That Loving Flea-ling
By Mark Steer
Summary In the first scientific test of its type I investigate Porter’s (1928) totally unfounded claim that a flea’s ability to experience certain higher emotions is affected by its level of learning. My findings cast doubt on the validity of many scientific arguments proposed in musical literature.
Love has received a huge amount of attention in the scientific, musical and literary literature. In humans it is known to be associated with heightened neuronal activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex (Bartels and Zeki 2000), changes in hormone production (Marazziti and Canale 2004) and an increased tendency to gaze into space, giggle and talk endless drivel to anyone unfortunate enough to stray within a hundred-yard radius (Steer, personal (often bitter) experience 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005; c.f. 1998).
Discoursing upon the subject of emotional love Porter (1928) states, “birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it”, and yet provides no formal back up for his arguments. I investigate this claim using a range of novel techniques to test differences in neural activity between relatively educated and uneducated fleas (Pulex irritans) when presented with a range of romantic and unromantic stimuli.
Flea collection and determination of educational background
20 male fleas were collected from a number of male university undergraduate students. Male undergraduates are notoriously grubby, providing excellent habitat for all manner of micro-organisms. To determine the amount of education to which the fleas had been exposed their hosts were given a short written test of general knowledge. Results of the test were used to grade the educational level of the flea. Typical questions, taken from the Oxford and Cambridge examining board 1972, included: what is the correct spelling of cummerbund? (A: cummerbund); as the crow flies, what’s the capital of Peru? (A: Lima); what do you call a Russian with three testicles? (A: Whodjanickabolokov).
Analysis of emotional responses
Tests of human emotion have investigated the effects of love on brain activity by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques. Subjects, sitting in an MRI scanner, are shown pictures of loved ones and brain activity is recorded. There were two difficulties with using this technique for the present studies: firstly I don’t have an MRI scanner and secondly fleas don’t have a brain. However, fleas do have a small mass of neurons near their head and I do have some microelectrodes…
The microelectrodes were inserted into the section of an insect’s nervous system that combines information from its different senses and controls the circulatory system. By attaching the electrodes to a recording device I could measure the fleas’ emotional responses to different stimuli. (The section of the nervous system is called the tritocerebrum - a fact I would have included if I wanted to appear clever.)
Figure 1. Images presented to test fleas. A = an attractive female flea, B = a tasty armpit, C = Raid flea killer (brand name obscured over copyright concerns).
The fleas were presented with three separate pictures designed to elicit different emotional responses (Figure 1). The image of a (particularly attractive) female flea was designed to elicit a romantic response, whereas the image of an armpit was hypothesised to produce feelings of hunger and the flea spray feelings of pure terror. In order to substantiate Porter’s claims, I needed to find significant increases in the number of impulses being fired by fleas with strong educational backgrounds when shown the pictures (especially the one of the pretty lady flea). Such responses would indicate the ability of fleas to experience complex emotions.
Neither the educated nor uneducated fleas showed any heightened response to the different visual stimuli (Figure 2).
I have unequivocally shown that fleas of any intelligence level are incapable of experiencing complex emotions, thus disproving Cole Porter’s assertion that educated fleas can, and do, fall head over heels in love. This finding is not surprising when we take into account various factors that affect a flea’s chances of finding romance.
One such factor is size (see Figure 3) - fleas, being eeny-weeny, are able to accommodate only a few neurons relative to humans, whose brains are surprisingly enormous by comparison. Humans, to experience the sensation of love, need to have millions of neurons from different parts of the brain firing in unison. A flea may have a million neurons in total if it’s lucky. This doesn’t leave too many to spare on getting all emotional.
We might also take romantic opportunities into account. An adult flea persists for approximately ninety days, which is hardly enough time to start thinking about finding the ideal partner, settling down and creating the perfect armpit love-nest. Fleas tend to be much less inclined to worry about the quality of their partner - when you’ve only got three months to live surely quantity not quality becomes more important.
Conclusions and Future Work
I have not only called into question the validity of a single scientific claim which has gone unchallenged for almost eighty years, but I have raised serious issues over other statements appearing in the musical literature and beyond.
I now intend to carry out further studies to test if a kiss is still a kiss after an increased temporal separation between observer and action or whether it simply becomes a mistake; if there actually are any bluebirds somewhere over the rainbow; and, were I to take a glance at some fancy ants and try a few, whether the bare necessities of life come to me.
Bartels, A. and Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport 11, 3829-3834.
Marazziti, D. and Canale, D. (2004). Hormonal changes when falling in love. Psychoneuro-endocrinology 29, 931-936.
Porter, C. (1928). Let’s do it. In Paris, Broadway.