• Spring is in the Air by Dr Jack

    magpiesSpring has finally hit London. And like many people I found myself motivated to get outside and do some exercise.
    I went down to the park where I spent most of my childhood and, as I jogged, stretched and sprinted, I found myself marvelling at the wonders of biology.
    The trees were in full blossom, swarms of insects buzzing around, helping with the vital job of carrying pollen from flower to flower.
    Male magpies and blue tits were showboating – swooping, diving, in an incessant chase – competing for the amorous attentions of the female onlookers.
    Male pigeons were getting all ruffed up, pirouetting like whirling dervishes, in the hope of taking the fancy of their target lady pigeon.

    My attention then landed on a group of humans sat on the grass directly in front of me, as I exercised atop a council-provided rowing machine, where I observed courtship behaviours that were not dissimilar.

    In the parkSix males and six females, somewhere in their mid-teens and freshly discharged from school, were sat in a disjointed huddle.
    All the boys had their shirts off – despite it only being warm – far from the sweltering weather that usually triggers bare-chested exposure in the city.
    These young lads had their own method of peacocking, namely running around, wrestling good-naturedly, draping a fraternal arm over each others shoulders to emphasise what great friends they all were.
    All the while they flashed furtive glances at the girls to see whether or not these displays were eliciting approving looks from the young ladies.

    Pigeon CourtingThe girls, despite determinedly fixing their faces into expressions of nonchalance, were also quite flagrantly advertising their fledgling sexual wares.
    Only one girl in the group, for instance, had their shirt completely unbuttoned; she happened to be the only one in the group whose sexual hormones had already sculpted mature breasts.
    Another was at the opposite end of this spectrum – her ovaries had yet to unleash the torrent of oestrogen and progesterone that would one day increase the curvaceousness of her body.
    In the meantime, her growth hormones had clearly been surging and the resulting growth spurt had dramatically elongated her body and limbs.
    She had opted to roll her demure school-issue skirt up around the waist to reveal as much leg as possible – a strategy I distinctly recall the girls I used to hang around with as a teenager describing as: “standard”.

    Was it a coincidence that each of these girls happened to respond to the pleasant weather by advertising the assets they perceive to be most alluring to the boys? I think not.

    Was it a coincidence that the male humans and magpies responded to the sunshine by larking around to advertise their strength and agility? Of course not.

    It may not have been a conscious decision on their part, but nonetheless, both the males and the females of the group were engaging in behaviours indicating a desire to be noticed and approved of by the others.

    All of these behaviours are orchestrated by the action of sex hormones upon regions of the hypothalamus that govern sexual behaviours including courtship displays.
    And when boiled down to their bare bones these courtship displays are surprisingly similar despite the considerable differences in cerebral sophistication of the different species.



    These brain blogs are currently a monthly, for daily instalments of life through the eyes of a neuroscientist, please consider following me on Twitter.

    Read more »