The Neuroscience of [making] Love
One of the most ground breaking shifts in neuroscience has been the acceptance that our brains are wired to connect with each other. Much of social-brain has been dedicated to using basic neuroscience to understand a variety of social interactions from our professional interactions all the way down to our most intimate interactions. Today our journey leads us to the pinnacle of our most powerful social interaction – love.
As a creature on this green earth we share one similarity with all the others animals and that is the desire to reproduce. The comfort level of expressing sexuality in this culture is cyclical. In one generation you had people making love in the mud while Jimmy Hendrix performed live on stage, but in the generation before that you had a riot on your hands if a woman’s skirt rose above her knee. Today sex and love are all around us. Pick up any magazine and there are tips about how to please your lover and what will drive the opposite sex crazy. It’s time to sort through the mess of pop culture and give you the neuroscience behind “getting it on.”
Mars, Venus, and Monkey Sex
What goes on in our brains in our most intimate moments? Science can now venture down that road to catch a glimpse of our brains activity in some of our most powerful personal moments. The first thing I want to tackle is the difference between men’s brains and women’s brains in relation to sexual perception, because what goes on in our brains during moments of passion actually differs between sexes. For the longest time it was a common belief that men were predominantly visually aroused while women on the other hand were cognitively and emotionally aroused. A raft of recent research has actually shown just the opposite.
Four groups were recently subjected to arousal testing: a heterosexual male group, a heterosexual female group, a homosexual male group, and a homosexual female group. All groups were exposed to different kinds of erotic video ranging from Bonobo Chimpanzees, to man on woman, man on man, and woman on woman. While the images were viewed fMRI testing allowed researchers to see brain activity of the subjects. As it turns out none of the four groups had a strong reaction to the Bonobo Chimp porn. Interestingly enough researchers discovered that heterosexual women’s arousal increased with the intensity of the sexual activity being viewed, regardless of who was in it. Men on the other hand were far more physically selective with their arousal response, meaning that men are more particular in who arouses them. Likewise, lesbian women showed a particular arousal response like that of men.
Overall this study suggests that women are more flexible when it comes arousal then originally thought. We’ve heard time and time again that “sex sells”. This would go far in explaining future marketing campaigns based around revealing images designed to appeal to women. It should also be noted that in social relationships women are often more emotionally attuned than men, leading to the original theory that women rely more on emotions than physicality for arousal. Though there is some truth behind the emotion argument for women on the whole, what you see is what you get (aroused by).
Some where right now a guy is showering with Axe Body Wash. When he’s finished he’ll towel off, get dressed, and then, if marketing holds true, he will get mauled by a pack of ravenous, horny, albeit very attractive women. It’s kind of absurd to think that simple scents can have that powerful of a reaction with the opposite sex, but neural research is suggesting a secret nerve in the brain whose main role is to detect pheromones from our partners.
For the longest time in medicine it was believed that there were only 12 cranial nerves in the brain. However a nerve has been discovered. It’s called nerve 0 or the Terminal Nerve. Interestingly enough all vertebrae mammals have this nerve in their brains, especially humans. This nerve in our brains is located at the front of the brain, right behind the forehead and above the nasal cavity. What is unique about the sense of smell in humans is that our perception of smell proceeds right to the part of the brain that processes it. In all other senses they proceed to the thalamus (relay station) and then to another part of the brain. This nerve may play a vital role in the detection of pheromones.
A pheromone is a chemical signal that triggers a natural response in another member of the same species. For the sake of keeping with the theme of this article, sex pheromones are believed to help encourage sexual activity when shared between two people. There have been colognes for men out there that promote the use of pheromones in their scent. First off if you purchased this cologne I feel sorry for you, and secondly in your attempt to get some you’ve been mislead. The range of pheromones is extremely limited. Indications are that people do exchange such secret pheromone messages, however you have to be really close to pass the message. Like, kissing close. If there is a connection between people and your intimately close the processing of your pheromones may what takes you to the next step. Pheromones could act like an unseen olfactory cupid – putting a romantic twinkle in the eye of a mate [ Scientific American Mind]. When you’re close enough for that good night kiss more might be going on in your brain than you originally thought.
You and Me, Baby, ain’t nothing but Mammals…
The sexual brain is an interesting brain. We’re all animals, essentially. Our needs are basic, and shared with our friends in the animal kingdom. Our new brain allows us to sometimes veto our most primal urges, however once those pheromones start flowing and our emotions kick in we’re really no different that any other animal on The Discovery Channel.