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

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

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