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Who will be singing the next Bond song? Who should be?

Now’s the moment to be a fan of the Bond songs. SPECTRE, the new film, comes out this November. That means we’ll hear an official unofficial leak of the title song sometime this summer. Everybody’s been guessing who the singer is. Twitter says it’ll be Sam Smith or Lana Del Rey. Sam Smith says it isn’t him and claims that he “heard Ellie Goulding was going to do it.” The Telegraph wants to know why no one has considered Mumford and Sons (don’t answer that). Even Vegas is paying attention. Who would you put your money on?

 

For film-music nerds there has always been an added dimension to the announcement of the next Bond title (whether this happened in the end credits of the previous film, or in some big announcement, once the films ran out of Fleming novels to not-really adapt). We now know there will probably be a song called “SPECTRE” by the fall – unless producers decide the title is unsingable and decide to grant dispensation. (Rita Coolidge was spared having to sing a song called “Octopussy,” for which she’s likely pretty grateful.) Many others probably wondered, too: what kind of voice could belt out a word like “SPECTRE” and make it sound convincing, haunting, and appropriately Bond-esque?

Given how well (and successfully) Adele did this for “Skyfall,” there’s more riding on whether “SPECTRE” make sense as a song than there was on previous songs. Surely the Bond-producers feel some of that pressure. There are some recent choices that felt a bit phoned-in (Chris Cornell? Really?). Adele’s “Skyfall” was a big part of that movie’s identity; the expectations of “SPECTRE” will be huge.

So who will it be? We have our considered opinions as nerds who’ve just written a book about the James Bond songs. But luckily you won’t have to rely on our considered opinions. Because bookies have done the same research that we have, and unlike us they’ve got something riding on this. But all they can give you are odds. We’ll explain them. So here is who it will be, who it could be, and who it should be. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Lana Del Rey

A strong choice. Self-conscious 60s throwback? Check. Orchestral textures without too much of a beat? Check. Breathy chanteuse with a vague sense of menace? You betcha. So why won’t it be her? Lana Del Rey broke an unwritten rule of Bond-songs: don’t write one on spec. There is a long history of artists sending in songs to the Bond-producers hoping to get picked: Johnny Cash wrote a Tex-Mex “Thunderball,” Alice Cooper wrote a “Man with the Golden Gun.” None of them got picked. While Lana Del Rey didn’t come out and say it, her most recent album contained a Bond-song in all-but-name: “Shades of Cool.” Thanks for playing, Lana.

 

Coldplay

Wait, you say. Coldplay? In 2006 maybe, but now? Well, picking Adele for the last song was a canny move for the Bond-producers, but traditionally the producers were not exactly known for capturing the musical zeitgeist. Usually by the time they got around to signing an artist for their next film, you could bet that that artist was already getting a bit stale. These are fifty-year-olds with the aesthetic sensibilities of a seventy-year-old picking songs for twenty-year-olds – needless to say, it always goes great. Has your mom heard of Coldplay? Of course, at her Pilates class. At the same time, the decision to go with Adele for “Skyfall” was pretty clued in. If it’s a sign the producers are wising up, Coldplay is probably (and mercifully) out.

Florence and the Machine

Specialists in big, orchestral, almost operatic sound, a strong female voice, and moody, often narrative lyrics – Florence and the Machine have the Bond sound even when not making a Bond song. Which may indeed be what might do them in. A lot of Bond acts were counterintuitive picks at the time. At least once we get beyond the stalwarts (Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, and Dionne Warwick), you’ll often catch yourself thinking: oh shit, XYZ did a Bond-song? It seems like the producers intended that effect. If Florence and the Machine did a Bond song, it would just like the one they did for that one movie with that girl from Twilight. And for that Game of Thrones trailer. And…

Ed Sheeran

A strange choice at first blush, but that has more to do with the way we think of Bond songs than with the way they’ve actually been. We think menace, up-tempo. But there was a period when Bond songs sounded very different, and the question is whether Bond producers remember that time more fondly than we do. Listen to Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” or Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” and you’ll be shocked that those were Bond songs. Fan boys griped that they lacked respect for the conventions of the genre, but here’s the thing: consumers ate them up. A Sheeran ballad, downtempo and infused with decidedly vanilla sexuality, could tap into that: no Bond fan’s favorite, but a record that sells. At the same time, who the hell still makes film songs hoping to sell records?

Karen O

Five words: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The opening sequence to David Fincher’s Stieg Larsson adaptation (also starring Daniel Craig) was a Bond title sequence done way, way better – disturbing, hallucinatory, visceral in all the ways that Bond-sequences haven’t been for decades. And through it all the rip-roaring Karen O-cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” You bet the producers saw that sequence and thought: we need something like this to open a Bond-film. But you bet the producers also saw the barely-breaking-even box-office receipts for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Why bring on Karen O (or Trent Reznor) when they’ve done a quasi-Bond, and it was widely perceived as a flop?

 

Adele

They wouldn’t go with Adele again, would they? Well, with any other franchise you could bet on that. But when you get a huge hit out of a singer, when that singer’s effort is called “the best since Goldfinger,” and when Goldfinger was sung by an artist who ended up doing three Bond songs? Doesn’t sound so nuts now, does it? The British tabloids say Adele’s the one. But remember: the Bassey songs (“Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever,” and “Moonraker”) were spread out over a fifteen-year period. So even if the producers think Adele is their new Shirley Bassey, expect her to return a film or two from now, but not right away. Not that it wouldn’t be fun to hear Adele wrap her weirdo hybrid Anglo-American pronunciation around the word spectre.

 

Lady Gaga

There’s precedent for electronica-based Bond songs; that’s the good news. In our professional opinion that precedent, Madonna’s Die Another Day, is one of the all-time greats. The bad news is that many felt different when the song came out. Critics liked it, but Bond fans were livid. So in handicapping Gaga, the question becomes: who gets to decide? At the same time, nostalgia is the Bond song’s go-to mode, and Gaga’s appeal always contained a healthy dose of nostalgia. So Gaga might actually be a more natural fit than Madonna. Plus, Gaga’s recent collaborations with Tony Bennett have moved her closer to the traditional Bond song sound.

Ellie Goulding

Sam Smith (Vegas’s odds-on favorite for the gig) suggested her – and maybe he’s onto something. Adele was the rare singer who can get fifty-year-old Bond nerds and twenty-year-olds to agree on something. But it was probably the twenty-year-olds who pushed the track up the pop charts. If that’s how the producers see it, then why not go with Ellie Goulding? Sure, the electro-sprite will leave behind the fifty-year-olds, and certainly the Bond nerds. But she’ll bring in the kids, and she might even bring them into the theater before they decide to torrent SPECTRE. Ellie Goulding was spotted leaving Abbey Road Studios.

That's a wrap! 🙏🏼

A photo posted by elliegoulding (@elliegoulding) on

Bruno Mars

Yeah, you wish. If producers decide to fully youthify Bond, Mars could be a phenomenal choice. But the Bond producers have resisted going full fountain-of-youth on their franchise. (Craig is younger than Roger Moore, but it’s not like replacing William Shatner with Chris Pine!) Bond lives in a kind of generational no-man’s-land, where young and old could agree on tolerating the song. Mars embodies a type of male singer that the Bond producers have rarely tapped for their songs (same reason why John Legend won’t get picked). It’s weird. The female performers have been a regular United Colors of Benneton-ad; the male performers have resembled the US Supreme Court (one black guy). Think about it: the Norwegians from a-ha, the Brits from Duran Duran, Chris Cornell, Jack White … wait, maybe the Coldplay people are on to something.

Sam Smith

Speaking of super-white: Sam Smith, ladies and gentlemen. He may deny it, but he’s the prohibitive favorite if the professional bookmakers and Out magazine are to be believed. And it makes a lot of sense. Hot off a bunch of award wins, Sam Smith is basically the Adele of 2015, and he sort of sounds like her too. A white crooner with strong pretensions at blackness; a strong, identifiable voice that can nevertheless accommodate itself to different genres; songs about relationships that aren’t as dippy as Ellie Goulding’s, as messed-up as Gaga’s, or as tantrically boring as Coldplay’s. Behold 2015’s consensus candidate. Will the song be any good? With the right songwriters and producers absolutely. Will this be the most interesting Bond song imaginable? Hell no.

Update 2 August 2015:

Radiohead

The new consensus candidate? It started when someone walked into a U.K. betting parlor and laid a £15,000 wager on Radiohead at 10/1 odds. (It wasn’t us. Could it have been Jonny Greenwood?) The bookies got so freaked out they shut down the betting. And then people remembered, hey, didn’t Radiohead do a cover of “Nobody Does It Better”? If it is Radiohead it’ll be an interesting and somewhat counterintuitive followup to the massive hit that was “Skyfall.” Because Radiohead are for people who still buy albums. They’ve never been about top-10 pop singles, and their audience barely overlaps with the consumers who made “Skyfall” a smash. What’s more, there are very few times the Bond films have actually gone with a band (and a brand) as established as Radiohead. There’s no Rolling Stones Bond song, no Pink Floyd, no Talking Heads; only Paul McCartney and Wings. (Sorry, Duran Duran and–oh yeah–a-ha….) That’s because having a strong identity, a recognizable sound and an established style of songwriting isn’t always a good thing, since Bond songs have to mostly sound like Bond songs. So does this tell us it won’t be Radiohead? Not at all. But if it is them, that means producers learned a very different lesson from “Skyfall” than one might imagine: not “that thing worked like gangbusters, let’s do it again,” but rather “we’ve got good taste and good ideas and we should trust them. Time to surprise everyone.”

 

Featured image credit: “Microphone” by Michael Indigo, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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What Happened, Miss Simone? : Liz Garbus’ documentary in review

Award-winning director Liz Garbus has made a compelling, if sometimes troubling, documentary about a compelling and troubling figure—the talented and increasingly iconic performer, Nina Simone. The title, What Happened, Miss Simone?, comes from an essay that Maya Angelou wrote in 1970. In the opening seconds of the film, excerpts from Angelou’s words appear: “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?”

That passage and the opening segment of What Happened—which juxtaposes Simone’s strange behavior at a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival to “Eight Years Earlier” and an interview and vibrant performance she gave in 1968—suggest that this may be a “typical” celebrity biopic documenting the ascent and descent of a gifted yet tortured star. However, at its best, What Happened, Miss Simone? asks questions that prove to be both much more important and interesting. “What happened” is the frame through which Garbus explores how a classically-trained pianist produced an enormous catalogue of music, from love songs to political anthems, Beatles to Bob Dylan, folk to jazz. The film considers why Simone, who began her career in the late 1950s to sing popular music in her unforgettable baritone voice and who was “not allowed to mention anything racial” in her house growing up, gave 1960s black activists some of the most politically engaged music that the movement had. Garbus also asks what happened when Simone’s genius and commitment to black freedom converged with decades of mental illness. What happened, in other words, when a black woman dared to question white supremacy, envisioned freedom, sought love and sexual pleasure, and wanted both commercial success and political commitment at a moment when the United States could not accommodate these desires and demands. These are the questions that animate What Happened, Miss Simone? and make it a mesmerizing portrait of a figure who, precisely because she refused to fit herself into conventional categories, for too long fell outside of the stories we tell about this era.

Garbus allows Simone to tell her own story as much as possible and relies on performances as one important way to do so. We see 26-year-old Simone in 1959 on Hugh Hefner’s (short-lived) television series, Playboy Penthouse, where she performed her first big hit, “I Loves You Porgy,” alongside Hefner and the all-white patrons of his television penthouse. In 1963, Simone realized a lifelong dream when she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall (though she bemoaned the fact that she was not performing Bach). Two years later, Simone performed the incendiary “Mississippi Goddam” on a makeshift stage for 40,000 protesters after the Selma to Montgomery march. The film concludes with Simone’s performance of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in the early 1990s, after she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking the correct medication; with the help of friends and Chanel—which used the song in an advertising campaign—Simone made a comeback after years of mental illness and relative obscurity.

Ruth Feldstein - Nina Simone (2)
“Nina Simone, 1965″ by Dutch National Archives. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Garbus intercuts the many priceless performances with still photos, Simone’s voice from interviews, and scans of handwritten letters and diary entries. The film also refreshingly eschews the “talking heads” approach in which “experts” tell us what to think from their positions of authority. Instead, most of the other voices and “characters” in What Happened are those who lived alongside Simone through these years. This device often works beautifully. Early in the film we “meet” Al Schackman, the guitarist who started playing with Simone in 1957. As he talks about their “telepathic relationship” on stage—she never looked at him or told him what song or what key she would play in before their first show—we see them performing together and hear his explanation of how “before you knew it we were just weaving in and out.” As her singing voice crescendos, he describes her ability to make any piece her own, “morphing” it into “her experience.” We then get her perspective: “I was interested in conveying an emotional message… so sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” In another section, we see Simone’s performance of “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” (from the musical Hair) alongside her affirmations about the importance of black history and black identity. This clip showcases Simone’s ability to cover other music, anticipating, perhaps, the mash-ups of today; taken together, the interview and performance transform these melodies associated with a white-dominated counterculture into a ballad for black power.

But the effort to capture all the possible layers of “what happened” to Nina Simone has trade-offs. Quite simply, What Happened is very packed. It’s not always clear when different events took place. Garbus seldom includes dates to accompany Simone’s voice-overs, nor do we know who is asking the interview questions that we hear at some points.

Even more, Garbus’ method confers a great deal of authority on her non-expert narrators. The role that Simone’s ex-husband, Andy Stroud, plays in What Happened is particularly problematic. On the one hand, it is a great gift that Stroud—a former New York City police detective who became Simone’s manager after their marriage and who has long avoided public attention—speaks so freely. But the casualness with which he discusses his physical and emotional abuse of Simone is unnerving to say the least, and at times he equates her emotional illness with her radical politics. What are we to make of his assertions that he was always pushing for commercial success but that Simone got “sidetracked” by politics—even though, he says derisively, she still wanted nice things, which is why he “promised her that she was going to be a rich black bitch.”

Their daughter, Lisa Simone Kelley (executive producer and herself subject to abuse from Simone in the 1970s), is integral to What Happened and implicitly props her father up when she acknowledges his abuse but declares that her parents “were both nuts” and questions her mother for staying in an abusive relationship. Stroud’s descriptions of escorting Simone to the piano when she was struggling, taking her to psychiatrists when she was unwell, and listening to how “extreme terrorist militants” were “influencing her” become a kind of evidence that he was a concerned husband who had her best interests and career in mind; this narrative focus downplays the abuse that accompanied Stroud’s apparent concern.

Garbus may be asking her viewers to judge these “witnesses” as we make sense of the nexus of genius and mental illness in Nina Simone—to listen, weigh in, assess, and push back, rather than take everything that everyone says at face value. But it’s not a given that everyone will do that and sections of the film depict an abusive relationship in ways that pathologize Simone and her politics. This is not to say that What Happened does not offer other perspectives; Attalah Shabbaz, for example, Malcolm X’s daughter, notes that participating in black activism in the 1960s “rendered chaos in any individual’s [life]. People sacrificed sanity, well-being, life… Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius. So what does that do to a family?” But this insight contrasts with the competing notion that Simone was emotionally unstable and therefore militant in pursuit of black freedom.

Still, with its beautiful weaving together of the professional, personal, and political dimensions of Simone’s life and its inspiring recovery of voices, What Happened, Miss Simone? will surely be the definitive source against which other accounts of Simone’s life are measured. Certainly, it is a researcher’s dream come true. Garbus has unearthed a treasure trove of riveting material; one can only hope that the DVD includes “extras”—the clips from the cutting room floor that didn’t make it in. Ultimately, the lurking question of What Happened, Miss Simone? is filled with devastating poignancy. What happened that the stars aligned so that Simone’s talents could be a voice that inspired and continues to inspire? What happened that she could be such a cogent voice for change and radical politics, well before “black power” was a phrase that people used? What happened that a black woman, who suffered so very much in her own life, could affirm black female power and racial liberation in the myriad and unforgettable ways that she did? We may not have answers, but we can be grateful that Nina Simone continues to inspire, educate, and yes, entertain.

Image Credit: “nina4″ by GLinG GLoMo. CC BY NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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Capturing the essence of Madame Bovary

A new film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s French classic Madame Bovary, starring Mia Wasikowska and Ezra Miller, has just been released.

Considered to be one of the great masterpieces of 19th century literature, Madame Bovary tells the tragic story of Emma Rouault, whose unhappy provincial marriage leads her into two adulterous affairs — first with the young and intelligent Léon and then with the dashing and seductive Rodolphe.

The tragic story has been told and retold in a number of adaptations since the text’s original publication in 1856 in serial form. But what differences from the text should we expect in this film adaptation? Will there be any astounding plot points left out or added to the mix?

Film director Sophie Barthes explains one of the decisions she made that forces the film to deviate (at least slightly) from the text:

 

…[T]he choice was not to have a child which would be processing the whole story because in the book she’s very ambivalent about her child, and if you put only a few scenes then she just becomes a bad mother. And I think with Madame Bovary everything is much more complex than that. She’s not a bad mother, she’s just a conflicted person about everything. So all the little choices you’re making along the way, in the process you hope you don’t lose the spirit of the book.

An adaptation is, of course, a derivative work and allows for creative liberty. We see this with many film adaptations; it is not always necessary to recreate every detail or plot point in a book to get a certain theme or message across.

Despite her taking creative liberties, Barthes also explains that she captures what she hopes is the essence of the protagonist Emma Bovary:

 

She embodies a piece of [the] human condition. … The complexity of the character, her psychology, the fact that you can never really grasp who she is… she is an eternal character because she has very early bi-polarity. … There’s something about her that is very enigmatic and you can never fully grasp who she is.

As far as the director’s intentions are concerned, her adaptation of Madame Bovary will in fact do it justice. But we’ll leave that decision for you to make.

 

If you’ve seen the movie already, what did you think? Were the creative liberties justified, given its medium and 2-hour length? Let us know in the comments section.

Featured image: Madame Bovary. (c). Alchemy/Millennium Entertainment via NYTimes.com.

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The Jurassic world of … dinosaurs?

The latest incarnation (I chose that word advisedly!) of the Jurassic Park franchise has been breaking box-office records and garnering mixed reviews from the critics. On the positive side the film is regarded as scary, entertaining, and a bit comedic at times (isn’t that what most movies are supposed to be?). On the negative side the plot is described as rather ‘thin’, the human characters two-dimensional, and the scientific content (prehistoric animals) unreliable, inaccurate, or lacking entirely in credibility.

Within the paleontological community, there have been a few voices criticising the appearance of some of the CGI dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. For example, the velociraptor is too large, and they do not show the raptors with feathers or at least a ‘shaggy’ filamentous covering. Their hands and claws are also not articulated correctly. The mosasaur is too big (not strictly true, as some mosasaur fossils are very large!), and the pterosaurs are seen eating the wrong sorts of organisms altogether! Quite a few of these technical criticisms reflect the fact that paleontological research has made advances in the two decades and more since the first Jurassic Park movie appeared on our screens.

So, why are the ‘dinosaurs’ so inaccurate? I listened with considerable interest to an interview in the run-up to the launch of the movie, by a friend and colleague Jack Horner (a genuine dinosaur palaeontologist from the Museum of the Rockies in Montana who acted as an advisor to the Jurassic World production team). In the face of these criticisms his basic point was that Jurassic World was entertainment and in the final analysis it was “… just a movie”. It was never intended to be a documentary about the scientific basis of our understanding of prehistoric life. Of course he was able to advise the animators on the most likely posture and style of movement displayed by the CGI movie stars so that they look as life-like as possible. Jack was naturally concerned about the absence of filaments and/or feathers on some of the dinosaurs, but from an editorial perspective there was an over-riding need to maintain some continuity in appearance of the animals seen by audiences in previous movies: the raptors had to look like the raptors of the original Jurassic Park. And that simple and essentially pragmatic acceptance (the need for continuity) underplates the awful dilemma faced by any ‘expert/consultant’ hired by the production team of a multimillion dollar enterprise such as Jurassic World.

The priorities of the movie makers with regard to narrative and appearance will always outweigh the science-based accuracy desired by the advisor. In such circumstances, commercial ‘reality’ always trumps scientific realism. All any advisor can hope for is that the film makers don’t take too many liberties with the animals and how they are portrayed (thereby avoiding some of the scorn of peers) and that there might be some financial benefit from any success at the box-office that can result in genuine paleontological research as a very desirable spin-off. Even small amounts of money (by movie-industry standards) can be enormously beneficial for real scientific research programmes. So are there any other benefits that accrue from movies about dinosaurs?

Jurassic Dinosaurs
Tyrannosaurus Rex, the “King Lizard”, is perhaps the best known of the Jurassic Dinosaurs (Image: Public Domain via Pixabay)

There is little doubt that the first Jurassic Park had a beneficial impact on the public interest in dinosaurs. I went to see that film and still remember the thrill of that first glimpse of the incredibly realistic CGI brachiosaur browsing on a tree. I was mightily impressed (even if I didn’t like the way it reared up on this hind legs!). Children and students were inspired by such visions and wanted to know more, museums were inundated with visitors and the challenge was to use the interest to tell visitors more about the scientific study of such ancient creatures. Michael Crichton’s original plot-line of Jurassic Park linked the then comparatively new biotechnological developments (DNA amplification using PCR) with the neat twist of being able to extract dinosaur blood cells (and of course DNA) preserved in the stomachs of blood-sucking insects. Believe it or not, the publicity surrounding that film actually facilitated a number of lines of research into biomolecule preservation in ancient fossil animals. This research was not motivated by the prospect of bringing dinosaurs back to life, but as a chance to investigate the evidence of some biomolecules (or fragments thereof) being preserved in fossils that were 10s of millions of years old (if the conditions of preservation were just right). Counter to the scientific expectation of the time (biomolecules could not possibly survive for millions of years) some remnants have indeed been found.

But where are we now, I wonder? Jurassic World seems to me to represent a progressive and I believe unavoidable drift toward entertainment at the expense of scientific credibility. We are now in the realm of the imaginary dinosaur (prehistoric monster) funfair disaster movie and lightweight morality tale. At best it perhaps conjures up that old aphorism about our tampering with ecology (our biosphere) at our peril. Beyond that, palaeontologists should either stay at home or do like everyone else: switch off brain, sit back with a bag of popcorn, and enjoy the show. As Jack Horner said: “it’s just a movie”!

Featured image credit: “Velociraptor” by sgtfury. Public domain via Pixabay.

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50 shades of touch

Disgusting or delighting, exciting or boring, sensual or expected, no matter what you think about it, 50 Shades of Grey is certainly not a movie that passes by without leaving a mark on your skin. Based on E.L. James’ novel (honestly, somehow even more breathtaking than the movie), it tells the story of the complicated relationship between the dominant multi-millionaire Christian Grey, and the newly graduated, inexperienced, and shy, Ana Steele. Christian leads Ana towards his sensuous and deviant world (though, who really does take the lead is unclear), made of ropes, riding crops, chains, and strict rules. Since the first time I saw the movie, and when I read the book, I could not help but think about the sense of touch, the main object of my scientific research into the neurocognitive mechanisms of human perception, emotions, and desires. After all, isn’t the novel about the sensual power of touch? How arousing can a light touch on the neck be? A kiss to the hair? And what about the constriction of rope around your wrists? I was reflecting about where this incredible power comes from, and here my research can help.

We now know that human bodies have a privileged path to pleasure, one that passes through the sense of touch: CT fibers. These neural fibers conduct information to the brain from the non-glabrous areas of the body (from those body parts with hairs) and are activated by a caress like stimulus. They must signal comfort and pleasure to our brain, which reacts accordingly. This system is probably an inheritance from our monkey-like ancestors, social animals that used to groom one another, also as a way to set their reciprocal status (dominance) within the group. However, touch is much more than that; it also contributes to the release of hormones, oxytocin in particular, the bonding (or cuddle, as popularly defined) hormone. From a scientific point of view, touch actually sets the pace of a relationship, as there is evidence regarding the presence of a strong correlation between the level of blood oxytocin, the amount of touch within a couple, and the quality of their relationship as rated by the couple.

The two main characters in the novel seem to be attracted towards one another by a magnetic force, which pushes their bodies towards unexplored limits. Another important function of touch is actually to set the limits of our body, to define what is ‘us’ and what is not. Not surprisingly, in the last few years, discussion on the neural substrates of ‘body ownership’ has become very popular among cognitive neuroscientists. That is, how our brains can define which body parts do and don’t belong to us. “Where our touch begins, so do we,” I often tell my students at university, and when someone touches us, we lose a bit of this limit; we become part of the other person.

Undeniably, the novel is also about the relationship between dominance and submission; about the question of who is really in charge. However, what really is the difference between these two aspects? Isn’t the sense of touch the real leader in this situation too? Who can touch? When? How? Where? We can watch and hear, but we cannot touch someone without consent. In the author’s second novel, 50 Shades Darker, the ‘untouchable’ Christian asks Ana to use a red lipstick to draw on his chest a map of body areas that she is allowed to touch and areas that are off-limits. Again I’m led to wonder, is touch really that powerful? Scientific research provides a positive answer to this question. Touch has been shown to affect people’s compliance towards a request, their willingness to give more, and their desire to please someone. A number of researchers have shown that people are much more willing to say yes to a request if they are touched first.

The Oculus Rift,. A 2013 virtual reality headset from Oculus VR, a company Facebook acquired in 2014 for $2 billion. By Sebastian Stabinger. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, 50 Shades of Grey is also about the boundaries between pleasure and pain. Many people may wonder why some individuals are willing to receive corporal punishments by someone they love (and even take pleasure from it). More generally, how can a ‘spank’ be perceived as pleasant? The answer to these kind of questions certainly has much to do with the ‘reward neural circuits’, buried in some of the deepest and evolutionarily oldest parts of our brain. No one would perceive pain as pleasant when out of the right context. Just as other sensations, pain is a creation of the brain; as a colleague of mine is often heard saying: ‘no brain, no pain’, and I’m inclined to agree. Many stimulations in the brain interact to determine the perception of pain, and touch certainly takes an important role in this modulation of sensations. Sensual touch is a strong reward, and the brain can lead you everywhere in order to get its reward. Even pain under these conditions can become pleasant.

It’s interesting to consider the same novel without so much reference to touch, and even more interestingly, how our lives might be without tactile sensations. How might our relationships be? These thoughts lead me to think about another aspect relevant to my research: human-machine interfaces. Modern technology, if it continues to be effective, will need to use touch, especially in order to reproduce social interactions. Virtual reality in particular will have limited use without the capability to reproduce realistic connections between our bodies and objects, and/or between people’s bodies (being them real on just computer-generated). Here, I have a specific scene from the movie in mind, the one where Christian uses an ice cube to arouse Ana (admittedly a very often-adopted image in fictional erotic scenes). The effect is strong, and its visual impact intuitive. How can technology reproduce something similar? The sensation of wetness on the skin is certainly a very complex one. From a neuroscientific point of view, it requires the activation of at least two classes of receptors: one for temperature; the other for movement over the skin. Without this mixture of neural signals (and the brain’s interpretation of them) we cannot get such a sensation, just as when you do not feel your body wet while lying completely still in a bathtub full of hot water. So how can these sensations be reproduced artificially? Every time I think about these aspects, I can’t help but think about what a huge challenge this is. Will technology ever be able to get even close? Will touch through interfaces become possible between two people separated by miles? I want to be positive, but in order to get there, researchers will need to increase their study into the powerful and still mysterious sense of touch, in all its 50 (and more) shades.

As a neuroscientist, and a man who is hypnotized by the magic behind that sense, I am definitely thrilled about what we will learn in the future regarding the brain mechanisms responsible for tactile sensations!

Featured image: “Shades of Gray” By AnonMoos. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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