The Brain Breaks for Sexual Puns
Why the brain takes it slow when
By Annie Murphy Paul published November 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When it comes to processing sexual information, the brain likes to take it slow, says James Geer, Ph.D. The Louisiana State University psychologist found that double entendres--words or phrases with more than one meaning--took longer to respond to when they had an erotic component.
Geer had subjects read a series of sentences, each including a word that could be sexual or not, depending on context. They were then shown a string of letters and asked whether it was nonsense or an actual word. When the initial sentence or word was sexual, men took longer to complete the task than when what they'd read was neutral--and women were slower still, Geer reports in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It seems that in language, as in life, sex makes things complicated. "You only have so many mental resources to apply to any task," he says. "If the task generates an emotion, this uses up some of those resources, and work on the task is slowed down." Sexual inhibitions also contribute to the delay: The more "socially unacceptable" subjects considered a word, the longer they took to react.
In responding to risque language, says Geer, we may fear making an inappropriate reply that will embarrass us. This danger is especially apparent to women, who are socialized to be cautious in sexual matters. So, Geer says, we put mental processing "on hold" for a moment, while we think of just the right thing to say.