Stroke Me Gently

Men stroked in their pants to shed light on chemistry that bonds relationships.  (?!) The article is published in The Guardian’s News section, Science>Society for Neuroscience annual meeting,  Ian Sample, science correspondent, reporting from San Diego.

Is the title deliberately ambiguous? Were men wearing their pants while being stroked? Were they stroked inside their pants? What implement was used to perform stroking? What sort of relationships? Between men and their pants? Within the group of men being stroked?

Am I being insufferably petulant? Still, it’s odd to be confused by the word choice in — of all places — The Guardian.  As one commenter noted, the comedy potential is strong with this one.

The article’s byline “sheds light” on the muddled title:  Finnish study finds that gentle stroking changes opioid levels, which helps form lasting bonds.

Well, perhaps it’s an unfortunate translation from Suomi. Finnish isn’t an easy language, unless you are Finnish.  Take this, for instance: Aivokuvantamismenetelmät kognitiivisessa neurotieteessä translates as brain imaging in cognitive neuroscience. Whoa!

The article spills digital ink (blotches abound) on the results of the research, conducted by Lauri Nummenmaa who studies the neural circuitry of emotions at Aalto University of Finland. 9 Finnish couples participated. Finns of male persuasion, naked save for their undies, got under the blankets (one by one, I surmise) in a PET scanner. The scans were taken. Then their partners (sex undisclosed) joined them under their corresponding blankets. They were instructed to touch and stroke the men (in their pants?), avoiding erogenous areas, trying NOT to arouse them sexually. Again, scans were taken.

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“I‘m really proud of the Finnish general public,” said the researcher. “We had no problem whatsoever in recruiting people for the experiment.” She must’ve had grave doubts about getting Finns under the blankets, but Finns didn’t disappoint…

When the researchers compared the men’s scans, they noticed that gentle stroking caused a drop in natural opioids in brain areas called the ventral striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are mainstays of the brain’s reward circuitry. This was counter to expectations: they had expected levels to rise.

Nummenmaa said that opioid might work in a similar way to a painkiller, with the body needing less the more comfortable it was. “The opioid system is typically engaged during pain, so you get a boost in painful situations. The social touching might be doing exactly the opposite. You can think of it as pain alleviation. That might be the underlying mechanism for why hooking up with others makes us feel so good in the first place.” said Nummenmaa.

The findings suggest that opioids might be the critical chemicals that enable human brains to distinguish between strangers and people who are closer to us, such as friends, families and lovers. Would the results be any different if Nummenmaa let the strangers under those blankets for the second scan? God knows, Finnish men might be as complex as their language…

Caption (in Ukrainian) says: No one stroked him and he became a murderer.

Caption (in Ukrainian) says: No one stroked him and he became a murderer.

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One comment on “Stroke Me Gently

  1. A confusing research to say the least. Given a few gentle strokes could change opioid chemistry, and make one a better persons (?), we know for sure that many lasting relationship don’t come from their “underpants/bedroom” experimental setting.
    The Guardian enthusiasm aside, I doubt this work could pull the Ig-Noble recognition.

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