When I started writing, the notion of doing research for a book was an anathema. How dare you suggest that an iota of my literary brilliance resides anywhere but inside my head, I thought. I would react angrily to any suggestion that a piece of my writing might benefit from a bit of research. Wasn’t it tantamount to failure to admit I didn’t have all the answers, that my work might be a product of something or someone other than myself?
I think starting out in any creative field often comes with an urgent and disproportionate need to prove yourself. I, like many others, tried to be bolder, more audacious and more innovative in order to achieve the meteoric rise that my romanticised ideals of the artist demanded. Part of this ideal were two key needs. Firstly, I wanted to be original because if my work was a copy or extension of someone else’s than there was nothing special about me, anybody could have done it. Which leads to the second need. I wanted complete ownership of my work so that no-one else could claim any of the credit for its inevitable success.
I slowly came to realise that these beliefs were both incorrect and stunting. There is no creative undertaking that can be achieved entirely alone. Inspiration comes from the people, events and art that surround you. Support comes from friends, mentors and books during the long and difficult process of writing. What about the suggestions of your first reader, the numerous discussion you will have about characters and plot? There are certainly parts of the writing process that are solitary but the process as a whole is a complex web of interaction, imagination and hard work. If after all that hard work your book gets published there is yet another level of collaboration. At the very least you need an editor and these days you also need a small team of people to produce the book and ensure that people other than you nuclear family (and long-suffering partner) ever read it.
So research is good. Profound, I know, but that’s not really what I’m trying to say. It’s not just that I’ve come to see the value of research but that it’s become one of my favourite avenues for learning. I am fortunate enough to have fairly good memory and have a love for information that baffles or intrigues. For example I calculated how many seconds are in a year when I was 14 and still remember the answer (it’s 31 557 600 – for an actual year i.e. 365.25 days). I can tell you that bats always turn left when exiting a cave, that a duck quack does not echo or that we know the universe is expanding because of the observable red shift of distant stars. For most of my post-internet life, my ad hoc learning has been as a result of of an interest created by something I’ve read, seen or experienced. More recently my learning has been increasingly influenced by what I’m writing to more obscure and entertaining ends than I could have imagined.
Entertaining, because I feel the need to share my discoveries with anyone who will listen and more recently the nature of my learnings have changed the response from “oh how interesting” to silence, raised eyebrows and awkwardness, on behalf of my listener anyway. When this happens I find myself having to qualify immediately with “don’t worry, I had to find this out as research for a book” (subtext – i’m not a weirdo who has a direct interest in this information). My listener gives a relieved laugh and suddenly we are free to discuss something that might previously have been taboo. E voila, a literary magic trick. I’ve found that I can introduce almost anything this way and most of the time, my listener will talk to me about whatever fact I introduce.
It is immensely tempting to turn to my imagination rather than a reliable source for the information but “with great power comes great responsibility” and the most revealing conversations come from something that is true anyway. I’m also kept in check by the memory of what my family, in my adolescent years, would refer to as the fact free zone i.e everything that came out of my mouth and a strong desire not to return to it.
My most recent learning, the one that made me want to write this blog concerned a phenomenon that will probably be more familiar to male readers but I think a female reader may find it of interest too. It is the phenomenon of spontaneous erections as a result of fatigue.
This may seem counter intuitive. Is “I’m tired” not one of the most frequently used excuses for sex? Perhaps, but as I investigated this particular phenomenon I discovered an answer that makes sound, empirical sense.
To explain this we need to start with a bit of neurochemistry. There are a wide variety of chemicals produced in our brains to regulate our emotions, appetite, sex drive and everything else that happens in our bodies including our circadian rhythms. In layman’s terms, the body clock. It all starts with a chemical called Melatonin, which makes you go to sleep. Melatonin is usually released by the brain in response to darkness but it can be triggered in other ways too. Norepinephrine, is repsonsible for a number of effects, including one that most people will know quite well. You know that feeling when you’ve suddenly hit a wall and crave sugar or caffeine, that’s norepinephrine. It sends a message to you body that it can tap into energy stores because you are very low in glucose and in doing so can also stimulate Melatonin production. It’s fairly logical, your body is low on energy, you brain makes you feel tired to reduce your energy expenditure. One more thing about Norepinephrine it’s responsible for “vigilant concentration”. There is one last player in this: Dopamine. When dopamine plugs into receptors next to norepinephrine it STOPS melatonin production and wakes you up. Dopamine, amongst other things, also aids mental alertness.
As a brief aside, both MDMA and Cocaine send your dopamine levels skyrocketing, which is part of the reason you feel so alert and awake.
Back to melatonin. It also has another fairly obvious effect: it makes your muscles relax. Now this is important because of what actually happens when a man gets an erection. Contrary to popular belief, a switch doesn’t flick that sends blood rushing to your penis. There is a muscle that controls blood flow to you penis. When the muscle relaxes it’s like pulling the trigger on the end of a garden hose and when it contracts its like releasing it. In other words, the muscle relaxes, blood flows and you get an erection. Like in the hose pipe, there is always blood flowing but the nozzle has to opened in order for it to flow.
So, when you are very tired and fighting sleep, your brain may release norepinephrine both to help you concentrate and to get you the energy you need to stay up, as well as dopamine for similar reasons. If dopamine and norepinephrine production get out of whack or your natural stores of dopamine get depleted then melatonin production kicks in while you may be able to fight sleep, some effects of the melatonin will still manifest, such as muscle relaxation. Including of course the muscle that regulates blood flow to your penis.
To cap it all off, this learning also answered another question because the reason men can get spontaneous erections when tired is the same reason they suffer from so-called morning glory – an imbalance (or balance depending on your point of view) of Melatonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Something to think about when you wake up with or next to someone saluting the new day.
If you’re afraid to put my theory into action and repeat what you’ve just learned, don’t be. I was describing this blog post to a friend who was looking at me with greater and greater concern, as I talked about erections and neurotransmitters, until that is, I added – Don’t worry I had to find this out as research for a book. Of course, she laughed.
If you’ve come across some strange but fascinating information as part of your research please share in the comments section and don’t worry i’m sure you had to find it out for a book too.
For the record, I did need to find out about this for a book. Seriously.