This week, we're presenting two stories about the science behind dating, ranging from a neuroscientist's attempts to use brain scans and personality tests to determine her compatibility with a rapper to a comedian's mishaps with a "penis-numbing spray"!
Part 1: Comedian Josh Gondelman is threatened with a lawsuit after he reviews a new sexual enhancement product.
Josh Gondelman is a writer and comedian who incubated in Boston before moving to New York City, where he currently lives and works as a writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In 2016, he made his late night standup debut on Conan (TBS), and he recently made his network tv debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers (NBC). Josh’s newest comedy album Physical Whisper debuted in March of 2016 at #1 on the iTunes comedy charts (as well as #4 on the Billboard comedy chart) and stayed there for…well…longer than he expected, honestly. Offstage, Josh has earned a Peabody Award, two Emmy awards, and two WGA Awards for his work on Last Week Tonight. He is also the co-author (along with Joe Berkowitz) of the book You Blew It, published October 2015 by Plume. His follow-up, Nice Try, is set to come out Fall 2019 through Harper Perennial. His writing has also appeared in prestigious publications such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker.
Part 2: Seemingly incompatible, neuroscientist Heather Berlin and rapper Baba Brinkman try to use science to figure out if they belong together anyway.
Heather Berlin is a cognitive neuroscientist and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She practices clinical neuropsychology at Weill Cornell Medicine in the Department of Neurological Surgery, and is a Visiting Scholar at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Passionate about science communication and promoting women in STEM, she is a founding committee member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange, host of Startalk All-Stars with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and has hosted series on PBS and the Discovery Channel.
Baba Brinkman is a New York-based rap artist and playwright, best know for his “Rap Guide” series of hip-hop theatre shows and albums that communicate challenging scientific fields to the general public. Baba has produced Rap Guides to Medicine, Religion, Evolution, Climate Change, Consciousness, and Wilderness, among other topics. He has performed on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, shared stages with Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, and toured worldwide including runs at the Sydney Opera House, the Edinburgh Fringe, and off-Broadway in New York, and has been nominated for and won multiple theatre awards.
Part 1: Josh Gondelman
Hello, everyone. What a pleasure to be here amongst you and for such a good cause. Don’t worry about learning while I’m talking because I have nothing of value to impart. In fact, I’m going to talk about how science almost ruined my life.
But it is a story with a happy ending. This is a story about vanquishing a nemesis which is very exciting, and it’s hard work. Most of the time when you want to vanquish a nemesis, it takes decades. You got to learn how to sword-fight in a cave, find the six-fingered man who killed your father. It’s a process. It’s an ordeal.
I did mine in three days. That’s half a week. That was pretty good, I think, not to toot my own horn. And to increase the stakes, I will tell you that my nemesis was the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Thank you. Which sounds very impressive until I tell you that he is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that exclusively manufactured a penis-numbing spray marketed towards premature ejaculators.
So less of a worthy adversary, I think we can all admit. Because we’re talking about a medical scientist who, at one point, was like, “You know, you guys handle cancer. I’m going to hook it up for the dudes who think sex feels too awesome. Why? No reason. Have you been talking to Sheila?”
So it was also, I should note, the first FDA-approved over-the-counter penis-numbing spray marketed towards premature ejaculators, which means it went through a new -drug application, was approved. Then went through a second application for over-the-counter status which is clinical test after clinical test, paperwork after paperwork, which is an unbelievable commitment to the plight of premature ejaculators and an unbelievable slap in the face to anyone with a different incurable disease. Just like, “Screw you, Ebola! I need to help the guys who can’t not come. Because if I don’t, who will speak for them?”
The reason he was in my life at all is because I used to do a lot of freelance writing for women’s magazines. That’s true. I got an email from an editor that I worked for pretty frequently.
She said, “Josh, will you test and write about a penis-numbing spray marketed towards premature ejaculators.”
And I responded, as any man would, “Why would you even ask me that? That’s never happened to me before.”
Then she wrote back explaining how much money she would pay me to do said article and experiment and I just wrote back a one-word email just, “YES,” all caps, then I had to send a second email apologizing for how fast my first email had been, how brief it was, promising future correspondence that were mutually satisfying, offering to pay for brunch. You guys get it.
So I pick up the penis-numbing spray from her office and I go right from there to like a third date with a young woman. We’d been out a few times. We’re really getting along. Hadn’t spent the night together at that point.
We have a few drinks. We’re having a lot of fun and I mentioned my writing assignment.
She said, very understandable, “I’m not into that idea at all.” Which like of course she wasn’t. We hadn’t had sex without performance-enhancing drugs. She doesn’t want me coming at her for the first time with like a dead-eyed, remorseless Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men boner, deciding who lives and dies on a whim, flipping a coin on the tip somehow.
So she says, “I’m not into that at all.”
And I said. “Fine. I'll take care of this on my own,” because I'd been drinking and decided to yell the most self-righteous thing any man has ever yelled while he was leaving a date to go home and masturbate.
That’s what I did. I went home. I took out my penis-numbing spray, one of the three canisters I was given. And I used the maximum recommended dosage. I used ten spritzes, which you know you're using a sketchy medicine when it’s measured in spritzes. You never hear like, “Give me ten spritzes of cortisone, STAT.” “We’re losing him! Spritz him!”
I use ten spritzes, the most that they recommended. I wanted to do one more. I did. I wanted to do one more so I could be like, “My penis goes to eleven,” but I didn’t think it was worth potentially ruining an organ on my human body, for the sake of a spinal tap reference.
So I did ten spritzes. I was trying to gauge whether I felt anything and I did it, which meant it was working.
So I got to work, because I was a professional. And I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was a little nervous. I was hoping that there would be enough to write about but also not so much that there were lasting effects that I'd have to explain to future sexual partners.
So I got to it and it wasn’t awesome. I don't know if it’s just me. Maybe there's some other men here who can empathize, but for me, a big part of enjoying any sexual experience is being able to feel my penis, and I could not. It was out of the question. Missing in action as far as the sense of touch goes.
Masturbating felt kind of like listening to a fish song. I was 22 minutes in, no end in sight. Just so like, “Bluu”. Is this thing still going? I thought the live version was supposed to be better.
Finally, I finished. And it wasn’t fun, like normal. Normally, when you get to the end of sex for a man, it’s kind of like a moist firework followed by a brief apology and it’s a lot of fun but this wasn’t like that at all. It felt like you know how sometimes you have some friends over and you bet pizza and friends leave and there's like one slice of pizza left. And you can wrap it up in Saran wrap or you could find a Tupperware but seems like a lot of work so you just kind of like Buscemi-style woodchip it down your mouth. It was like that but down here. It was a Buscemi-style orgasm which is not a pizza topping I recommend.
So that was the story. I wrote it. I filed it. I didn’t think much of it. Did edits.
Finally, it goes up on the magazine’s website and 30 minutes after it runs I get an email from the CEO of the company that made the penis-numbing spray and he was not happy with me, probably because I put all the things in the article that I just said to you out loud.
None of those things were that that product didn’t work, by the way. The active ingredient in this penis-numbing spray was lidocaine. There's some scientists in here like, wow. That’s a topical anesthetic that you use for endoscopies and some eye surgeries and some local anesthesia for other surgeries, which means my penis was medical-grade numb. Like the kind of numb that you need someone to pick you up and drive you home after getting… although I was already at home because that’s where I masturbate, because I’m a gentleman. Thank you.
So I felt like although it wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the product, it was certainly factual and made its efficacy known to the public.
So I know he was mad at me. It’s important to know also I did not read the email. At no point. I still have it. But I knew he was mad because the title of the email was “This is Ridiculous”. And I could tell from reading the little preview that popped up on my phone that the body of the email was not like a video of a pug pushing another pug in a stroller. He's probably pretty mad. That would be ridiculous, though. Ridiculously cute.
So I ignore his email entirely. I don’t respond, I don’t open it. It’s just there in my inbox. I actually say out loud to no one in my apartment, “He’ll hear from me when I hear from his lawyer,” which is just a thing I heard Jon Hamm say once on television.
So I go to bed and then the next morning I wake up to an email from his lawyer. It’s like, “Touché, nemesis. The game is afoot.” Which is just the thing I heard Benedict Cumberbatch say on television once.
So I have to get a lawyer to deal with his lawyer. So they're going back and forth, because I can’t go to jail over this. It’s not worth it. I was full of remorse, I was full of anxiety, I was unhappy and I was nervous for my future.
Our lawyers were going back and forth. I assumed one would just call the other and be like, “Objection!” And the other one would be like, “Overruled!” and they’d both hang up because I know nothing about the law.
About three days later, I get a call from my lawyer who just said everything is okay. Everything has been smoothed over. With some minor edits to the article there's no more legal action that’s being threatened or going to take place. I breathe easy, and I did.
I felt very good until 30 minutes later I got another email from the CEO of the penis-numbing spray company, which I didn’t read. But I did respond.
“Dear, Chad,” which is not even his name. He just had a Chad-like demeanor so I called him Chad. I felt like I was above the law at that point. I was running on endorphins.
I said, “Dear, Chad. I believe our business to be concluded and I expect no further communication from you. I’m sorry to be brief with you but it seems like that’s kind of your thing [winky face]. I wish you nothing but the best in all your penis-numbing endeavors both professionally and I’m assuming personal [second winky face]. Good day, Josh.”
I wrote it that way for two reasons. Because I knew I wanted to write a terse business-like email, number one, to go on the record that I didn’t want to deal with him anymore. Our business was done. This wasn’t communication I had asked for or anticipated in case it came up again on a legal avenue. I could prove there's a paper trail.
The second reason that I wrote a terse business-like email was because I knew that it would make him lose his goddamn mind and write back to me right away, which he absolutely did. He fell directly into my trap.
He wrote a third email to me, which I did not read, but I did respond one sentence, all caps, “I said good day, sir!”
Nemesis vanquished. Thank you very much. Have a great night. Bye.
Part 2: Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman
Baba Brinkman: My life changed in September of 2012. It was at an event similar to this one in some ways here in New York. It was called Lucid NYC and it was sort of a science-meets-arts-TED Talks style event and I was to give a presentation, actually performance, a rap performance. I’m not sure if you can tell but that is what I do. I’m a rapper. My particular brand of hip-hop I call peer-reviewed rap because I bring in a lot of science and this one was specifically about evolutionary theory and Darwinian models of behavior.
Heather Berlin: I’m a neuroscientist and I was actually invited to speak at that same event to give a neuroscience talk. And before my set or my talk, this rapper came on stage. He was rapping about short-term versus long-term mating from an evolutionary biology and psychology perspective. He was on stage, he was doing his rap thing. He was grabbing his crotch and being like, “Yo, yo, I ain’t no hoe,” or something like that. It wasn’t the most attractive thing at first, I have to admit.
Baba Brinkman: But let’s be clear, “Yo, yo, I ain’t no hoe,” is not actually one of my lyrics. That was a very sophisticated rap about how the behavior that’s preferred by many rappers a.k.a. promiscuity could actually be understood as evolutionarily adaptive, but only in certain environmental context.
Heather Berlin: Pretty much like, “Yo, yo, I ain’t no hoe.”
Baba Brinkman: Right. Not a bad paraphrase.
Heather Berlin: So he was up there rapping about, basically saying that rap was like a peacock’s tail. It was to show your evolutionary fitness. It wasn’t really working on me but I was intrigued by what was happening in his brain when he was rapping. That intricate lyricism and it has to rhyme and it has to stay on beat, it’s a very cognitively demanding task. I didn’t necessarily want to take him home but I did want to bring him into my lab so I can run some tests on him.
But to demonstrate what I was experiencing that night, Baba, do you want to give a little sample of your skills?
Baba Brinkman: "Now when you listen to rappin’, just ask yourself this
Why do people have this gift with craftsmanship?
Is it just a cumulative effect of practicin’
Nah, take it from the master of the adjectives
I think it’s adaptive, it has to be instinct
In sync with the rhythm, just listen and sink
Deep into the subconscious of the obnoxious
Sexual selection, I’m just tickin’ the boxes
And if you're feelin’ it then, yeah,
So I’m up there, shaking my verbal tail feathers for the crowd and then when I finish, a cognitive neuroscientist takes the stage, Dr. Heather Berlin. She gives a talk about the dynamic unconscious brain and the neural basis of impulse control disorder behaviors. Her talk is filled with all these subliminal images she's showing in the slide show, which you don’t see until she points them out, and then you then have sexually subjective themes to them. I can’t say I really understood the neuroscience but I did feel a strong compulsion. I was going to speak to her after she finished her talk.
Heather Berlin: I actually thought if I used those subliminal images in enough of my talks that eventually I'd meet the right guy.
Baba Brinkman: So much for free will.
Heather Berlin: It’s pretty much an illusion. But yes, so he did. Right after my talk, he sort of made a beeline straight for me. It was a venue just like this one, came up to me at the bar. Never met him before and he just goes, “So I really liked your talk. What’s your situation? Are you single?”
Like straight-up, there was no small talk. It was a pretty impulsive, pretty forward pickup line but I thought it was refreshing that he was polite enough to ask if I was single before he started and decided to hit on me. Most guys just start hitting on you. They don’t even know.
So I said, “Yeah, I’m single.”
As soon as I said that he immediately whips out his phone, he has it in his hand and he's like, “Okay, great. Can I get your number?” And I appreciated that direct approach so I gave him my number.
Baba Brinkman: While she calls it impulsive but I’m going to say it was strategic because, from her talk, I could tell Heather was not the type of woman to be trifled with. “Are you single,” was not really my number one pickup line but I thought it was probably a good idea to signal my potential long-term mating interest from the jump, to be safe.
Heather Berlin: So after this there was an after-party at a local pub for the speakers. I was there with some friends and I thought it was my opportunity that I can kind of observe his behavior in the wild and keep little tabs on him because I'd given him my number.
I’m watching him out of the corner of my eye and he's sitting there in the corner at this table, like all hunched over with his DJ friend and they're just eating this big, gross, greasy hamburgers and he had like a pint of beer. He was just very Neanderthal. It’s the only way I can describe it. And I was thinking, “Oh, my God. I gave him my number?”
Baba Brinkman: Well, I’m thinking I've already got her number so I just relax and be myself, right?
Heather Berlin: By that point I'd pretty much written him off. But then as I was getting up about to leave, he came over to me to kind of chat a bit and say goodbye then he gave me this sort of big, warm, bear hug goodbye. And he held me a little bit longer than you naturally would but it just felt really warm. I got this great sort of energy from it. It must have been the oxytocin or something that kicked in and I thought, “You know what? Maybe I'll give this guy a chance. Maybe I'll go on a date with him.”
Baba Brinkman: And I figured if I gave enough women that kind of hug, eventually the oxytocin would do its thing and I'd meet the right woman.
Heather Berlin: We had our first date at this nice little restaurant in Soho but that’s when I got another red flag. I get there and he had already ordered. He ordered this big plate of fried calamari.
Baba Brinkman: Who doesn’t like calamari, right?
Heather Berlin: Me. I’m a vegetarian. So that was a bit presumptuous. You didn’t even ask, you know? Now, here I find myself again in a situation where I have to sit there and watch him gobble down this greasy food.
Baba Brinkman: Okay, but the conversation was very dynamic. Sparkling, I would even say. And it got into personality and why people end up with long-term relationships or friendships. So we started talking about this OCEAN Scale of Personality, which are the sort of basic domains that they measure, and telling stories from our lives to see if we could figure out how we were on each of these five domains.
Heather Berlin: So I was kind of just going like, trying to get a gut feel. Like how do I feel? Do I like this guy or not? And he was sitting there charting out this very rational structure about where we checked off on these personality domains and if we were compatible or not.
Baba Brinkman: So the ‘O’ in OCEAN stands for openness to experience. In this domain we’re pretty similar, although I'd say I’m a bit higher. One of the stories that I told on our first date was about how me and some friends in high school went down to the nude beach and went skinny dipping. We were there and we said, “Oh, damn there's like a couple of our teachers from the school naked on the beach. This could be awkward.” Then we were like, “Ah, let’s just go hang out with them. They'll be fine.”
Heather Berlin: That’s right. That was my reaction. Anybody is going to be less open than him. He grew up in Vancouver in this very hippie environment where they go swimming naked with their teachers and I grew up in New York. I had actually just gotten back from Europe and I had been at the Vienna Opera Ball and he had just gotten back from Burning Man, so there was a bit of…
Baba Brinkman: So the ‘C’, the ‘E’, and the ‘A’ in OCEAN is conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness. In all three of those domains, it seemed like we were pretty similar. Like in the same range, maybe Heather was a bit higher.
Heather Berlin: I’m definitely higher in conscientiousness than you, for sure.
Baba Brinkman: And I’m higher in agreeableness because I don’t contradict you when you say things like that.
Then when you get to the ‘N’, that’s where we found a bit more of a disparity. The ‘N’ in OCEAN is for neuroticism, which is also sometimes measured as stability. They're opposite sides of the same coin. It’s kind of a measure of how comfortable you are improvising with random changes, curve balls in the situation versus having to have things pre-planned out. In this one it turns out we have a bit of a difference.
Heather Berlin: Baba was telling me stories about when he would go on tour rapping he would just crash on random people’s couches and I was like, “Look, when I travel, I book a hotel in advance. I’m going to stay some place comfortable.” So there was a little bit of a mismatch there.
Baba Brinkman: Basically, I’m Mr. Go-With-The-Flow and she's Mrs. Everything-Has-To-Be-Perfect, My-Way-Or-The-Highway.
Heather Berlin: I’m not that neurotic, but I am a Jewish girl from New York so I think it kind of comes with the territory.
Baba Brinkman: Basically we mapped this all out on the first date, how close we were in each domain. Then I kind of pitched to her about how this is very highly compatible, the spectrum we’re finding, and the only obstacles we’re going to find are going to cluster around this neuroticism and stability domain, therefore we have a pretty good case for long-term relationship potentially, which may have been too much too soon.
But I’m also quite high in a psychological trait that they call blurtatiousness, which means if you think it, you just say it.
Heather Berlin: So as we were dating, I was kind of evaluating him and he basically reminded me of one my impulse-control disorder patients. Yes. He presented with alcohol overuse, caffeine addiction, high-fat diet, lack of exercise, TV addiction and what I would call impulsive sexual behavior.
Baba Brinkman: You weren’t complaining at the time, baby.
Heather Berlin: Not at first. But he was kind of sizing me up for potential babies and I was just kind of thinking of it as more of like a short-term thing. One of his biggest assets was that his apartment was on my way home from work so it was convenient just to stop in and say hi and go for a drink.
Baba Brinkman: She was happy to explain that to me. From the beginning I understood that she was looking at me as a pit stop and I was looking at her as a potential destination. At the time I was also working on this play, sort of like a hip-hop theater show. So each time we would go on a date, some of the ideas from the date would end up loosely informing the script of the play I was working on. It was going to open in November a few months after we met.
Heather Berlin: He actually literally wrote me into the play. So it was kind of like Shakespeare in Love. All of a sudden, things that I had said on our dates ended up verbatim in this show.
Baba Brinkman: But I gave her fair warning. I think it was our third date when I said to you, “Don’t freak out, but I’m writing a character in this play that’s about to open off-Broadway and it’s going to be loosely based on you.”
Heather Berlin: Basically the play was about this rapper in New York who was dating and it was all about how he was dating from an evolutionary perspective, and then he meets this neuroscientist who talks just like me.
Baba Brinkman: Who I called ‘The Oracle’ because she seemed to know everything about brains and behavior and personalities. So the play has the scheduled opening November 23rd and by opening night we’re seeing a lot of each other. I don't know if we’re really official yet but I would say we were dating.
But we still had a few doubts. Basically, I hadn’t really done the long-term relationship thing before then so I had some doubts about the feasibility of monogamy for our species, let’s say. But I didn’t have doubts about her. I thought she was amazing. She had no doubts about monogamy but serious doubts about me.
Heather Berlin: That’s true. So the next red flag was that he had told me that his longest relationship ever was six months and that was ten years prior, when he was 24 years old. So that wasn’t the greatest thing in terms of my confidence in him, so I had my doubts.
But my friends also had their doubts. So when I told them that I was dating a rapper named Baba, they were like what? My last ex was a corporate lawyer who went to Harvard Law School. Baba wasn’t exactly my type so I thought, you know what? I’m going to bring them to his show and they can kind of see him in action and then I can get their opinion on him.
Baba Brinkman: She came to the show thirteen times.
Heather Berlin: I don't think it was that many times. It was more like five or six.
Baba Brinkman: Precisely thirteen times. I was keeping track because I thought her frequent attendance at the performance might be a potential signal of a long-term mating interest.
The way the play worked is there were dual endings. So on some nights my character meets this neuroscientist called ‘The Oracle’ and is totally swept off his feet and ends up going all in and they settle down and start a family. In another version he meets her, he's really impressed by her but he decides that it’s not going to really quite work because he wants to continue his Rolling Stone sowing wild oats lifestyle and rides off into the sunset. I let the audience decide which outcome would happen on each given night.
Heather Berlin: He literally had them vote on me. Again, true story. There was this system where they could text in at the end of the show ‘yes’ or ‘no’ whether he should stay with me or not and then this big cumulative graph comes up on the screen on stage that basically is like should he stay with The Oracle or not, yes or no? Every night it would be do I win or not.
Baba Brinkman: I wanted my relationships to be informed by scientific fact-finding, let’s say. But there was this strange pattern that began to emerge which was that on the nights that Heather attended the show, she always won the vote. But on the nights that she wasn’t in the house it was around fifty-fifty. Lots of nights the audience would go, “Nah, you should just keep looking,” and I could not understand the source of this pattern.
Heather Berlin: Maybe it was that you were just sort of portraying me more persuasively when I was in the house.
Baba Brinkman: That’s what I thought. Until a few months later when it was revealed that Heather had hacked the voting system and discovered that there was no restriction against multiple votes. So I’m on stage watching the graph go through the roof and she's in the audience like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Heather Berlin: I didn’t vote that many times.
Baba Brinkman: Well, it did remind me of a little pearl of wisdom that my mom dropped on me when I was a teenager. I came home from school and I was like, “Mom, these two girls both like me and I don't know which one to choose.” She sat me down and she said, “Let me give you a little bit of advice. It’s the women that do the choosing in this world, son.”
Heather Berlin: Which is kind of like a key evolutionary principle, right? Because in general, females are more choosy when it comes to mates than males. So I guess I’d kind of already unconsciously chosen him but my sort of more conscious prefrontal cortex was the last to know about it.
Baba Brinkman: Which means the peacock display on the night we met might have been more effective than she thought, because we met on September 5, 2012 and we were married just about exactly a year later on September 3, 2013.
Heather Berlin: But not before I actually did get him into my lab and I ran personality measures on him, IQ testing, I got him into my scanner while he was rapping. So I did a thorough examination and he passed so I married him.
Baba Brinkman: You can scan me anytime, baby.
Heather Berlin: And our son Dylan just turned one year old. Our daughter Hannah is going to be four the day after tomorrow. She was born on November 23, 2013 exactly one year to the day of the opening of the play.
Baba Brinkman: Which was not precisely planned, although Hannah as a pregnancy was planned, which means she was entirely devised by our prefrontal cortexes.
Heather Berlin: Maybe with a little help from our evolutionarily older subcortical unconscious biological impulses.
Baba Brinkman: I love it when she talks nerdy to me like that.
Heather Berlin: Thanks, honey, that’s sweet.
Baba Brinkman: Thank you, guys.