‘The Catalyst Club’ – Review (Brighton Sci-Fest)

The Catalyst is a monthly Brighton club harking back to the debating societies and gentlemen’s clubs of yore, where three speakers each step up to a lectern for 15 minutes apiece. Last Thursday’s line-up at the Brighton Science Festival was originally conceived as a sex, love and happiness-themed Valentine’s special. However, the speakers couldn’t make that date so it was rescheduled and brought under the banner of Brighton Science Festival. The venue, the Latest Music Bar, was a great spot for it, with a cosy jazz club atmosphere downstairs, and a screen relaying the action upstairs for those who couldn’t get hold of a ticket.

In addition to introducing each speaker, regular MC, David Bramwell, had conscientiously dug out some appropriate stories. Apparently, in a survey of 10,000 Japanese 16 – 19 year-old males, 35% said they had no interest in sex. Whereas the same study in England didn’t give a percentage – it just said there was one bloke called James from Peterborough! I don’t claim to know how true this is…

The Catalyst Club at BrightonAlso in keeping with the theme, we were all asked to play guinea pigs for a smartphone dating app. The idea being to discover who might want to get to know you in the room you’re presently in – to help you meet people wherever you go. But between the app seemingly still early in development (there was ‘no gay option yet’, despite being in Brighton), and the WiFi cutting out repeatedly, I think it’s safe to say no iMatches were made on the night. Interestingly though, the exercise did get me and two nearby girls talking to each other, proving you don’t need an app to grease the wheels of sociability – you just need beer and a talking point.

The first speaker, writer and editor Vanessa Austin-Locke, talked about how, “our minds, our chemistry, our history,” lead to, and colour, extreme sexual experiences.  She told the story of an interviewee referred to as “snorkel”, who had an early sexual experience on a family trip to the beach, and who now gets his rocks off in a bathtub with a dominatrix, some seaweed and a snorkel, “without so much as the touch of a hand”. She sees a connection between fetishism and post-traumatic stress disorder: both have the effect of “trapping the mind and causing it to fixate”.  Quoting extensively from Nabokov and Anaïs Nin, she delivered a sociological essay which, although light on science, was poetic and literate suggesting that all such experience is part of the search for “the little death, the big death, and – ultimately – life”.

Next up was Prof Elaine Fox, talking about the psychology of optimism and pessimism. She’s an experimental psychologist and an expert in the area, having recently published a book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. She told us about the ancient fear and pleasure systems in the brain, which ensure that our brains automatically tune into things that are either dangerous, or good for us. These are the physical circuits that underlie how optimistic, or otherwise, we each are. She continued to explain that although there is evidence for benefits of optimism – it is not as simple as positive thinking. Other components such as positive actions and persistence seem to have a greater impact on our lives. Finally, she spoke about the interaction of genetics and environment in determining our psychological destiny. A study looking at a gene linked to anxiety and depression, and the number of nasty incidents in the participants’ lives found that neither the gene nor the life experiences alone predicted risk of depression – but both taken together did. Prof Fox said this shows: “the gene itself is not our destiny,” and neither are the things that happen to us.

Bringing up the rear, as it were, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University, Zoltan Dienes, told us all about “the secret logic of sexual fantasy”. He described some categories of female fantasies such as “beloved”, “victim”, “dominatrix” and “wild-woman” and a school of psychoanalysis that proposed the purpose of such fantasies is to counteract anxieties. So a woman with a fear of men being weak would be turned on by a fantasy in which she was dominated or even abused – i.e. a victim fantasy. A fear of being unloved would be counteracted by a beloved fantasy, and so on. He then described an ingenious experiment involving a device called a “vaginal photoplethysmograph”, stories about “being in the frozen peas section in Tesco’s” as a “neutral condition”, and a number of other anxiety-inducing stories, in order to turn this into “a testable hypothesis”. Unfortunately, the arousal caused by each fantasy went in the opposite direction to that predicted by the theory, even though the match between each anxiety and fantasy was the same. So – it was all a bit confusing really. But as he got by far the biggest giggle count of all the speakers, no-one was really complaining. Prof Dienes also offered his own thoughts on what it might all mean in the Q&A session afterwards.

All-in-all, this was an interesting and unusual Thursday night out, and one I’d recommend the next time the Catalyst Club convenes.


Catalyst Club
Brighton Science Festival

Article by Simon Makin

March 7, 2013

Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist. Follow him on twitter @SimonMakin.

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