What is the human body’s most important sex organ?
In this, the first in a series of brainposts investigating how our brains orchestrate sexual behaviour, I provide a short introduction into this fascinating (and often overlooked) branch of neuroscience.
Libido, lust, desire is a drive that promotes relatively indiscriminate sexual activity and is fundamentally dependent on adequate levels of testosterone in men and women to ensure neural pathways that orchestrate sexual arousal are well maintained. Lust ensured that every single one of your direct line of ancestors managed to pass their genes on to the next generation, by hook or by crook. It is not an emotion, nor a feeling, so much as a fundamental, goal-directed, motivation to act – hence the term sex drive.
Love evolved much later to promote more selective sexual behaviours. Romantic love is thought to involve elevated levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in combination with low serotonin to produce sensations of intense euphoria, energy and excitement whilst also compelling us to obsess over our single specially-chosen beloved deemed superior to all the others.
Long term bonding is a third system, seemingly dependent on the action of the neurotransmitter vasopressin, which mediates behaviours promoting long-term partnership with one individual; known as monogamous pair bonding. This evolutionary benefit of such behaviour relates to the importance of nuture, i.e. ensuring that parenting duties are fulfilled. Committed parenting helps offspring to fulfil their genetic potential, improving the quality of mates that they attract, facilitating passage of genes into a third generation.
These three systems, although inter-related, are largely independent of each other. At any stage in post-pubertal life the three systems can be perfectly aligned or pull in different directions. No wonder the tabloids are full of stories of public figures sleeping around, and /or falling in love with people other than those with whom they are engaged in long term relationship. Understanding how we are wired up for sex, love and commitment can help us navigate the traps and pitfalls of the love game. If we can anticipate the antagonisms that develop between these systems, we can develop decision-making strategies that favour contentment in the long term, as opposed to immediate, but fleeting, satisfaction. For further reading on the evidence behind this conception of coupling as a three stage process I would highly recommend Helen Fisher’s books such as “Why We Love.”
Sex drive, or libido, evolved in mammals to promote the act of sex, or coitus. Coitus is captured in the below image, which is, believe it or not, an MRI image of a couple having sex inside the scanner! I’ve taken the liberty of adding some pink coloured dots to delineate the border of the woman’s body and blue dots to delineate the outer surface of the man. The green dots show the path that the sperm takes at the point of ejaculation: passing from the testis up and over the pelvic bone (white oval) and bladder (black/grey semi-circle), through the seminal vesicle / past the prostate gland (which together inject the constituents fluids of which semen consists), along the length of the penis where it is deposited right next to the cervix (neck) of the woman’s uterus (womb). Under optimal conditions the uterus rhythmically contracts to “suck” this seminal fluid up into the uterus and even on into whichever of the two fallopian tubes is most likely to have an ovum (egg) ready for fertilisation.
I added the red dots to help readers orient themselves with regard to the key erogenous zones in the female anatomy. The clitoris is marked with a large red dot and the position of the G-spot has been illustrated with several smaller red dots to convey that fact that it’s exact location on the anterior (front) wall of the vagina appears to be highly variable from person to person.
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MTV is the last place you’d expect to find a neuroscientist, right? Wrong! Tonight (Wed 16th Nov 2011) at 8pm GMT I make my second appearance on MTV’s Plain Jane. Yes, I know, it’s a makeover show. You may well be of the opinion that I should choose the series I contribute to better. And you might be right. However, in my defence I would say that, as my aim is to make neuroscience interesting and accessible to the widest possible audience, contributing to such a show allows me to reach people that are wholly unlikely to tune into anything vaguely scientific whether on the BBC, Channel 4, Sky or Discovery. So I saw Plain Jane as an opportunity to raise the profile of neuroscience in the minds of a new audience and to offer my knowledge of dating behaviour that increases the chances of getting the brain of a young lady’s romantic target into the state we know as love.
Tonight’s candidate, Jamie from Chicago, is a lovely girl with a big crush on a young man by the name of Adam. She lacks nothing but a bit of self-confidence and few fashion tips from Louise. As part of the preparation for her big date in Lake Como (lucky girl) we met in Spitalfield’s Market one windy Sunday last summer in trendy London’s favourite shopping/nightspot – Shoreditch.
I set her the rather unusual challenge of offering unsuspecting passers by a hand massage to give her the opportunity to practice some flirting tactics. Sounds a bit odd admittedly but my thinking was this. Number 1: if she was physically holding onto them then they couldn’t get away until she was done with them. Number 2: physical contact between two humans causes the release of oxytocin in the brain.
If you’re trying to get someone to fall in love with you oxytocin-release is what you’re after. It is a vital neurohormone for creating a social bond between two humans as it makes a person feel safe, happy and secure. There are many things you can do to increase release of oxytocin in a person brain: offer words of support when a person is scared or vulnerable, do someone a favour in their time of need – pretty much any altruistic gesture of support will do it. But physical contact is certainly one of the most potent ways to achieve this goal when standing in the middle of a pedestrianised shopping precinct.
The other tip was to avoid typical topics of conversation that flit into a person’s head when they haven’t really thought about it: like what a person does for a living, what they had for breakfast etc. Of course, the aim of effective flirting is to excite the date not bore them to death.
On the whole people love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice; ideally talking about themselves. So I encouraged her to give them ample opportunity to do so by steering them onto subject matters that are likely to boost their self-esteem. Using a simple mnemonic technique using the Palm of the hand, Thumb and Forefinger I suggested that she try and steer them into topics involving their Passions, Talents and Fantasies. That way the brain areas involved in creating feelings of excitement and pleasure should be maximally stimulated. The idea is to forge subconscious associations between being in your presence and positive emotional states to make them want more of the same.
I have no idea whether she employed any of that advice in her luxurious date on the banks of Lake Como. Regardless, my main aim was that these neuro-informed brain tips would help viewers find romance in their real lives and realise that knowing how the brain works can be both interesting and come in useful from time to time. The very artificial and impersonal set up Jamie had to endure was always going to make her job of kindling love under the bright lights and watchful eye of cameras very difficult. My fingers are crossed that, despite the tough circumstances, she manages to get her guy tonight at 8pm GMT on MTV.
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On Tues 2nd November a beautifully shot episode of “Plain Jane” airs across Europe on MTV at 21.00 (GMT). British fashion journalist, Louise Roe, takes sweet but slightly awkward, inelegant young women and transforms them into confident, gorgeous divas.
The aim: to hone their raw potential into a final product that enables them to win their secret crush.
In a nutshell: Louise meets “Jane” who explains why she just can’t seem to make a good impression, they go shopping, “Jane” gets some expert date training, confronts phobias via adrenaline sport and then turns up to a lavish date in an exotic location to seduce her man – a man who has no idea who his date for the night will be. Sure, you’ve heard it all before, except that in this particular makeover show they’ve injected some brain science!
Last summer, MTV invited me out to the beautiful alpine lake town of Montreaux (directly opposite the iconic mountains of Evian bottle fame) to provide a little brain-informed date training.
Having a neuroscientist provide inspiration to a girl trying to get ahead in the love game may sound a bit odd, but at the end of the day it is the brain after all that produces the experience of love in the first place.
The “Plain Jane” of this episode goes by the name of Sarah – a tomboy by day and a little bit too slutty by night. Her difficulty essentially boils down to the fact that she simply tries too hard and becomes clumsy when in the company of guys she really likes.
Once her shopping trip to Geneva and morning at the local Swiss finishing school were successfully completed, I coached her with a few choice tips on how to get the best out of her brain when chatting with the hottest young gentlemen that the Swiss Alps had to offer.
She was given the opportunity to practice putting this advice into action with a medley of men from the European brat pack in a beautiful hotel that looks out across the serene grace of Lake Geneva.
On a date, if one person perceives the other to be uncomfortable then that makes them feel uncomfortable too, setting up a downward spiral.
However by thinking about the signals that your body language, tone of voice, enthusiasm with which you embrace certain topics of conversation sends out, an explosion of dopamine and serotonin can be triggered in the other person’s brain to make them feel comfortable and happy.
I explained to Sarah the mechanisms at work in her brain that lead to her trying too hard to impress and the influence that this subsequently has on her date’s brain state. I spoke with her about how the adrenaline and cortisol release that can put a person on edge can also be harnessed to produce a spark of excitement. I explained ways in which she can wield the power of the oxytocin neurohormone that, when released in the brain, leads to feelings of trust, comfort and bonding; luring that man into her spell.
How much of this ends up hitting the cutting room floor and how much into the final cut remains to be seen. Either way I think that MTV deserves a little credit for being forward-thinking enough to employ a neuroscientist as one of their dating coaches in the first place! Personally I’m going to be watching on Wed at 9pm because I’m really keen to find out whether or not she got her guy. She was firing on all cylinders when I last saw her so I’m cautiously confident that it might just have gone her way. Plain Jane, 9pm, Wed 2nd Nov, MTV.
In addition to these fortnightly brainposts you can also get my daily #braintweet – pearls of brain science that I distil into 140 characters – by following me on Twitter.
Dr Jack will be MAKING YOUR BRAIN BETTER FOR LONGER live on ITV1’s THIS MORNING
Over the summer I’ll be making a series of contributions to ITV’s THIS MORNING. The aim is to get the nation interested in how their brains work and ultimately to help YOU get the most out of YOUR brain. I’ll offer easy-to-follow advice on how to get your brain firing on all cylinders each and every day.
I’ll be answering the questions that YOU want answered. Is your brain not what it used to be? Want to know what you can do about it? Bad with money? Ever wondered why you can’t kick your habits? Ever worry about your children’s development? You can either get in touch with your questions directly by clicking here, or get in touch with THIS MORNING via The Hub.
Topics I’ll be covering in detail will range from money management to memory, from love to hate, from happiness to sorrow, and all the way from child development to holding onto your marbles in old age. You most definitely CAN teach an old dog new tricks and it is never too late to start getting more out of your brain!
Each item will kick off with a discussion with Phillip Schofield and Co. on the sofa to explore ways in which they feel their own brains’ work well and not-so-well. We’ll then be asking members of the public to participate in experiments live in the studio. And we’ll meet some extraordinary people who’ll either demonstrate some amazing abilities or some shocking disabilities. Each item will be packed with useful tips, nudges and strategies for optimising your brain function. So, each week, you’ll be able to put my advice to the test to see how it can benefit your life by boosting your brain power.
Most people would agree that their memories are far from perfect. So, on Monday 13th June 2011, I’ll be showing you what part of your brain creates a MEMORY for people, places, facts and faces. I’ll be putting some members of the public through their paces to see how much information a noraml “working” memory can hold. You’ll even be able to join in the fun and play along at home. I’ll reveal a classic memory trick that is virtually guaranteed to boost anyone’s memory for lists of facts or any other kind of information you might need to remember.
So tune into ITV1 from 10:30-12:30 and SORT YOUR BRAIN OUT!
- Jack has studied Brain Biology for nearly 20 years
- Jack has a First Class batchelor’s degree in Neuroscience from The University Of Nottingham
- Jack earned his PhD in the Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London
- Last year, Jack published a paper in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience describing human brain scanning experiments that investigated multisensory perception; carried out during a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
- Despite Jack’s extensive knowledge about the human brain, he is NOT medically qualified and so will not be able to answer questions relating to medical care.