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Neurons A-Fire: The Key to Human Sexual Attraction?

secaldwe's picture


What makes one human being attractive to another human being: A deceptively simple question that was posed in various incarnations by that annoying Sarah Jessica Parker voice-over at the start of Sex and the City episodes. But can this unconventional neurobiology and behavior student even attempt to find the answer? (Hint: she can attempt it and perhaps make informed opinions but even bona fide scientists in the field can't even begin to make conclusive statements.) I stumbled across a BBC article in the science and nature section dealing with navigating online and print personal ads. Robin Dunbar, a researcher out of Liverpool University studied the British "Lonely Hearts" column in the 1990's, forming generalized conclusions about what traits men and women ranked highest in the opposite sex. Dunbar narrowed his findings down to "commitment, social skills, resources, attractiveness, and sexiness." (1)

Not surprisingly, the findings were mixed between male and female responses, some might even say divided into polar opposites. Women tended to rank "commitment" as the most desired trait they seek in men, while men ranked "attractiveness" as their top pick. I thought about these implications from an evolutionary standpoint. Back when we were covered with a thick layer of hair and our brains were half their modern homo sapien size, attractiveness was irrelevant. So was one of the other criteria, "sexiness." Really, all we were left with (and by we, I mean women) was a strong man who could provide us with the healthiest possible offspring. That would be "resources" according to the BBC study. But what to make of commitment? Dunbar's findings suggest the answer lies in something that ignited my interest, something called The Scheherazade Effect.

The phrase first used by Geoffrey Miller, a cognitive psychologist, refers to tactics our female ancestors employed in order to keep a male around for more than just one season. In One-thousand and One Nights (known popularly as The Arabian Nights) the character of Scheherazade keeps the sultan enthralled through her gift for storytelling, even though she was supposed to be beheaded after the first night spent in his harem. I can venture a guess that the instinct or desire to continue to produce fit babies would kick-in after the first batch and early homonoid women must have set the standard for commitment when they had to talk or "trick" the men into sticking around. That in itself is upsetting, though further reading gave me even more gems. Modern women also have the unfortunate label of "choosy," propagated by popular culture and television shows like Sex and the City though I believe that said choosiness is a hangover from a time when picking prospective mates was a real gamble. Think about it: if our ancestors were going to be spending most of their adult lives pregnant, the males with whom they were about to procreate would need to pass several tests. Women naturally have the greater investment in the mating game since it is their bodies bearing the ultimate burden.

Furthermore, why are some people more actively looking for certain types of partners/sexual experiences and others are more passive? Genetics, it seems, is once again responsible. So is the brain. Did you know that the brain is the most engaged of the sex organs? I didn't before this exploration. It houses hormones and differs between genders so it fits that part of the definition. Using the off-beat BBC study as 1st base, we move to The Science Times in order to refine the inputs. I think of the Kinsey scale, the sliding barometer of sexual preference/orientation when it comes to sexual appetite as well. We aren't all the same. Why? Our brains are different. The best way to go about mapping the differences is to look at the "neural, anatomical and emotional mechanisms that modulate and micromanage sexual desire and sexual arousal" (2). For most people, desire comes first in the order of things leading up to an encounter. We think of sex first, the end, and then we try to plug either people we know or people we see, the means, into the formula to make it come to fruition. This may not be how it works.

New research has found that desire may indeed be 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" (2). In a sense, this all leads back to the I-function. The act of sex is simply an outlet for us to make sense of all the different sensory inputs our brain is getting. Rather than acting on desire, we are reacting to physical stimuli and labeling it desire when really, we are never conscious of the firing of thousands of neurons begging us to jump into the sack and procreate. By covering our actions with the blanket term of natural human desire, we can disguise the gritty truth that our brains are simply programmed to respond in a set way to a set group of inputs. A study conducted in the Netherlands used graphic sexual photographs and electrical signals to monitor "spinal tendious reflexes" (3). The findings posit that human beings are physically ready for the act of sex as a response to those cues/inputs before the mind can register attraction.

What does all of this mean? Well for one thing, it de-romanticizes sexual attraction. Men and women, women and women, men and men all seem to be on a level playing field when it comes to the basic function of the bodily response to sensory/sensual inputs. One interesting question to ask of earlier discussion of ancestral humans would be is there really an impulse to breed with the cream of the crop? If human bodies really do launch into sex mode at the slightest suggestion of the act, then wouldn't our ancestors have been going at it all the time without being so choosy about their partners? I can't answer that fully. I don't think anyone has a definitive answer but the fact that sexual drive differs so greatly between modern humans leads me to believe that even millions of years ago, some people were more inclined to sit back and wait for it while others were go-getters. What makes someone attractive? Apparently, the slightest visual clue of physical contact is enough to set us off and running.


melodie's picture

i find this utterly

i find this utterly fascinating. wish i would ve known all the facts before i married at age 18. now im stuck in a relationship that i cant seem to quit, but neither do i want. but i cant find an article to explain that!!!

Ben 's picture

Wow - no-one's commented.

Wow - no-one's commented. Interesting stuff. I originally googled "The Scheherazade effect" after reading the BBC thing, which led me to this so I actually knew most of it from the bbc thing. Anyway, You should read Essays in Love by Alan De Botton. It raises many interesting questions about love and desire similar to one's here. Hmmm i'd write sometihng more substantial but, instead, i think i'll go to bed.