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

Curtis Holland
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Living the Meme: What happened to the "Bacon is good for me" boy?

Eight years after becoming a meme, the boy dubbed "King Curtis" explains what life is like now.

It is hard to pinpoint the one quote that made Curtis Holland a viral sensation. When he appeared on Wife Swap eight years ago, Holland – aka King Curtis – battled ferociously with his replacement mum Joy, who wanted to rid his home of unhealthy snacks. “Chicken nuggets is like my family,” he said at one point; “I don’t wanna be skinny! I wanna be fat and happy,” he said at another; during one particularly memorable scene he wrote “I am not lisning to your rules” on a Post-It note.

“Bacon is good for me!” perhaps comes out top. The quote – like all the others – has become an internet meme, featured in screenshots and gifs, but has additionally been remixed into a song. The original clip has over ten million views on YouTube. Now aged 15, Holland is speaking to me from his home in Vanceboro, North Carolina. “Oh yes!” he says when I ask if he still likes bacon. “Every morning my mum gets up and we all cook bacon together.”

 

Before speaking to Holland, I had eaten (ten) chicken nuggets for my tea, but when I tell him this I'm not sure he believes me. “I know some people say this just to say it,” he says, before admitting he himself had eaten some that day. “This morning that's exactly what I had.”

Holland speaks in a straightforward matter-of-fact tone that is just as endearing now as it was when he was seven. He is incredibly respectful – calling me “ma’am” at least three times – and is patient when I struggle to decipher his thick Southern accent (“pennies” for example, becomes “pinnies”, “cars” is “curs”).

“We live in a small community, and a lot of people say that I'm the movie star,” says Holland, when I ask him to explain how life has changed since appearing on TV. When I ask about life after becoming a meme, Holland is less sure. “I mean I don't have a Twitter but a lot of people say that I'm up there just about every week,” he says (in reality, the clip of his appearance alone – never mind gifs, quotes or screenshots – is tweeted multiple times a day).

There is one meme moment, however, that Holland definitely didn’t miss. In 2015, Pretty Little Liars actress Lucy Hale posted a photo to Instagram asking for an update on his life. In response, Holland created a YouTube video asking for money to rebuild cars and confidently saying “Someday I’ll get my own bacon brand.” The video got over 400,000 views.

“I went viral for I think three or four days and I was on the most views on YouTube,” explains Holland. “That was pretty cool for me, to see when I look on YouTube there my face is.” How did it make him feel, I ask? “It makes you feel good inside. One day I come home from school and I was mad, and I can tell you it just made me feel really good inside to see that [the video] was pretty much one of the top in basically the world.”

Despite enjoying the attention, Holland has no aspirations to be a TV or internet star again. He is part of an organisation called the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and plans to go to his local community college before becoming a welder. “There’s a few know-it-alls in the community,” he says, “They just say it’s crazy how you went and did all that and now you’re not going on in the movie field. That’s not something I’m really interested in.”

Yet although Holland says it’s “time to move on a little bit”, he also admits he would be open to any offers. “A lot of people say well why don’t you just get up with a bacon company and do commercials or something… I mean I wouldn’t mind doing that if they came and asked me.” After Wife Swap, a company did come and film a pilot for Holland’s own show, but it never amounted to anything. “I mean you'd be lucky to get on TV once in your whole life and I feel like I really enjoyed it when I was up there,” he says when I ask if this was disappointing.

All of this means that Holland hasn’t made much money from his viral fame. Unlike other memes I’ve spoken to, he hasn’t earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I believe I got 150 bucks,” he says of his “Update” YouTube video, “All the other stuff like the ‘Bacon is good for me’ songs, they’ve [the creators] made $75,000 and that’s a lot of money putting away."

“I mean it don’t annoy me because it ain’t my fault; it’s nobody’s fault in the situation. They found a way around the system,” he says when I ask if he’s annoyed at others’ making money at his expense.

Nowadays, Holland is still recognised when he is out and about, and says he has signed over one thousand autographs in his life (once he was wary of a neighbourhood policeman who was asking him to sign a parking ticket, before he realised he simply wanted an autograph). “I don’t get sick of it, but of course you’ve got a few people that want to be rude about what you’re doing.

“I really don’t care, I’m a really upbeat kind of person. If there's somebody in a computer screen telling me something that means nothing, you know?”

For Holland, then, the good outweighs the bad. Apart from being asked after by Lucy Hale, his favourite thing about going viral is that he gets to make people laugh. “If I can go up to somebody and make their day and make them smile, I feel like I’ve done a great thing,” he says.

I end the interview with Holland like I end all of my interviews with memes: by asking him if there’s anything he would like to say – a message he’d like to get out there, or a misconception he’d like to clear up – now that he has the chance.

“Oh nothing I've got to say,” he begins, “except bacon is still good for me.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.