Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sexual Desire

Natalie Angier writes an engaging review of research into factors regulating sexual desire and sexual arousal (PDF here). The Science section of the April 10 New York Times contains a number of other interesting articles on sex and desire.

One brief edited clip from Angier:
According to the sequence put forward in the mid-20th century by the pioneering sex researchers William H. Masters, Virginia E. Johnson and Helen Singer Kaplan, a sexual encounter begins with desire, a craving for sex that arises of its own accord and prods a person to seek a partner. That encounter then leads to sexual arousal, followed by sexual excitement, a desperate fumbling with buttons and related clothing fasteners, a lot of funny noises, climax and resolution...A plethora of new findings, however, suggest that the experience of desire may be less a forerunner to sex than an afterthought, the cognitive overlay that the brain gives to the sensation of already having been aroused by some sort of physical or subliminal stimulus — a brush on the back of the neck, say, or the sight of a ripe apple, or wearing a hard hat on a construction site and being surrounded by other men in similar haberdashery.

In a series of studies at the University of Amsterdam, Ellen Laan, Stephanie Both and Mark Spiering demonstrated that the body’s entire motor system is activated almost instantly by exposure to sexual images, and that the more intensely sexual the visuals, the stronger the electric signals emitted by the participants’ so-called spinal tendious reflexes. By the looks of it, Dr. Laan said, the body is primed for sex before the mind has had a moment to leer.... arousal is not necessarily a conscious process. In other experiments... when college students were exposed to sexual images too fleetingly for the subjects to report having noticed them, the participants were nevertheless much quicker to identify subsequent sexual images than were the control students who had been flashed with neutral images.

By reordering the sexual timeline and placing desire after arousal, rather than vice versa, the new research fits into the pattern that neurobiologists have lately observed for other areas of life. Before we are conscious of wanting to do anything — wave at a friend, open a book — the brain regions needed to perform the activity are already ablaze. The notion that any of us is the Decider, the proactive plotter of our most lubricious desires, scientists say, may simply be a happy and perhaps necessary illusion.
This is precisely the message of my I-Illusion essay on this website.


  1. Hi Deric,

    I just wanted to let you know that the link to the pdf does not work in this post. You seem to have missed the "uploaded_images" part of the URL.

    Thank you for writing this wonderful blog. I am a regular reader.


  2. Thanks for noticing, I fixed it.

  3. Pomegranate, also known as the 'love apple', is an aphrodisiac that helps increase sexual desire.