Your Brain on Sex and Love – Can You Get Satisfaction?
Le plaisir, il n’y a que moi qui sache me le donner.
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Mur
A satisfactory sexual life is an important component of an individual´s overall mental and physical health. However simple this may sound, it appears to be very hard to attain.
Sexuality is a complex issue that involves many aspects of the human experience, from reproduction to physical appearance and fitness to self-image, performance, genre differences, and a whole variety of emotions.
In Western cultures, as popular belief has it, women and men experience sexuality in completely different ways; women are more emotional, while men are more physical and detached. Self-help type books like “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” have gone on to shape this popular culture and extend those beliefs.
From a scientific point of view, things are nowhere near so straightforward. On the one hand, research about what goes on in the brain during intercourse and orgasm in males and females and about the intrinsic differences between the female and the male brain has been extensive. However, none of it has been as conclusive as popular culture would have us believe.
In his influential book Male, Female, the evolution of human sex differences, David C. Geary discusses brain and cognitive differences from an evolutionary perspective. Identifying basic empirically observed differences between the sexes, both in humans and other species, Geary finds the sexual selection pressures that are responsible for these differences.
When it comes to male-male competition, which plays a key role in the choice of sexual partners across many species, Geary points to modern man´s efforts to secure a high-paying job as a clear example of the same sexually-driven competition amongst males.
Interestingly enough, a 2008 paper by Pollet and Nettle observed a correlation between men’s wealth and reported female orgasm, indicating that in a sample of Chinese women, those engaged in sexual relationships with wealthier men reported a higher degree of sexual satisfaction, and a higher number of orgasms achieved, in particular.
One way to analyze these results would be that, as we have been aware since Darwin (and Geary), females attach a lot of importance to the safety and well-being of their offspring, when choosing a sexual partner. In the case of these modern Chinese women, perhaps it is just the feeling of security that brings about a state of relaxation that is much more conducive to orgasm than a state of uncertainty about things like “how are we going to survive?” or “how are we going to feed and educate our children?”
The age-old questions still remain:
What do women want?
What do men want?
As popular Western culture would have it, women want a home and kids, and men want orgasms and variety in sexual partners.
Many scientists (including Geary) have observed that sexual roles are largely learnt and determined by genetics to a smaller degree than it was once thought. In today´s world, as the reproductive function is becoming more and more detached from sexuality, the roles of women have evolved and social sex differences have diminished; sexual roles are also evolving and changing rapidly.
Love and Sex
An MRI neuroimaging study of recently rejected lovers who still reported to be in love with their former partner found some neural correlations between this state and what was observed in the brain during cocaine craving.
One of the authors of the study is Dr. Helen Fisher, one of the world´s leading researchers in the neuroscience of love. Dr. Fisher is also responsible for some other interesting findings, such as the common patterns in neural responses from people who are in long-term relationships and reportedly “still in love.”
Just like Geary, Fisher studies love and sex from an evolutionary perspective, which is based on Darwin´s ideas that evolution responds to two main objectives: to “fight individuals of the same sex to win mating opportunities” or to “simply be attractive to the opposite sex.”
Fisher’s research has focused on the different neural responses to romantic attraction, which she found to be largely differentiated from those associated with sheer sex drive. According to her findings, the brain system associated with passionate romantic love involves greater dopamine and norepinephrine activity and low levels of serotonin. The hormones at play vary when we are talking about lust, attraction, and attachment — the three stages identified in Fisher’s work.
Though culture and learning influence who we will find attractive etc, concludes Fisher, the nature of our emotional responses to the different moments in a relationship are “generated by brain-body phisiology,” and they “have evolved long ago.”
Love and the Orgasm
In his book The intimate history of orgasm, Jonathan Margolis says, “the mechanical orgasm acquired in women by masturbation is widely acknowledged to be more intense than anything achieved through intercourse alone.” It would thus seem that when it comes to women and their need for a lover or sexual partner, the orgasm is not at the top of the list.
The orgasm is the highest dopamine rush experienced by humans. In fact, a neural scan of the moment of orgasm is similar to one taken during a heroin rush. Just like with drugs, the dopamine surge is followed by withdrawal symptoms, which are immediate in the male, but delayed in the woman.
The evolutionary need to find a partner and perpetuate the species in women seems to dictate a lot of their behavior, as the elusive dopamine high is something that shows no distinct physical signs, such as the male ejaculation; and women have sustained long-term relationships for thousands of years, where orgasms were nowhere to be found.
In fact, Margolis talks about the evolutionary paradox of orgasm, stating that the fact that the peak of male pleasure is connected to the highest chance of procreation while the clitoral orgasm is not, poses an evolutionary dilemma; in the sense that the female orgasm would be largely disconnected from the reproduction drive.
This simple little fact may be at the heart of many of the different emotional responses to and assumptions about love and sex, and it may have a greater influence on how men and women view and react to relationships, since our goals in pure sexual satisfaction are so diametrically opposed. In fact, this is a rich field for studying sexual roles and the implications of sex and love for mind and body, and it features many largely unexplored areas.
Loving Your Thoughts
From a Cognitive Behavioral perspective, our emotions are largely constructed and nurtured by the thoughts we choose to dwell on in our minds. When it comes to romantic love, the age-old question of why we fall in love with one person and not another can be answered referring to a combination of cultural and learned social behavior patterns, inherited brain-body physiology and, ultimately, to a set of individual behavior patterns that we tend to repeat by choosing to think certain thoughts and focus our attention on a certain person, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
As enlightening as certain of the findings mentioned here may seem, in spite of all the research and all of our attempts to dissect human emotions; there are some mysteries in love that our dire science shall never penetrate, hard as it may try; mysteries that can only be unravelled by music not neuroscience and poetry not psychology; and that is something to be thankful for.
Geary, D.C. (1998). Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
POLLET, T., & NETTLE, D. (2009). Partner wealth predicts self-reported orgasm frequency in a sample of Chinese women Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (2), 146-151 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.11.002
Aceveda, B., Aron, A., Fisher, H.&Brown, L. Neural correlates of long-term pair-bonding in a sample of intensely in-love humans. Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Poster Session#297, (2008).
Fisher, H., Brown, L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love Journal of Neurophysiology, 104 (1), 51-60 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009
Helen Fisher’s conference at the Swartz Foundation, March 27th, 2006.
Fisher, Helen. The Nature of Romantic Love. The Journal of NIH Research, April 1994: 59-64, Washington, D.C.
Johnathan Margolis. O: The intimate history of the orgasm. Grove Press, London: 2003