Posts Tagged ‘ sex ’

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise – but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game – and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

I Be Strokin’

Watching another person being softly caressed activates very similar brain regions to those that actually allow us to feel a soft touch, says a new study.

"Aah - gently! I said gently! Good lord, you are one strong baby."

The sensation of gentle touch is conveyed by a specific type of neuron – tactile C (CT) afferents – found only in hairy skin. These neurons respond most strongly to soft touches and “caress-like” speeds, and send signals to a brain region called the posterior insula, which helps interpret bodily sensations like pain, warmth or cold, heartbeat, a full bladder or stomach, and balance – and also, interestingly enough, the physical feelings associated with music, laughter, and empathy.

What this new study explores is the insula’s response when volunteers observe another person being caressed. A team led by India Morrison of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy began by searching for an optimal stroking speed for triggering CT and insula activity – they found that stroking the subjects’ arms at a speed of about three cm/s provoked the strongest response in the insula:

A speed optimal for eliciting CT discharge (3 cm/s) also gives rise to higher BOLD responses in posterior insula than a nonoptimal speed (30 cm/s).

The next step was to study fMRI scans of the volunteers’ brains as the subjects watched videos of another person’s arm being stroked at various speeds. Again, videos showing a stroking speed of about three cm/s provoked the strongest insular response:

When participants viewed videos of others’ arms being stroked at CT-optimal versus -nonoptimal speeds, the posterior insula showed a similar response as to directly felt touch.

Interestingly, the insula seems to respond most strongly to videos depicting social touch, as opposed to “nonsocial dynamic-touch videos.” (No word yet on what the insula thinks of Facebook pokes.) The authors use this observation about social touch to bring up an intriguing point about why our insula might respond more strongly to some caresses than to others:

Such selective tuning for CT-optimal signals in insula may allow recognition of the hedonic relevance of a merely observed caress.

In short, our neurons and brains may be finely tuned to recognize exactly which caresses “mean” what.

On the whole, these results aren’t particularly shocking – after all, we all know that erotica is popular because (at least on some level) it works. Going by that example, it seems that even reading about a caress, or imagining one, might trigger similar insular responses.

What makes this especially interesting, though, is that even when we’re not physically feeling a sensation of touch, our brains are still tuned to respond most strongly to a specific pressure and stroking speed on certain body parts – or to the idea of that specific pressure and speed on those parts. Writers of erotic fiction, take note.

This discussion also awakens the dragon of the ongoing and fiercely fought mirror neuron debate. Without going too tangential here, the basic idea is that some studies seem to suggest the existence of “mirror neuron” groups, which are activated not only when we perform an action, but also when we see it being performed, or even when we hear it being performed in another room. While the system has been invoked to explain everything from task-learning to language acquisition to empathy, mirror neurons (if they actually exist in human brains at all) don’t seem to be essential for any of those tasks.

It may be that, rather than using a specific “mirror neuron” system to model perceived actions, our brains generally respond to perceived and experienced events in roughly the same way, and make the distinction of “self/other” at some point along that process. This seems, to me to offer a sort of Occam’s razor to explain why movies can seem so real, songs can feel like they’re about us, and stories of another person’s pain or pleasure can give us vicarious sensations – which, nonetheless, never feel quite as real as actual physical ones.

I think it’ll be fun to try some experiments with my friends – they can watch while I gently stoke my own arm, then compare that feeling to the one they experience when I touch theirs. Strokin’ for Science!

Desirable Memories

Women seem to remember information better if they hear it in a low-pitched male voice, a new study suggests.

ProTip: A deep voice can also help you remember your secret royal heritage.

But the conclusions drawn from the study’s data – namely, that women’s memories are attuned to the voices of sexually desirable men – are a bit shakier. Let’s break this research down and see what it’s really all about.

As the journal Memory & Cognition reports, a team led by David Smith at the University of Aberdeen started by selecting a group of 45 female volunteers. The women were shown pictures of objects, while they listened to manipulated recordings of high- and low-pitched male and female voices speaking the names of the objects.

The volunteers were then asked which voice they preferred, and tested on their recall for the objects they were shown. As it turned out, most strongly preferred the low-pitched male voice – and objects paired with that voice were the ones they were best at remembering.

For a second set of experiments, the team selected another 46 women, and ran through the same picture-and-voice sequence – only this time, they added real male and female voices to the mix as well. Again, the results were clear: women tended to prefer low-pitched male voices, and they best remembered pictures associated with those voices:

Women’s visual object memory is significantly enhanced when an object’s name is spoken during encoding in a masculinised (i.e., lower-pitch) versus feminised (i.e., higher-pitch) male voice, but that no analogous effect occurs when women listen to other women’s voices. Additionally, … lowering and raising male voice pitch enhanced and impaired women’s memory, respectively, relative to a baseline (i.e., unmanipulated) voice condition.

In other words, women respond more strongly to male voices with low pitch than to any other gender/pitch combination the researchers tried.

Here’s how the researchers interpret their results:

We think this is evidence that evolution has shaped women’s ability to remember information associated with desirable men. Good memory for specific encounters with desirable men allows women to compare and evaluate men according to how they might behave in different relationship contexts, [and] this would help women to pick a suitable partner.

In other words, women have evolved to remember information more strongly if it’s associated with sexually desirable masculine sensory stimuli.

So, what can we say about these results? Well, although the study definitely demonstrates that, for at least some women, visual memory for an object is strengthened by hearing that object’s name in a low-pitched male voice, it doesn’t explore how a woman’s memory responds to low-pitched sounds in general – or to other types of sensory data (like smell and touch) that might evoke a sexually attractive male.

This study also doesn’t tell us anything about how men respond to voices of various genders and types – data on that might strengthen the researchers’ hypothesis about memory and sexual attractiveness, or such data might cast the whole discussion in a new light. It’s hard to say at this point.

What the study does tell us is that our memories are composed of multi-sensory data, and can be strengthened or weakened by playing with various associated sensory “settings.”

It also might help explain why Morgan Freeman can sound awesome while saying literally anything.

Sexy Neuroscience II

a.k.a. The Revised Homunculus

A new study has mapped brain sensory fields for the clitoris, vagina, uterine cervix, and nipples – and it turns out that nipple stimulation activates very similar responses to those evoked by genital contact.

Do you have any idea how hard it was to keep this whole post SFW?

Yes, that’s right: fMRI scans are, once again, teaching men how to be better at sex – while telling women things they already knew. More surprising (or maybe not so surprising, actually) is the fact that most of these sensory linkages had never been mapped in the female brain before.

Here’s how it breaks down: by measuring activity patterns in the somatosensory cortex, the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports, a team led by Rutgers University physician Dr. Barry Komisaruk found that stimulation of the vagina, clitoris, and cervix each triggered different sorts of neural responses – and that nipple stimulation triggered responses in two areas:

Vaginal, clitoral, and cervical regions of activation were differentiable, consistent with innervation by different afferent nerves and different behavioral correlates … Nipple self-stimulation activated the genital sensory cortex (as well as the thoracic) region of the homuncular map … [this] was unexpected, but suggests a neurological basis for women’s reports of its erotogenic quality.

Unexpected for Komisaruk, maybe; but not for anyone in possession of a functional pair of breasts. (For those of you who didn’t know, some women can reach orgasm through nipple stimulation alone.)

“When I tell my male neuroscientist colleagues about this, they say: ‘Wow, that’s an exception to the classical homunculus,'” [Komisaruk] says. “But when I tell the women, they say: ‘Well, yeah?'”

I may be going out on a limb here, but it sounds like those male neuroscientists don’t get out much. Anyway, this is interesting for several reasons – first, because until now, neuroscientists only had a very limited understanding of the cortical response patterns associated with areas that are unique to a woman’s body. Now they finally have some solid fMRI data – pertaining to several important areas – which they can start to build on.

Even more importantly, though, this study marks the latest step in a long transformation of the way the somatosensory cortex is understood. See, there’s a widely popular idea in neuroscience that dates back to the 1950s: the sensory homunculus.  As you can see from the psychedelic-looking picture in that link, the basic idea is that different areas of the body are represented in differently sized and shaped (but well organized) areas of the brain.

Problem is, the homunculus was designed with men in mind – in fact, until a few years ago, there literally was no sensory homunculus designed to map the female body. That all changed in 2004, when Lars Michels at University Children’s Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland used fMRI research to show that the clitoris in the female sensory map was in nearly the same position that the penis held in men’s brains. Yep, that’s right – it took ’em until 2004 to find the damn thing. I imagine the wives and girlfriends of neuroscientists everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief on that day.

Like many studies backed by well-written grants, this research is only one phase of a continuing clinical program that’ll hopefully bring some therapeutic benefits to women who’ve suffered nerve damage from childbirth or disease. As promising research in neuroplasticity hints, some women may be able to “rewire” damaged sensory maps, and regain erotic and orgasmic sensations they’d lost. Komisaruk says he’d also like to study the neural correlates of the g-spot, because hey, when you’re on a roll…

As this field of study continues to heat up, it looks like we may be on the verge of some exciting new discoveries about how the human brain experiences sexual sensations – and in the interest of science, I’ll stay hard at work keeping you informed about them. It’s a tough job, I know; but somebody’s gotta do it.

Sexy Neuroscience

Q. Would you like to hear about a study that involves the keywords “fMRI” and “orgasms?”

A. Yes. Yes you would.

fMRI images of a woman's brain throughout an orgasm.

A team of neuroscientists at Rutgers are working to unravel the neurophysiological correlates of female sexual arousal and climax. What they’re finding, intriguingly enough, is (gasp!) that creativity and empathy are just as crucial to a woman’s sexual pleasure as physical stimulation is – and maybe even moreso. Explicit sexual fantasizing activates most of the same brain regions as an equivalent series of physical touches. “More than 30 areas of the brain are active during the event,” one article says, “including those involved in touch, memory, reward – and even pain.”

Those activation patterns become more intense when an actual physical stimulus is introduced. The one oddball, though, is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region of the frontal lobe that’s crucial to tasks like attention switching and imagining oneself in another person’s place. And what exactly the PFC does during orgasm is the subject of a Science Mystery right now. The Rutgers team think they’ve discovered that the PFC becomes more active during orgasm, whether it’s achieved through physical touch or thought alone (yep, there are people who can think themselves to orgasm). Meanwhile, a team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands think they’ve discovered something else: in their experiments, the PFC evidently “shuts off” during orgasm – especially a region of the PFC called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in the process of self-control.

This has led the Netherlands team to describe an orgasm as an “altered state of consciousness.” As the lead researcher on the project says:

I don’t think orgasm turns off consciousness but it changes it. When you ask people how they perceive their orgasm, they describe a feeling of a loss of control. I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect.

Well, here’s an important distinction. 1) The orgasmic altered state itself may not be necessary from a purely reproductive standpoint (I’ll come back to this), but 2) the mental side of sex is deeply intertwined with the physical one, and both need to work together properly if anyone’s going to have much fun. This ties in with a topic I’ve written about before: that fascinating intersection between abstract representation and physiological response.

But wait! As it turns out, these two teams of researchers may have unwittingly stumbled on two different roads to orgasm:

It is possible there is a difference between someone trying to mentalise sexual stimulation as opposed to receiving it from a partner. … Perhaps having a partner makes it easier to let go of that control and achieve orgasm. Alternatively, having a partner may make top-down control of sensation and pleasure less necessary to climax.

These alternate perception modes have intrigued me for a long time, though this is the first time I’ve seen them brought up in this context. But the point the article makes is a great one: with a little practice, it becomes surprisingly easy to shift back and forth between task-positivity and introspection. And in fact, the article goes on to talk about orgasm research as a learnable mode of conscious pain modulation:

Orgasm is a special case of consciousness. If we can look at different ways of inducing orgasm, we may better understand how we can use top-down processing to control what we physically feel.

Cool stuff. But what about this orgasmic altered state – this hidden place of Zen-like concentration and/or ego-dissolving nirvana? Why does it seem to be available in several different “flavors?” What about its strange behavior: it’s at least partly dependent on conscious control, and can be be consciously suppressed, but it’s impossible to initiate instantly at will (I don’t mean “instantly” like “in a minute or so,” but “instantly” in the sense of “as instantly as you can picture your favorite color, or feel upset“)?

Some delicious physical touch.

It’d be easy to lazily explain this by saying that orgasms are designed by natural selection to be as addictive as possible, while requiring some threshold to prevent false alarms and premature embarrassments. But it’s not always helpful to reason backwards from fortuitous end results – it’d be just as easy (and pointless) to say that the sun is 93 million miles from the Earth because that’s the perfect distance for producing Earth-like environments. Doesn’t really explain much about the original causes, or about how things might have worked if they’d been different.

So, coming soon in the exciting world of sexual neuroscience, we’ll hopefully start to see some new data about these various types of orgasms, and why evolution wired us to experience such unusual altered states. Addictive “reward” chemicals may be straightforward enough, but an orgasm is much more than just a dopamine rush. Just what it is, exactly, will be fun to find out.


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