“You might well think of your brain as one giant gonad,” Kayt Sukel explains in her new book DIRTY MINDS: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, which mines the latest neurobiology in an effort to explain why we behave the way we do in sex and love. The author did her part for science earlier this year when she got her brain scanned during an orgasm. Well, two orgasms: Her first was too short. She had to do perform the feat twice in front of Rutgers University researchers, all while strapped down behind a mesh plastic mask to keep her head still during the fMRI. Ms. Sukel spoke with The Globe and Mail from her home in The Woodlands, Texas.
The study of love and sex via neuroscience is relatively new – 1990s onward?
There were some forays before that but the scientists wouldn’t have called it love. They would have called it pair bonding or attachment and this work would have been done in animal models. The application to humans didn’t come until the mid-nineties.
At a 1996 symposium in Stockholm, a group of scientists came up with this working definition for love: a “life-long learning process.” What about epigenetics and our behaviour in love?
For so long, science has vacillated between nature and nurture. What we’re realizing is that you can’t tease the two apart. Whether you’re talking about the behaviour of a cell – which is what a lot of the epigenetics research is right now – or the behaviour of a person, it’s hard to separate the biology from the environment. The environment plays such an important role: These lasting marks are made right on your genome.
“With every new experience, every new item learned, every new relationship, there are subtle changes to our synapses,” you write. So past unions – exes, in effect – mark up our genes and affect the way we behave in future liaisons?
It’s entirely possible. Everything in the world has the power to change our synapses, how we learn and ultimately how we behave.
A few surprises from the book: More women have orgasms with partners they aren’t seriously involved with, this from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior.
Isn’t that crazy? Here you have women reporting they have more orgasms with novel partners. We have a lot of biases when it comes to relationships. In the past we’ve used little bits of science we picked and chose to reinforce those biases: The idea that women are more emotional and men are players. That’s not necessarily true and the science doesn’t back that up. An Australian researcher did a longitudinal study on menopause looking for a hormonal smoking gun as to why women at this age are less interested in sex. What they found was that the women who were having the most sex were the ones who had a new partner.
Another unexpected finding, this one from an Emory University study regarding porn: Women rated pornographic images as subjectively more sexually arousing than men did.
Women have been taught to believe they’re not supposed to watch porn, that it’s not supposed to be part of female sexuality and that there’s something anti-feminist about it. What scientists have discovered is that the brain is really hardwired for porn. We are very interested in sexual images, much in the way that we’re interested in pictures of food.
What lit up in women’s and men’s brains when they looked at porn?
The researchers saw higher activation in the men in both the amygdala and the hypothalamus, two areas involved in sex and emotional processing. When they examined what the participants were actually looking at using eye tracking software, there was no significant difference between men and women. Nobody really liked the close up, crazy genital shots.
Does it surprise you that men said that?
A little bit. I think it’s something that needs more study.