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

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times