin. It is a couple of short steps from feeling cold wetness to pain. One side effect of diabetes, for instance, can be dysaesthesia, when diabetics experience a burning or stabbing sensation on their skin, or feel the slightest touch from clothing or bedlinen as excruciating pain. In other cases, some diabetics can’t feel heat or touch sensitively enough to avoid injuring themselves.

It’s not just about the side effects of recognised diseases, though. There are various medical conditions associated with nerves sending pain signals in response to (apparently) nothing. Sufferers of central pain syndrome can report sensations such as being torn apart with hot knives, or being burned alive. No wonder it gets referred to as a Dante-type condition. Another oddity is Morgellons Disease. Joni Mitchell is perhaps the best-known sufferer of this unstoppable itching, which feels as if something is crawling under the skin. The medical orthodoxy is that the condition is indicative of a psychiatric disorder. However, if we knew more precisely what our skin’s nerve endings transmit to the brain, we might be able to help sufferers, delusional or not. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Author's own
Show Hide image

Facebook official: the rise and fall of the relationship status

In the Noughties, it was a relationship milestone. Now, it's just another dead feature. What happened? 

In the 1950s, couples on US campuses took out ads in college newspapers to announce that their relationship was getting serious. 

In the Noughties, we had Facebook official. One of the social media site's first features, rolled out while the network was still primarily used by students at US universities, was the "relationship status". And at first, it was a successful one: a way for users to broadcast their personal lives to friends and ex-lovers, and another way to show off online.

It was so successful, in fact, that it began to invade very culture and lexicon of dating. "It's Complicated" was first entered onto Urban Dictionary in 2007, and fast became an iconic phrase to describe the rocky dating lives of teens and twentysomethings. (Whether anyone actually used it on their profile without a hint of irony is another question.)

The press treated Facebook and its investment in your relationships much as it's treating dating apps now: with suspicion. News and comment pieces were littered with first-person horror stories of "likes" and passive aggressive comments on break-up statuses, or people mercilessly dumping their partners by declaring themselves "single". 

But these criticisms actually show how influential the statuses were - enough to be seen as a threat to the social fabric. As Samuel Axon wrote for Mashable in 2010 in an article titled "5 Ways Facebook Changed Dating (For the Worse)": 

"Changing Facebook relationship status has, for better or worse, joined first date, first kiss, first night together, exclusivity talk, and first "I love you" on the list of important relationship milestones."

Breaking up  

In 2016, we can pretty much declare the relationship status dead - at least among the twenty-something generation who grew up on Facebook. In November, BuzzFeed ran a reader poll and concluded: “No One Wants To Admit They’re In A Relationship On Facebook Anymore”. Forty per cent of polled twenty-somethings said they wouldn’t put a relationship status on Facebok. 

Among twentysomethings I spoke to anecdotally, the percentage was even higher: I couldn't find a single person who would list themselves as "in a relationship" with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The situation changed a little when it came to engagements or marriage: these are worth listing alongside other big milestones like graduations so friends know what you're up to. But what turned us off listing our squeezes in real-time?

One obvious answer is that everyone tries it once, in the first flush of romance, then never forgets the crushing social embarrassment of living out your break-up online. Izzy, 23, tells me that she once saw "Facebook official" as a necessary stage in relationships, but now, "I'd probably only change it now for something big like an engagement or marriage", since watching break-up become "public property" on Facebook. 

In “Why I will never (again) put my relationship status on Facebook” at XO Jane, Sofia Barrett-Ibarria recounts that colleagues and friends would approach her following a a break-up and subsequent status change: “Thanks to Facebook, everyone I knew knew about the breakup. This was my nightmare.” 

In the essay, and among those I talk to, there's a real sense that a social media airing of a break-up actually makes it worse. It's no wonder we're keen to avoid repeating the experience. 

Instead, it's far more common among my generation to list a joke partner online - as much to protect yourself from the risky business of online relationship declarations as to make fun of the feature itself. Amy, 24, says her Facebook relationship with a friend “became quite useful as a means to avoid putting other relationships on here”. It's a joke, but it's also a signal that you won't be game for a po-faced "in a relationship" further down the line. 

Even the phrase "relationship status" has become a meme to mock your own singledom, rather than a serious phrase about your commitment to someone:

It's not you, it's me 

Marking the slow decline of the relationship statuses are various desperate attempts by Facebook to bring it back to life. In May 2014, it introduced an option to "ask" your friends about their relationship status, or other details like Hometown or School. Show me a single person who actually did this, and I'll show you a person with one less Facebook friend.

In November 2015, Facebook US introduced tools which would make a social media break-up less painful. If you break up (and change your relationship status), the site now allows you to "take a break" from an ex-partner, untag them from pictures, and generally stop them haunting your page without unfriending or blocking them. 

The move is a sensible one, especially as Facebook has come under fire for "On This Day", another feature which throws up old pictures and posts and has been depressing users the world over with pictures of their now-dead relatives or relics of past relationships. In the press release for the new relationship tools, the company says:

“This work is part of our ongoing effort to develop resources for people who may be going through difficult moments in their lives. We hope these tools will help people end relationships on Facebook with greater ease, comfort and sense of control.”

Never, ever getting back together 

Somehow, I don't think any of this will convince users to once again share the minutiae of our dating lives on social media. You could argue that my generation's rejection of relationship statuses is to do with a fear of commitment - after all, none of us have pensions or can afford houses. Research has shown that social media interaction, like a shared relationship status or photos taken together, are an indicator of "greater relationship commitment". Perhaps twenty-somethings just aren't keen to stamp Facebook-endorsed "commitment" all over their dating lives.

But it could also be that we're moving away from relationship statuses because we've realised there's a type of online sharing that can be damaging in its honesty. It's increasingly clear that even bloggers and Instagrammers who post online constantly keep their personal lives locked carefully away from their smoothie and interior decor feeds, sometimes to the detriment of their alleged "authenticity". 

We want social media to be privy to our highs, not our lows. Research has also suggested that while relationship statuses indicate commitment, they were reflective of this commitment, not participating in it. While asking someone to be your boyfriend and girlfriend is an action that actually changes the fabric of a relationship, going Facebook official isn't - unless you're a 13-year-old who still thinks this is a good way to ask. 

As such, relationship statuses are a communication of status, not a creation of one. They were never meant as a milestone for the couples themselves: they're to satisfy the sort of people who bark "BUT IS SHE ACTUALLY YOUR GIRLFRIEND?" at you, in the pub, while she's two feet away. Maybe we've just decided that our online presence should benefit us, not those who want a two-click rundown of our personal lives. 

And since you ask, I've been in a Facebook-only civil partnership with a university friend for four years now. It isn't complicated at all. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.