Monday, November 10, 2008

Not a Frigid Wench after All

Photo by Flickr user elisfanclub, used under a Creative Commons license.

When I read Madame Bovary for a college seminar on history as viewed through the nineteenth-century European novel, my professor - a witty, slightly arch gay man - waggled his eyebrows and asked us what we thought Flaubert meant when he said that Emma Bovary's predecessor, the first Mmme. Bovary, had cold feet in bed.

Well, I understood it all right. As an otherwise warmblooded young lady, I just didn't care much for the implications. Maybe it's a souvenir of having grown up in North Dakota, but my feet are cold nearly all the time. So are my hands. I've been known to wear wool slippers even in July.

Now, nearly a quarter century later, science has finally come to rescue me from these intimations of frigidity. As Kate Wighton reports in The Independent (via Alternet), we are basically tropical critters, and that leads to a host of problems at higher latitudes:
Our extremities dictate how hot or cold we feel; the temperature in our hands and feet varies widely compared with that of our organs. If our hands or feet are chilly, we'll feel cold. Most of our biological temperature sensors are located in the skin, and we have four times as many cold sensors as hot sensors. Our heightened sensitivity to cold makes a chilly draught invariably feel more uncomfortable than a warm breeze.

And women really do feel the cold more than men, but this is because they are better at conserving heat than men. Mark Newton, a scientist at W.L. Gore, the company that makes Gore-Tex, and a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, explains: "Women have a more evenly distributed fat layer and can pull all their blood back to their core organs."

(Read the whole thing here.)
From this, Wighton concludes: "So there is literal truth in the old saying cold hands, warm heart."

Or is it really a warm heart after all? Flaubert was correlating those cold feet with entirely different "core organs." Then again, "cold hands, warm nether regions" doesn't pack the same punch - unless you go with the sort of Anglo-Saxonisms that don't generally appear in family newspapers.

Either way: Did you hear that, Emma Bovary?

Wighton also reports on a recent Yale study that found we're apt to behave more warmly when our bodies are comfortably warm. We conflate psychological and physical warmth.

I'll buy that. Right now, I've got a hot water bottle, my woolly slippers, a black velour turtleneck over my long-sleeved T-shirt, and a cozy warm laptop. (I worried about reports of the MacBook Pro overheating before I bought it, but this time of year computer heat is more a feature than a bug.) I just talked to my mom in California. My kids are finally asleep. My thermostat is at 70 degrees F. If I get any warmer I'll turn into a skinny white Oprah.


Sugarmag said...

Your cold hands would make you a good pastry chef.

If I want to know if my kids have a fever, I touch their hands. Hot hands-fever.

Sugarmag said...

One other thing, did you like Madam Bovary? I tried to read it years ago and didn't finish, I was bored. I'm not sure if it's worth my time to try again, I don't want to read something because I feel like I should.

I'm finally reading The Abstinence Teacher and I really like it. I love the different perspectives it offers. I love a book with good character development like that, the people in it seem so real.

Sungold said...

Well, the irony is that my hands seem to be toasty warm whenever I work with pastry dough. But they are usually cold when I suspect the kids might be feverish, and so I usually snuggle them on my lap. If their back feels hot against me, that's usually a reliable indicator for me.

And yes, I did like Madame Bovary, but I honestly don't remember much of it. That was a long, long time ago! I should re-read it sometime, but there are soooo many books I've never read that are also on my wishlist.

I'm glad you're liking The Abstinence Teacher. I thought the characters were great *and* the book offers commentary on America's crazy sexual attitudes without being heavy handed about it.