Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Kissing Mirror Neurons

On my return trip from Thanksgiving vacation, I had the pleasure of taking DC's Metro to Union Station. At some point early in the trip, four college-aged girls boarded the train. I naturally noticed this because they were all hotties (two of them were super-hotties). I got a bit curious when I noticed that they formed two pairs that were uneasily close. Could it be??

Nah, probably just my imagination; besides, it's rude to stare. So I went back to reading my magazine. But they weren't about to let me do that--they were being noisy. And every time I looked up, my suspicions were bolstered. That's when I saw the blatant Public Display of Affection: "All right, lesbians!" Not staring was more difficult now as was holding back my excitement. At the next stop they got off the Metro and my ride got mundane again.

A famous comedienne (sorry I can't remember which one) once commented on how she didn't understand men's obsessions with lesbians. After all, lesbianism is the ultimate dismissal of masculinity; it should logically be threatening to men. But it's not. Why not?

That's actually a pretty interesting question. In a rational world, men wouldn't get turned on by girl on girl action, but believe me, they do. For a long time, my explanation for this derived from my rudimentary knowledge of evolutionary psychology. Males are out to spread their seed, so they see a lesbian coupling as an opportunity to jump in and procreate more. Females, on the other hand, want a man who will help rear her children, so homosexuals are a bad investment.

This hypothesis started to unravel for me, though. It seemed that every woman I brought the subject up with, was not only cool with having gay male companions, but would jump at the opportunity to go party at a gay bar. I realize that this is anecdotal and that their motives might not in fact be voyeuristic (but their mannerisms somehow gave me that deja-vu feeling of "All right, lesbians!"). This was seriously undermining my EP hypothesis; I needed something new.

On the Amtrak train back to Philly (with the "METRO incident" still fresh on my mind) I read an article about mirror neurons. Everything just clicked together and now I had my new pet hypothesis.

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself performing the action. These neurons have been observed in primates, including humans, and in some birds.

Mirror neurons were first discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and other Italian neuroscientists. They were first discovered in monkeys whose brains were wired up with electrodes; they were later confirmed to exist in humans (recent research suggests that humans are particularly well-endowed with mirror neurons). The interesting thing about mirror neurons is that they seem to be sensitive to intent. For example, in the monkey experiments, when the simian watched a hand pick up an object, the same neurons fired as when the monkey itself picked up that object; but when it watched a hand pretend to pick up a non-existent object, the neurons didn't fire. And this pattern was observed even when the monkey's view was obscured by a screen. In other words, when the monkey knew there was an object behind the screen, its (mirror) neurons fired when it watched the hand go behind the screen to pick up the object; but they failed to fire when the monkey knew there was nothing behind the screen.

It stands to reason that we have mirror neurons for kissing. These same neurons that fire when we kiss someone should also fire when we watch others kissing someone. And I would expect that if you're the kind of person who is aroused by kissing (I'll go ahead and aver that that's the predominance of humanity), watching others kiss should trigger some of those same feelings.

But how does this explain men's particular fascination with lesbians? My answer is "the necker cube effect." The Necker Cube is an optical illusion. It consists of 12 interconnected lines drawn on a flat surface. The human brain wants to see it in three dimensions and so adds depth to it. But it doesn't end there; there are two possible 3D configurations: with the lower square up front and with the upper square up front. Since both are possible, and since the brain can't "see" them simultaneously, it flips back and forth. I usually see the lower square up front first, then it starts to flip-flop back and forth.

Perhaps a more appropriate optical illusion is the "two ladies or one" illusion (are the two ladies about to kiss?) ;-)

One of my favorites, though, is the Lyondell cube. Below is my foam Lyondell cube. It is just a cube with a smaller cube cut out of one of its corners. But if you look at it from the right angle, the missing corner becomes a solid cube budding out from the main cube--then it reverts back to a hole. The effect is quite eerie when you hold the cube and wiggle and wobble it in your hand. Just freaky!

Animated Lyondell Cube

My hypothesis is that when watching lesbians kiss, men's kissing mirror neurons are activated, but then, just like the necker cube, they start to flip back and forth between which girl is activating the mirror neurons (and this adds extra excitement).

Since I came up with this hypothesis on the fly, I realize that
A) It may be total bunk, and/or
B) Someone else may have already come up with the same idea.

However I find it intriguing enough to just go with it.

On that note I'll leave you with a short YouTube video (I should probably insert an "adult content" warning here, but if you're the type who is offended by to consenting adults kissing, then you're probably also offended by my posts on religion. Which means that this weblog is not for you.)

And if my hypothesis is correct, I certainly wouldn't want to slight any straight females or gay males who may stumble upon this post.

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