Brain Porn and Pop Neuroscience

How to think critically about neuroscience, statistics and more.

What Brain Science Can Teach You About Sex

However atypical, our sexual desires are faithfully recorded by the Internet.

This post is an introduction to a succession of posts I’ll be doing that explore the latest findings on human sexual desire. In particular, the series will focus on the brain cues that fire the erotic imagination of males and females, turning them on regardless of what they might claim about their sexual preferences. It will also discuss specific erotic signals as they’re almost uniquely masculine or feminine, straight or LGBT. I think you’ll experience the results of this survey intriguing—and at times rather startling as well.

My chief resource here will be A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (2011). This book, though written primarily for the layperson, takes into account an immensity of research—as evidenced by a bibliography containing over 1,300 items. As relates to experimental methodology, its authors, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam (both with Ph.D.’s in cognitive neuroscience), decided to base their investigations on the almost inexhaustible tool that is the Internet. Contrary to interviewing individuals, or having them complete self-report inventories or questionnaires, they took advantage of the anonymity and unobtrusiveness afforded by the Web. And by collecting an enormous amount of data readily available through computer searches, their unorthodox approach enabled them to bypass the resistance so many people demonstrate in sharing the unvarnished truth of their sexual preferences and desires.

Moreover, by using the Internet, Ogas and Gaddam could observe the sex-searching behavior not limited to the WEIRD (a curious acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) but of the “full spectrum of humankind.” On the contrary, their sample—truly international in scope—supplied them with an incredibly rich source for revealing the “unfiltered activities of a stunning diversity of people.” And one of the results of such an immense subject pool was that secret (or “non-shareable”) sexual interests and fantasies on the part of both genders could finally be made public. Working with huge data bases revealed (en masse, as it were) information that otherwise just wouldn’t be accessible for analysis.

The authors’ tireless research on this perennially provocative subject (one that would probably sustain the interest of most males indefinitely!) made it possible to obtain authentic data—“digital footprints,” they call them—from many millions of people who regularly employ the Net for sexual pursuits and postings. Ultimately, their investigations helped them either to corroborate what sex experts have been saying all along, or to question a whole miscellany of unverified assumptions still routinely accepted today. And circumventing both sexes’ reluctance to admit certain of their porn predilections, the authors were taken aback by outcomes they could not have predicted. Such as, quantitatively, being made privy to overwhelming evidence that males, whether straight or gay, revealed far greater interest in looking at erect penises than did women. So, whether or not you finally agree with their theoretical explanations for such phenomena, in future posts I’ll provide you with both their key findings and their speculations about them (some of which, frankly, I find more convincing than others).

Overall, Ogas and Gaddam set out to address how our sexual minds determine what turns us on physically. Or, as they put it, how “the brain software that generates sexual desire and arousal actually work[s].” Theoretically, their general bias is clearly “adaptational.” They regularly seek explanations for their sometimes counter-intuitive findings on the basis of what, pre-historically, may have facilitated our remote ancestors’ welfare—or even survival. These early evolutionary adaptations appear to be hardwired into our neural circuitry such that they’re relatively immune to cultural influence.

In addition, unlike most sex researchers preceding them, the authors devote a great deal of space to female preferences, frequently noting how much a woman’s erotic fantasies differ from a male's. This emphasis yields fresh insights into what Catherine Salmon (co-author of Warrior Lovers, who contributes the book’s Foreword) summarizes as “female mate preferences, the role of hormones and the ovulatory cycle in female sexuality, and the function of female orgasm.

Putting in a nutshell the key differences between the sexual interests—or “modes of stimulation”—of men and women, Ogas and Gaddam (in their introduction) state: “On the Web, men prefer images. Women prefer stories. Men prefer graphic sex. Women prefer relationships and romance.” Quite a gulf there—though, undoubtedly, these are all generalizations, so some readers are bound to take exception to such dichotomous conclusions. But nonetheless, they accurately reflect the conclusions of many other researchers in the field.

Examining what characterizes the male and female sexual brain also allows Ogas and Gaddam to suggest the origins of an almost limitless number of kinks, as well as what currently are called “squicks.” That is, turn-ons that many of us would find stomach-churningly gross—and for now I’ll avoid giving examples. In later posts, though, I’ll mention a few of these squicks (and apologize, in advance, to those who might experience them as offensive). My central aim, however, is to illuminate for the general reader the sexual psychology of both sexes, particularly as it distinguishes males from females (and females from males)—and in ways that aren’t just fascinating, but quite enlightening as well.

My final hope is that, as a result of my many depictions, you’ll greatly increase your level of awareness and sophistication about your, and your partner’s, sexuality. Those of you not presently in a relationship (or having already split up from a past partner) may recognize—or become more informed of—common patterns that, practically, can only assist you in relationships to come. One of the most helpful things that A Billion Wicked Thoughts accomplishes is normalizing many sexual preferences that to this point may have struck you (and maybe most people) as deviant. Obviously, the more widespread a predilection, the more difficult it is to simply dismiss it as “sick”—especially if there are psychological and biological causes that convincingly explain it.

You’ll also discover that the bulk of scientific evidence currently favors the view that the origins for most sexual desires are not cultural but innate. And it’s what Woody Allen describes as his “second favorite organ” that’s now typically seen as dictating these inborn preferences.

NOTE: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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