Got PMS? Let's Go Looking for Snakes

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Ladies, at long last there is an upshot to PMS. During this volatile time, women's ability to detect snakes is temporarily enhanced. That's what Japanese primatologists are reporting in a study published today in Nature's Scientific Reports.

In what I can only imagine was one very unusual study, Nobuo Masataka and Masahiro Shibasaki of Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute wanted to find out whether women's cognitive strength changes in a predictable way during the menstrual cycle. So they flashed images of flowers and snakes at a group of 60 premenopausal women.

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Snakes are a recurring theme. Last year, Masataka and his colleagues published the results of a study where children were shown snake images in black and white and color. The participants responded faster to color images.

The researchers, who specialize in studying both humans and nonhuman primates, picked a snake as a target image because it represents a "biologically relevant threatening stimuli." For this new study, the women sat at touch-screen monitors. They were all shown a familiar animation and instructed to touch the screen when they saw a new image: Either a flower or snake flashed at random.

When they weren't touching the screen, the women rested their hands on a set of handprints to ensure consistency. The whole process was repeated at intervals throughout the women's menstrual cycles.

Unsurprisingly, given evolution, the women detected the snake images much faster than the flower images, regardless of the time of the month — results that matched previous studies. But the new study also showed that the women detected the snake images faster during PMS. This was the first such demonstration, the researchers concluded.

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Shibasaki and Masataka (whose profile page photo is hilarious) noted that they didn't draw any blood for this study, so the women's cycles weren't verified. They also suggest that much more research needs to be done to support their findings.

"Given the robustness and the prevalence of this phenomenon , it is surprising that there have been virtually no reported attempts to reliably assess the influence of the premenstrual hormonal changes in healthy women behaviorally or experimentally," they wrote. Maybe it's surprising to them. PMS and scientific experimentation: scarier than snakes.

Photo: Did you see that? It's a ball python. Credit: Fabio Gismondi.

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