A neuroscientist explains why we can’t stop watching pimple popping videos

Warning: This story contains graphic — if not disgusting, yet fascinating — videos and physical descriptions of the act of popping pimples.

Believe it or not, there’s an entire subculture of people really passionate about popping pimples.

Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Southern California, calls them “popaholics” and their sickening — yet, somewhat intriguing — obsession with watching others do the dirty deed “popaholicism.” And she’s giving them exactly what they want — “pops,” oozing blackheads, whiteheads and cysts of all sizes, shapes and colors.

Lee, a cosmetic and surgical dermatologist in Upland better known as “Dr. Pimple Popper,” has gained widespread attention on social media, where she has posted countless videos showing her removing poppable things from her patients’ bodies. Now she has her own show on TLC by the same name — providing a deeper dive into her patients’ lives and the up-close and personal procedures she performs on them.

“It’s fascinating to me why people love this stuff,” Lee told The Washington Post earlier this week, explaining that people have told her that watching the videos relaxes and entertains them.

Since its premiere last week, which drew some 2.4 million viewers, TLC’s “Dr. Pimple Popper” has aired two episodes, showing several patients learning about their conditions and having various growths removed from their bodies.

“I think it’s going to capture the interest of more than just ‘popaholics’; it will convert people into ‘popaholicism’ because I think it shows a more well-rounded picture of what goes on,” Lee said about the show.

She said that “it’s not just about the ‘pops’ or the surgery” because it shows her patients’ journeys — something she does not typically get to see.

“It’s so interesting to me that this is all sort of starting on the grotesque, or something that is shocking or gross to so many people, but it ends up being a happy story,” she said about the show.

But why would people watch that?

Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said that “evolutionarily speaking, it’s normal behavior to want to remove bumps from your skin” because those bumps could be parasites or other things, so she said it makes sense that human beings evolved in a way that such behavior can be pleasurable to them.

For some people, Berlin said, popping pimples or watching others do it stimulates the nucleus accumbens, the reward center in the brain that receives dopamine and gives people “a little hit of pleasure.” But, she said, to others, the behavior may seem disgusting; in those cases, she said, a different part of the brain called the insular cortex is activated.

So why do some people find it pleasing and others repulsive? That, Berlin said, is not known.

Lee said she realized that there was a market for pimple-popping videos several years ago when she created an Instagram page as “a little window into my world as a dermatologist.” She said her page had not attracted any significant attention until she posted a video of a blackhead extraction. People went nuts. “I thought that was very strange,” she said, “so I did it again, and the same thing happened.”

Lee said she discovered a subculture on the Internet, where people had shared tens of thousands of videos showcasing their best pimple pops.

The videos typically showed people “in their backyard or in their garage or living room and they had dirty fingernails — no gloves — and paper towels, and dogs barking and beer bottles half-opened and people screaming and no anesthetic and things like that,” she said. So, she said, she saw an opportunity to provide similar videos, but in a safe and sterile environment, so she started recording more extractions and even surgeries.

“I knew not everybody likes popping,” she said. “I think you get the opposite ends of the spectrum — people who are obsessed with it and people who are disgusted by it. But that’s how it grew, too, because either way, people would tag their friends to show them and that’s how it got bigger.”

(Lee graciously advised this reporter to start with videos showing “soft pops” — bumps like blackheads and whiteheads that do not require surgery — then work her way up to the “hard pops.”)

Lee has gained a massive audience on social media — 4 million on YouTube, 2 million on Facebook, 2.8 million on Instagram and 91,000 on Twitter.

But the decision to show it all on TV was not so easy.

Howard Lee, president and general manager of TLC, told The Post that though the dermatologist had become an online phenomenon, network executives questioned how her world would be seen on television.

He said they ”had to have a real discussion about whether we wanted to try it out on our air.”

“We absolutely had concerns. We didn’t know whether what Dr. Lee does for a living would turn off viewers,” he said, noting that in the TV show, “we are actually on the inside like a fly on the wall in her office.”

“We watch what she’s doing and some of it may be too graphic for some members of our audience and we were very well aware of that,” he added. He said “maybe there’s a factor where some viewers are just turned off by it and yet, oddly, the other half of the audience is compelled by it.”

Now that the show has aired, the president said, “Dr. Lee has been embraced by her audience.”

Lee said she is still surprised by how she became Dr. Pimple Popper — a brand that has led to a skin-care line, a television show and, soon, a game.

“This is bonkers — just bonkers,” she said.

But, she said, it’s also “special.” “I feel honored and humbled by it,” she said. “It’s intimidating, too, because I feel like I’m representing dermatology in general and I want to make sure I represent dermatologists well. It’s been a ride. I have to sit back sometimes and remind myself to enjoy it.”

2018 © The Washington Post

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

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