transcript of episode 22: POO, VOMIT, WIND, 10th December 2021

[🎶 INTRO: "Spring Swing" by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

welcome to the error bar: where brain whoppers are whooped

in this episode: how smelling bodily odour stops men from killing & makes women warriors, how alcoholic binges shrink your brain & the wind farms that make you sick

here is the brain news on the 10th December 2021:



the online science platform, the journal Science & the Daily Mail all lead with the news that the smell of babies makes men less aggressive & women more aggressive.

you'd expect, then, that the reported study involved men & women smelling babies. it didn't.

it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next t...


eight & a half minutes?

i'm done.

alright, alright, i'll think of something...

what the researchers actually did was use a synthetic organic molecule called hexadecanal, or HEX, in liquid form. HEX was first found to be emitted by mice.

by mice.

but there are similar-looking chemicals in humans which may, as in mice, play a role in social interaction. HEX is found in human skin, faeces, breath & saliva.

the researchers asked 127 people to sniff HEX or an inert control smell, then to play some aggression-rousing computer games with virtual opponents.

the scientists measured how much the players chose to punish their annoying virtual opponents. after sniffing HEX men decreased their punishments, while women increased them.

some more people were put into a brain scanner where sniffing the HEX chemical provoked more activity in the angular gyrus - an important part of the brain involved in language, social signals, movement, tool use, sniffing babies' heads & lots more.

males & females showed different patterns of brain activity connecting with the angular gyrus. these connections were interpreted in terms of the social significance of the annoying computer game.

some extra data collected at another laboratory, showed that babies excrete HEX from their heads. this amazing finding confirms that babies are, in fact, human.

the discovery that babies are human led the authors to propose an astonishing hypothesis:

the smell of HEX makes men LESS aggressive so that they don't kill babies.


the smell of HEX makes women MORE aggressive so that they can defend babies from (male) attack.

yeah, that sounds fine.


do babies heads make men calm down?


this paper has nothing to do with babies' heads. remember: the natural version of the synthetic chemical is found in mice, many other animals & in human skin, breath, saliva & faeces. yes: faeces. maybe smelling poo calms men down? we may never know.

having dealt with the baby red herring & the nonsense, sexist, post-hoc, just-so story about why men constantly need to be stopped from killing babies, let's look at the data.

along with the aggression findings, the men in the study also found the smell stimulus 'less intense' than women, & these ratings became more extreme as the experiment progressed. this finding could partly explain the aggression ratings, assuming that intense smells make people aggressive.

but apart from that, i am ashamed to admit that i did not find anything so wrong in this paper. if you can get past the ridiculous confirmation-biased evolutionary-psychology bullshit that men want to kill babies & women protect them - which i can't - then this seems a fair study.

large sample sizes, clear presentation of methods & data, sensible-sounding analyses, mostly good stats. indeed, this paper is so acceptable that it really winds me up. i can just see the red mist coming down over my eyes, the blood boiling in my veins & all i can think about is going out to kill some babies.

wait, here's my old pants. [deep breath in]... ahh, it really works.


anything mammal will do


the science was by Mishor et al. 2021: Science Advances; reported in The Scientist by @tennchloe on 22/Nov/21, & The Daily Mail by @jwillchad on 19/Nov/21



in yet more troubling news for the error bar's share price, the massive over-consumption of alcohol has been linked to immediate brain shrinkage.

the story in the Daily Mail recounts a study of 78 students at the University of Missouri. each one was humanely trapped on campus about 11 days before their 21st birthday. they were tagged, their brain was scanned, then returned to the wild.

two weeks later - several days after massive, alcohol-soaked 21st celebrations - 50 of the wild young students were recaptured, interviewed about their birthday alcohol consumption & scanned again.

the results were, it's fair to say, shocking - the estimated level of alcohol in some students' blood should have been enough to kill them. perhaps the students had exaggerated or forgotten just how much vomiting they had done? taking account of this, the brains of those who drunk more had shrunk, while the brains of the alcohol free remained the same.

the authors focused on the back half of the corpus callosum - an important part of the brain which connects the left & right sides. indeed, the brain as a whole showed a similar, but smaller trend.


does binge drinking shrink the brain?

yes, it seems so.

at first i was skeptical because the main figure in the paper seemed to show data very different from the reported statistics. as an error bar nerd, i can spot a dodgy statistic from a mile away, plus or minus three furlongs. the graphical relationship between the birthday booze binge & changes in brain volume just looked too strong to be true.

but, the methods & analysis in the paper looked good & the authors had provided their raw data freely on the Open Science Framework website. error bar brownie points. so i quickly re-analysed their data & found the same relationship between booze & the brain that they had reported in the text.

in the spirit of Christmas, i emailed the authors about the problem with the figure, they replied quickly & in an error bar exclusive: they are looking into it.

i'll report back if & when there's an update on the graph, but until then, do drink responsibly this Christmas else your brain will shrink.


don't do drugs, kids


the science was by Hua et al. 2020: Alcoholism, Clinical And Experimental Research; reported in The Daily Mail by Stacy Liberatore on 23/Nov/21

and the brain in brief...



journalists from the Guardian went to Toulouse, France, to report on the story that a Belgian couple have been awarded one hundred & ten thousand euros after a wind farm - 700 metres from their house - damaged their health.

in another case of wind turbine syndrome, the afflicted couple reported "headaches, insomnia, heart irregularities, depression, dizziness, tinnitus & nausea for more than two years".

regular listeners to the error bar will recall episode 17, Havana Syndrome, in which we reported that the Russians & Chinese are definitely, definitely, for sure, firing precise, ultra-powerful microwave mind rays to disturb the psychological well-being of America's top spies.

recall the BBC reporting that Havana syndrome involves "a low hum, intense pressure in the skull, a pulse of pain, heat or pressure, dizziness and fatigue that lasts for months."

that's right: neither Havana Syndome nor Wind Turbine Syndrome are psychosomatic syndromes caused by stress. there's always a sinister explanation; the truth is out there.

[X-files music]

skeptical scientists told the Guardian that these are "sociological phenomena", caused by local activists' negative expectations, whipping the locals into a fine hypochondriac mousse.


sometimes the cause of unexplained illness is not wind-farms, aliens, the russians, mobile phone masts, 5g masts or whatever tech is next, but just our beautiful, complicated brains.


reported in The Guardian by @kimwillsher1 on 8/Nov/21



the error bar is put together in a whirlwind of reading, critiquing & editing on top of a busy schedule. occasionally, the error bar errs.

one thing i've been doing is to poach...

poach? i'll try that again.

one thing i've been doing is to ppst each story onto the peer review platform, so that anyone using this great service can also find the podcast coverage.

the problem, as highlighted this week by one of the authors of a study i reviewed in summer, is that the discussion may be 'taken out of context'.

in episode 14, SILLY SEASON, i complained that the media & some unnamed scientists were talking nonsense about mirror neurons, that they had been doing this for decades & that they need to stop.

the story itself was prompted by a review of the benefits of watching others move in neurological rehabilitation. but the authors of that review article - Ryan & colleagues - had nothing to do with the hype & spin that i was complaining about.

i am sorry for the mis-understanding i created. i shall try to be more clear about [at] whom my ire is aimed.




[🎶 OUTRO: "Cosmopolitan - Margarita - Bellini"by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next time for more brain news, fact-checking & neuro-opinions. take care.

the error bar was devised & produced by Dr Nick Holmes from University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. the music by Dee Yan-Kee is available from the free music archive. find us at the error bar dot com, on twitter at bar error, or email talk at the error bar dot com