Be Honest. Does this Study Make My Butt Look Big?

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courtesy John C. McLaghlan/BMJ

Are you sitting down? A British researcher has proposed a new form of reflexology — one based on the notion that the sensations of the body are mapped onto the buttocks, just as they are in the brain, where they can more easily be manipulated for therapeutic purposes.

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Writing in the BMJ, John McLachlan, professor of medical education at Durham University in the U.K., explains:

Recently, as a result of my developmental studies on human embryos, I have discovered a new version of reflexology, which identifies a homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. The homunculus is inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position, the left buttock corresponds to the right hand side of the body, and the lateral aspect is represented medially. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping. In my studies, responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.

A “homunculus” (Latin for “little man”) is a kind of map or model of the human body used in neuroanatomy to show where in the brain particular sensory or motor experiences are represented. In the sensory homunculus, for instance, large areas of the brain are given over to the hands, feet, tongue (and in NSFW versions, the genitals); because of their heightened sensitivity, these body parts take up relatively more brain “real estate.” (More on What’s the Ideal BMI for Longevity?)

In contrast, McLachlan’s homunculus maps the body onto the behind. The researcher submitted the descriptive paragraph, above, as part of a proposal to present his findings at the Jerusalem International Conference on Integrative Medicine. But McLachlan — as you might have guessed — is not really a supporter of reflexology or homeopathy or the like.

Inspired by physicist Alan Sokol — who in 1996 published a paper containing bald misrepresentations of scientific facts, and demolished the credibility of the cultural studies journal that published it without recognizing the errors — McLachlan wanted to see whether alternative medicine supporters would be able to think critically and reject his absurd and unproven notion of a butt homunculus out of hand.

Writes McLachlan:

Although I resisted the temptation to draw an analogy with the mappings of phrenology, I still had it in mind, and the reference to gentle suction might have been taken by a skeptical reader to refer to the idea of kissing the point of credulity.

Despite this, the paper was accepted and McLachlan was asked to give a lecture at the conference. To be fair, unlike Sokal’s hoax, which survived the full process of peer review without being detected as a parody, McLachlan’s paper was vetted only  in abstract form by a conference committee. It’s possible that had he submitted it to the more rigorous review process of an actual journal of alternative medicine, it would have been detected and rejected. (More on Overeating: Is It an Addiction?)

Nonetheless, the sheer absurdity of the paper and its ready acceptance should give pause.  It’s one thing to investigate ancient therapies — some of which are still poorly understood and may have potential usefulness in some circumstances — but it’s quite another to suspend all critical judgment.

On the other hand, I’m sure a butt massage would feel quite nice, and would produce lovely images of pleasure regions lighting up on brain scans. And I’m sure researchers would have no shortage of volunteers to enroll in a study of whether having one’s butt kissed improves mental well-being.

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