In July of 2015, the most unthinkable news story broke. You may have missed it, but it is certain to affect you deeply. Sealed Air, an American company who produce the beloved (and patented) Bubble Wrap announced that they would be ceasing production of the packaging material. Take a moment if you need one, to mourn everybody’s favourite toy. The new version that the company are replacing the deeply loved material with will not pop. The pop-able bubbles will now transfer air between one another, in order for them never to deflate. The fact that Bubble Wrap can now be reused, makes it a much more sustainable product. But even that upside doesn’t do away with the gravity of the loss entirely.
We only just found out today, and it sent shockwaves around our office. So, in memoriam of one of humankind’s greatest, perhaps our very greatest invention we decided to look into just why exactly Bubble Wrap is so damn fun and so damn satisfying to pop. A psychology professor at Western New England College published a study in the 1990’s pertaining to this very perplexing question. Her name was Kathleen M. Dillon, and she wrote in the study that throughout Ancient Greece, Asia, and other parts of the world, it was customary to carry a smooth stone or jewel known as a “fingering piece” “worrybead” or “worrystone”. These items were used for their calming properties. Dillon notes in her studies that keeping our hand’s busy with little projects at a given time is relaxing, and therapeutic for us. For that reason, we like to attack Bubble Wrap the same way we like to drum on steering wheels, or twirl a pencil. We just find it nice and relaxing to do something with our hands.
Others in the scientific community have suggested that the desire to pop, and sweet satisfaction of popping Bubble Wrap stems from something known as “instinctive ancestral addiction.” It has been suggested that doing a fiddly task triggers instinctual memories of repetitive grooming and insect-squishing performed by our ape ancestors. Perhaps there is even something within the action of popping a bubble that triggers our hunter instinct – we enjoy that moment of feeling the bubble resist our applied pressure, and then give in – humanity craves power and when we pop a bubble, that is just a tiny expression of us demonstrating the power we have over that bubble.
Whether it is an engrained physical need or not, the pleasure of popping those bubbles cannot be denied. Dillon’s research found that subjects who got to pop two sheets of bubble wrap reported feeling calmer and more alert when they were done with the task than when they began it. In a moment of stress, our body enters into a fight or flight response. Either option is a physical exertion, which releases muscle tension built up by the stress response itself. When we’re nervous or mildly stressed, performing a little muscle exertion (even if it is just a few pops) helps to alleviate that stress. After all, studies have shown that modern humans can be in a state of perpetual stress, so we naturally jump at any possible relief of that stress.
The crux of this matter could really just come down to the inclination to fidget. A major reason we fidget is emotional displacement, which means that we transfer a feeling or anxiety we can’t necessarily express into an action; we fidget as a form of self comfort. Another explanation for fidgeting is excess energy – toying with something is a way to deplete that energy. In traditional Chinese medicine, having excess energy would be attributed to someone with abundant Jing and overflowing Qi.
In an interview with the New York Times, Kathleen M. Dillon noted that the act of popping bubble wrap was “compulsive” as well as “desirable and addictive at some level.” Perhaps all of these reasons are why Bubble Wrap popping phone apps have never truly taken off. You just can’t emulate the deep satisfaction of the pop – touching a screen isn’t the same. It’s all in the tactile nature of the act, the instinctual relevance to our ancestors, the stress relieving nature of the activity and the fact that it is an outlet for an abundance of Jing.
Of course, there are many companies who produce similar products to the original Bubble Wrap, so it’s not like you won’t be able to find it at all. But perhaps Sealed Air’s decision which makes their product more sustainable and reusable will lead a charge that will see those beautiful sheets of pop-able bubbles disappear altogether.
Just for the record, we actually had a sheet of this new design “un-popabble” bubble wrap in our office. It took three of us to work it out, but you actually can pop the stuff – you just have to get the right angle, grab it firmly from both sides, twist and pull down until the bubbles in the middle start to burst. Happy popping.