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Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

Sexting and the City

Will sexting lead to atrophy of prefrontal cortex?

In April 2007, New York magazine began publishing sexual diaries provided by anonymous New Yorkers. Staff writer Wesley Yang got the assignment to do a feature based on his reading all 800 pages worth of diaries and comments. He turned up an amazing range of behaviors. I suppose it's just what you'd expect from what Yang terms "a city as dense, morally libertine, and sexually spirited as New York." I'll leave it to you to read the details, but what he describes is a world of speeded-up sexual encounters of every conceivable kind arranged for almost anonymously with all the speed the 3G network permits. Texting becomes sexting.

This, of course, is just part of the total speed-up that has taken place over the twentieth century and the beginnings of the twenty-first. Think of news: the 1930s saw the coming of radio news, the 1950s, television news. But to get that news,you had to have the set turned on. Now the internet sends instantaneous updates to my PC while I'm doing something else entirely. And, where I used to have to wait for analysis of the news, the bulletin comes with instantaneous punditry and bloggery to tell me what to think about it.

Now think of courtship, a far more complex realm in terms of social relations and the brain (notably its mirror neurons) that supports them. According to my mental encyclopedia, middle-class British Protestants in the sixteenth century invented romantic love, first celebrated in Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion." Among the aristocracy (and perhaps the peasantry) women were married off as bargaining chips to get the adjacent farm, castle, or kingdom. For sex women had courtly love and the men had a bit on the side, both rather difficult in the arranging.

Romantic love involved a lot of obstacles and waiting as developed, say, in the comedies of Shakespeare and any number of romantic novels until our own day. Yang writes: "Until recently, being a cad or coquette took a lot of work: You needed to buy a little black book, and you had to go around filling it, and then you had to schedule your calls for a time when the target of your seduction was likely to be at home. The less-self-assured daters in New York faced the sickening anxiety of the first phone call, or the cold approach in the bar."

All that waiting and scheming required prefrontal cortex inhibition of the immediate impulse. But now we have sexting, the essentially instantaneous arrangement of sexual encounters on cellphones, iPods,Blackberrys, netbooks, work computers, and so on. Yang details the complications of these arrangements, sometimes leading to frustration and anxiety. But delay? No. Yet there is still the longing for the old-fashioned kind of love with its waiting and inhibitions.

As Yang puts it, "True love! Who could say these words in public without acute embarrassment? It is nonetheless something that the Diarists keep referencing, despite the impression they convey that it is an ever-receding ideal." And they accept instead the momentary and instantaneous and almost impersonal gratifications reported in "The Sex Diaries."

So does this mean a kind of atrophy of prefrontal cortex so far as our social or sexual relations are concerned? My students seem unable to arrange appointment or movie dates--about their sex I don't know--without endless e-mailing and texting back and forth. Planning seems to be another prefrontal cortex function that is atrophying.

All this leads to a troubling conclusion. In the seventies and eighties we spoke of the dumbing of America. In the tens, will we be seeing that dumbing going even farther and faster, as the Internet speeds up our all social relations, not just the sexual ones, to the speed of light?

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About the Author

Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.