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Can Men Lactate?

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Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a sex discrimination case from an Iowa woman who wanted to pump milk at work. The Court’s reasoning? It’s not sexist to tell women they can’t lactate at work because men can also lactate.

Which…what? Is it really possible for men to lactate? Can it happen naturally? As it turns out, yes, it can, and it’s more likely in human men than in the vast majority of mammals. That said, don’t worry, fellas. You’re highly unlikely to start sprinkling milk out of the blue.

Let’s start with why women, and not men, lactate routinely in appropriate circumstances. As you might suspect, the cause is genetic—22 of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes are identical, with the 23rd pair the only set that differs between the sexes.

“The genes on chromosome 23, acting in concert with genes on other chromosomes, ultimately determine all differences between our sexes,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner and one-time physiologist Jared Diamond in a 1995 article for Discover. “Those differences, of course, include not only the possession of ovaries as opposed to testes but also the postadolescent differences in beards, pitch of voice, and breast development.”

All male and female mammals have mammary glands, which is the organ that produces milk. When mammary glands mature fully in females during puberty, they develop into a state where a hormonal spike—most notably of prolactin—can easily induce lactation. For males, the gland generally doesn’t mature to that level.

So the difference is a matter of hormonal influence, first during puberty and then again after pregnancy. Men do have the necessary equipment, but usually they don’t naturally produce the necessary levels of hormones to use it. Provide the right hormones, though, and male lactation is absolutely possible.

One way to do this is through medical intervention. There are a number of ways this can be done, but generally, you need to introduce both estrogen and prolactin into the system, often by injection. Some drugs, like Thorazine—an antipsychotic popular in the mid-20th century—and the heart medication digoxin have induced milk from men as a side effect.

But how can men develop milk naturally?

The circumstances, as you might guess, are rare. One way to induce lactation from men is via starvation. During World War II, thousands of men reported lactation while held as prisoners either in Japanese POW camps or Nazi concentration camps. When a person is malnourished, the hormone-producing glands—like the pituitary gland, which generates prolactin—are impeded, but so too is the hormone-destroying liver. If proper nourishment is later provided, the glands recover much more quickly than the liver, causing hormone levels to skyrocket.

It’s also possible that something could target the pituitary gland and cause it to produce more prolactin. As breast-feeding expert Jack Newman notes, a tumor on the pituitary gland could have this effect.

There’s also a camp within the scientific community that thinks men can lactate merely through nipple stimulation. In 1978, medical anthropologist Dana Raphael claimed as much in her book The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding. Medical College of Georgia endocrinologist Robert Greenblatt later agreed with Raphael. Diamond, too, thinks this is possible.

“Mere repeated mechanical stimulation of the nipples suffices in some cases, since mechanical stimulation is a natural way of releasing hormones,” Diamond wrote. “For instance, sexually mature but virgin female marsupials can regularly be stimulated to lactate just by placing another mother’s young on their teats.”

Diamond provided several cases “in which [not pregnant] women succeeded in nursing an infant by repeatedly placing it at the breast.” Most adoptive mothers, for instance, begin lactating within three or four weeks of adoption, suggesting mere stimulation can induce enough hormonal action to produce milk. The same has reportedly happened to men, including a 38-year-old man in Sri Lanka who, in 2002, nursed his two daughters through infancy after his wife died during childbirth, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

So is it possible for men to lactate? Yes, it is. Does it happen often? Not at all. Could it happen more? Absolutely, if men decide they want the job.

“Soon, some combination of manual nipple stimulation and hormone injections may develop the confident expectant father’s latent potential to make milk,” Diamond said. “While I missed the boat myself, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of my younger male colleagues, and surely men of my sons’ generation, exploit their opportunity to nurse children.

“The remaining obstacle will then no longer be physiological but psychological: Will all you guys be able to get over your hang-up that breast-feeding is a woman’s job?”

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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