Sexy Neuroscience IV

Every culture and subculture has its own rituals of greeting and affection – handshakes, backslaps, fist-bumps, hugs and so on – but when it comes to erotic contact, cultural differences seem to melt away into something more primal: Touch that just feels good for its own sake.

In fact, a new study has confirmed that erogenous zones are remarkably similar and consistent among people from widely different cultures. This first “systematic survey of the magnitude of erotic sensations from various body parts” found that both men and women in Britain and in sub-Saharan Africa love be caressed on their lips, necks, ears and inner thighs; while pretty much no one is into kneecap-play (rule 34, though, folks). In short, erogenous zones seem to have a whole lot more to do with touch-sensitive nerves than they do with cultural conditioning.

And so, in the spirit of Part I, Part II and Part III of the Sexy Neuroscience series – which, incidentally, got this site banned from buying advertising on Google (yes, really) – The Connectome presents Sexy Neuroscience IV: Global Erogenous Zone Challenge!

As the journal Cortex reports, a team led by Bangor University’s Oliver Turnbull surveyed 800 people, mostly from Britain and sub-Saharan Africa. The investigators asked the participants which body parts (aside from genitalia) produced the most intense erotic sensations when others touched them. While the researchers did discover a few differences between male and female erogenous zones – for instance, men found it more arousing to be touched on the backs of their legs, and on their hands, than women did – most of the participants ranked a list of 41 body parts in similar erogenous order.

“Surprising!” say the researchers. “Why?” reply the rest of us.

I mean, most of us learn what our own bodies enjoy long before we clearly understand what sex and eroticism are. And plenty of us have defied cultural conventions when they didn’t line up with our own experiences of physical pleasure. I’d say it makes more sense that the whole concept of erogenous zones, and the culture surrounding them, both stem from common physical experiences; not the other way around.

But this study actually does reshuffle the erogenous-zone deck in one surprising way: It revises the sensory homunculus yet again. As I explained back in Part II, the sensory homunculus is a concept developed in the 1950s – by a bunch of men, which turns out to be a very significant part of the story.

The core concept is pretty simple: As you can see in this picture, touch sensations in various parts of our bodies are mapped onto a series of adjacent but differently sized brain areas; the larger the area, the more touch-sensitive a body part is. So far, so good. Except that until a few years ago, hardly anyone bothered to mention that this entire model was based solely on male brains. The cervical walls, the labia and the clitoris weren’t on it at all. And it took until 2011 for someone to come along and fix this.

So it makes sense that this latest erogenous-zone study has cleared up yet another longstanding myth about the sensory homunculus: That the bottoms of the feet are erogenous zones. Previous researchers had claimed this was true because a) lots of people think feet are sexy, and b) the sensory brain areas devoted to the bottoms of our feet lie right alongside the areas devoted to genitalia.

And although there’s no doubt that feet can be sexy – both visually and to the touch – and that they’re highly touch-sensitive and often ticklish, three fourths of the people surveyed in Britain and sub-Saharan Africa gave feet an erogenous touch rating of zero, right alongside kneecaps.

Turnbull and his team suspect that those previous researchers may have confused fetishistic touch with erogenous touch – two related but distinct phenomena. Those two feelings can – and often do – feed off one another; but there’s nothing to suggest that a caress on the foot feels inherently erotic in the same way that, say, a nip on the earlobe or a breath on the neck does. If anything, feet seem to serve as a clear example of culturally (and/or experientially) conditioned eroticism.

So where does this leave us as far as sensory homunculi and erogenous zones? Well, results like this reinforce the importance of communicating with your partner(s) instead of just following sexual ideas you’ve picked up from others. Erogenous zones may be strikingly similar across genders and cultures, but no two of us are exactly alike: Some find erotic what others find ticklish or painful – and some find tickling and pain erotic. The only way to find out is to ask. Who knows – you might even find someone who enjoys kneecap foreplay.

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