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The improbable side of medical research

By Mindo - 12th Oct 2020

The connection between eyebrows and narcissism was just one example of the delightfully eccentric research highlighted at this year’s Ig Nobel awards

One of my favourite events of the year is the annual Ig Nobel awards. Hosted by the journal Annals of Improbable Research, the Igs are an
annual exercise in irreverence that celebrate scientific studies which “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

The alter ego of the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel is a play on the words “ignoble” and “Nobel”. Awarded a week or so before the formal Swedish ceremony, the awards are normally presented at Harvard University by actual Nobel winners to researchers whose projects “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

Described by Nature magazine as coming with little cash (winners receive a 10 trillion Zimbabwean note – which is practically worthless), but much cachet, the Ig Nobels also highlight oblique research. But when you scratch the surface they inevitably involve an appealing dose of eccentricity.

This year’s winners of the Ig Nobel prize for medical education include: Donald Trump; Vladimir Putin; Alexander Lukashenko; Boris Johnson; Jair Bolsonaro; Narendra Modi; Andres Manuel; Lopez Obrador; Recep Tayyip Erdogan; and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan. These fine examples of political leadership have used Covid-19 to teach their citizens about life and death, the citation says. In keeping with their modest approach to fame, none of them showed up for the virtual ceremony to accept their prizes.

French kissing and inequality seem strange bedfellows. But there is a link, as shown by a team of psychologists who won the 2020 Ig Nobel for economics for their paper entitled ‘Kissing plays a role in keeping human pair bonds together.’ In countries with greater income inequality, his team’s research showed that people kiss more often to show they are committed to their partner because commitment is more important in a harsh environment. One wonders what the results would look like if the research was repeated in this Covid-19 year of face-masks and social distancing.

Have you ever considered eyebrows as indicators of narcissism? Me neither, but a paper on the subject took this year’s psychology Ig Nobel for Nicholas Rule and Miranda Giacomin of the University of Toronto. “We started with whether people could detect narcissism from the face,” Rule told The British Medical Journal. They found distinctive looking eyebrows were typical in people “who express higher levels of grandiose narcissism”, he said. Oh well, it sounds like my unfortunate habit of waxing mine (for a quiff-like appearance) should be quietly dropped… or then again perhaps there is a minor Ig Nobel for eccentricity to be won.

Asked if she had distinctive eyebrows herself, co-author Giacomin of MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada observed: “I’m definitely more conscious of them now than I was before, but I’m mostly conscious of other people staring at them once they hear about this research.”

Discovering a new disease is bound to catch the attention of the judges. Psychiatrists at the University of Amsterdam Medical Centre hit the jackpot with misophonia, a new disorder where some people become violent when they find the sounds made by others when breathing or chewing food to be especially annoying. So far the researchers have discovered about 5,000 people with the problem. But could misophonia disappear as social distancing becomes the new normal?

This year’s winning topics were, it has to be said, not up to the usual eye-catching standard. The prizes left me wistful for the likes of the Swiss team who won the 2017 peace prize for the paper, ‘Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial.’ They showed didgeridoo playing reduces snoring and eases the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea. The authors suggest this could be due to the improving effect on tongue muscles and the reduction of “fat pads” in the throat.

My favourite is still the 2006 Ig Nobel prize for medicine, which went to Dr Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine for his paper describing a unique way to terminate intractable hiccups. When a patient of his did not respond to standard therapies for the symptom, Fesmire came up with an unusual solution. Aiming to stimulate the vagus nerve, he stuck his (gloved) finger up the patient’s rectum. To the doctor’s delight (and one hopes the patient’s) the hiccups stopped, leading to the publication of a paper, ‘Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage’, in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.’

A public relations triumph that is unlikely to be bettered, don’t you agree?

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