Did you know that one of the first fertility drugs was made from the pee of Catholic nuns, and that even the Pope got involved? So, this is totally true. Back in the 1950s, scientists knew that when women enter menopause, they start releasing high levels of fertility hormones in their urine. But there was this doctor named Bruno Lunenfeld, who wondered if he could actually isolate those hormones from the urine and use it to help women who are having trouble getting pregnant. Obviously, the problem with this was that in order to test this idea, he needed a lot of pee from older women. And that is not an easy thing to find. So he and his colleagues got special permission from the Pope to collect gallons and gallons of urine from hundreds of older Catholic nuns. And in doing so, he actually isolated hormones that are still used to help women get pregnant today, though now, they can be synthesized in a lab, and gallons of pee aren't necessary.
So why am I standing up here, telling this wonderfully intellectual audience about nun pee? Well, I'm a science journalist and multimedia producer, who has always been fascinated by gross stuff. So fascinated, in fact, that I started a weekly YouTube series called "Gross Science," all about the slimy, smelly, creepy underbelly of nature, medicine and technology. Now, I think most of us would agree that there's something a little gross about pee. You know, it's something that we don't really like to talk about, and we keep the act of doing it very private. But when Lunenfeld peered into the world of pee, he discovered something deeply helpful to humanity.
And after a year and a half of making my show, I can tell you that very often when we explore the gross side of life, we find insights that we never would have thought we'd find, and we even often reveal beauty that we didn't think was there. I think it's important for us to talk about gross things for a few reasons. So, first of all, talking about gross stuff is a great tool for education, and it's an excellent way to preserve curiosity. To explain what I mean, why don't I tell you a little bit about what I was like as a child? So, I was what you might call a gross kid. In fact, my love of science itself began when my parents bought me a slime chemistry set and was then only enhanced by doing gross experiments in my sixth-grade biology class. We did things like, we swabbed surfaces around our classroom and cultured the bacteria we'd collected, and we dissected owl pellets, which are these balls of material that are undigested that owls barf up, and it's really kind of gross and awesome and cool.
Now, the fact that I was obsessed with gross stuff as a kid is not so revolutionary. You know, lots of kids are really into gross things, like playing in dirt or collecting beetles or eating their boogers. And why is that? I think really little kids are like little explorers. They just want to experience as much as they can and don't have any idea about the relative acceptability of touching a ladybug versus a stinkbug. They just want to understand how everything works and experience as much of life as they can. And that is pure curiosity. But then adults step in, and we tell kids not to pick their noses and not to touch the slugs or toads or whatever else they find in the backyard, because those things are gross. And we do that in part to keep kids safe, right? Like, maybe picking your nose spreads germs and maybe touching that toad will give you warts, even though I don't actually think that's true. You should feel free to touch as many toads as you want.
So at a certain point, when kids get a little bit older, there's this way that engaging with gross stuff isn't just about curiosity, it's also about, sort of, finding out where the limits are, pushing the boundaries of what's OK. So, lots of kids of a certain age will have burping competitions or competitions to see who can make the grossest face. And they do that in part because it's a little bit transgressive, right?
But there's another layer to why we define stuff as gross. As humans, we've sort of extended the concept of disgust to morality. So, the psychologist Paul Rozin would say that many of the things we categorize as gross are things that reminds us that we're just animals. These are things like bodily fluids and sex and physical abnormalities and death. And the idea that we're just animals can be really unsettling, because it can be this reminder of our own mortality. And that can leave many of us with this deep existential angst. Rozin would say that there's this way in which disgust and the avoidance of gross things becomes not just a way to protect our bodies, it becomes a way to protect our souls. I think at a certain point, kids really begin to internalize this link between disgusting things and immorality.
And while I don't have any concrete data to back up this next idea, I think that for a lot of us, it happens around the time we hit puberty. And you know—yeah, I know. So during puberty, our bodies are changing, and we're sweating more, and girls get their periods, and we're thinking about sex in this way that we never did before. And through the human capacity for abstraction, this shame can settle in. So we don't necessarily just think, "Oh, my goodness, something really gross is happening to my body!" We think, "Oh my God, maybe I'm gross. And maybe that means that there's something bad or wrong about me." The thing is, that if you de facto associate gross stuff with immorality, you lose a huge part of your curiosity, because there is so much out there in the world that is a little bit gross.
Like, think about going for a walk in the woods. You could just pay attention to the birds and the trees and the flowers and that would be fine, but in my view, you'd be missing a bigger and more awesome picture of life on this planet. There are cycles of decay that are driving forest growth, and there are networks of fungus beneath your feet that are connecting literally all of the plants around you. That's really amazing. So I feel like we should be talking about gross stuff early and often with young people, so they feel like they're actually allowed to claim this bigger picture of life on our planet. The good news is that for many of us, the fascination with gross stuff doesn't exactly go away, we just kind of pretend like it's not there.
But truthfully, we all spend sort of a big part of our lives just trying not to be gross. When you really think about it, we're sort of just like bags of fluids and some weird tissues surrounded by a thin layer of skin. And to a certain extent, multiple times a day, whether consciously or subconsciously, I need to remind myself not to fart publicly.
You know, we're desperately trying to avoid being gross all the time, so I think many of us take this kind of voyeuristic delight in learning about gross things. This is certainly true of kids; the number of middle school teachers who show my videos in their science classes is a testament to that. But I think it's totally true of adults, too. You know, I think we all love hearing about gross stories, because it's a socially acceptable way to explore the gross side of ourselves. But there's this other reason that I think talking about gross stuff is so important. A while back, I made a video on tonsil stones—sorry, everyone—which are these balls of mucus and bacteria and food that get lodged in your tonsils and they smell really terrible, sometimes you cough them up and it's like—it's awful. And many, many people have experienced this. But many of the people who have experienced this haven't really had a forum to talk about it. And today, this video that I made is my most popular video. It has millions of views.
And the comment section for that video became sort of like a self-help section, where people could talk about their tonsil stone experiences and, like, tips and tricks for getting rid of them. And I think it became this great way for people to talk about something that they'd never felt comfortable taking about publicly. And that is wonderful when it's about something as goofy as tonsil stones, but it's a little sad when a video can have an effect like that when it's about something as common as periods.
Last February, I released a video on menstruation, and to this day, I am still getting messages from people around the globe who are asking me about their periods. There are a lot of young people—and some not-so-young people—out there, who are worried that what's happening to their bodies is somehow not normal. And, of course, I always tell them that I am not a medical professional, and that, if possible, they should talk to a doctor. But the truth of the matter is that everyone should feel comfortable talking to a doctor about their own bodies. And that's why I think it's really important for us to start this dialogue about gross stuff from a pretty early age, so we can let our kids know that it's alright to have agency over your own body and over your own health.
There's another reason that talking to your doctor about your health and gross stuff is really, really important. Doctors and the scientific community can only address issues when they know there's something to address. So one of the really interesting things I learned while making the video on periods, is that I was talking to this one scientist who told me there's actually still a lot we don't know about periods. There's a lot of basic research that still hasn't been done. In part, that's just because there weren't a lot of scientists in the field who were women, to ask questions about it. And it's also not a topic that women talk about publicly. So there's this gap in what we know, just because no one was there to ask a question.
There's one final reason that I think talking about gross stuff is so important, and that's because you just never know what you're going to find when you peel back all those layers of disgustingness. So, take the California brown sea hare. This is a sea slug that squirts this lovely, bright purple ink at any creature that tries to eat it. But it also happens to be one of the kinkiest creatures in the animal kingdom. So these guys are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female genitalia. And when it's time to mate, up to 20 individuals will all get together in this kind of, like, conga line and they'll all mate together.
A single sea hare will inseminate the partner in front of it and receive sperm from the one behind, which is sort of like an awesome time-saver, when you think about it.
But if scientists had only seen this and they were like, "OK, we're just not going to touch that with a stick," they would have missed the bigger thing about sea hares that makes them really remarkable. It turns out that these sea hares have a small number of very large neurons, which makes them excellent to use in neuroscience research. And, in fact, the scientist Eric Kandel used them in his research to understand how memories are stored. And you know what? He won a Nobel Prize for his work.
So go out there and pick up beetles and play in dirt and ask questions. And own your fascination with gross stuff and don't be ashamed of it, because you never know what you're going to find. And as I say at the end of all my videos, "Ew."