Jun 192010
 

This is a post about stimuli. It’s about all the things that turn you on and all the many more things that don’t.

I’ve mentioned before that men prefer the novel within a limited range of stimuli while women prefer the familiar, but can learn to adapt to a vast range of stimuli.

You’ll notice I’m NOT saying, “Men like X and women like Z.” That’s only partly because I avoid gender dichotemies when I can. Mostly it’s because there is no such thing as “what men like” and “what women like.” In the most technical sense, there are no innate stimuli.

Oh. So what the fuck does that mean, Em?

I’ll tell you.

Studies of non-human animals (like rats) show that animals need to learn what’s sexually relevant. Even a receptive female rat is not innately appetitive to a male rat; he needs to grow up around receptive females in order to learn that receptive females are sexy.

(There is one possible exception in humans: it’s possible (but by no means certain) that the sight of women’s genitals is innately appetitive for heterosexual men. Technically, this could be tested, but I wouldn’t want to be the one trying to convince a human subjects ethics committee that it’s a good and important idea to attach a strain gauge to the penises of newborn infants and then show them pictures of vulvas.)

No innate stimuli, okay. And now we’re at the so-what stage.

Why is it important that sexual appetitiveness is LEARNED rather than inborn? And what, Emily, what about all that stuff you said before about waist-to-hip ratio and other cues of fertility and health? Huh? What about THOSE?

Well, that’s the weird thing. There are reliable things that we (and other animals, within species) consider appetitive once we get to be adults. Rats wouldn’t get far, as a species, if the males didn’t reliably come to find receptive females sexy. So what’s the deal?

Things get very technical at this point – more technical than I can explain or even fully understand – but the short, superficial version of the story is this:

Traits like, say, preference for .7 WHR, aren’t selected for, per se. Instead, what gets selected for is the developmental process that gives rise to that preference within the environment in which an individual develops. (Or, if you’re Richard Dawkins, what gets selected for is the gene or set of genes that represents that developmental process that gives rise etc etc.)

Hardly any rat that survives to adulthood grows up without seeing (and, more importantly, smelling) a receptive female. So why bother evolving a mechanism that knows that receptive females are sexy when you can instead evolve a mechanism that is cheaper, faster, and more adaptable to other functions, like a mechanism that can LEARN that receptive females are sexy? Dig?

It’s only when we humans separate rats from their environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) that we discover the mechanism doesn’t work without that environment.

Christ only knows (and I use that phrase only in the loosest, most speculative and literary way) what’s happening with the sexual preferences of humans living so far removed from our EEA that we have sex toys, pornography, and angst. It seems that some things are functioning fairly reliably, like the WHR stuff, the cues of health, that stuff. What seems to be messier and less reliable are cues to social status and constructed images of nubile women – women who don’t exist but who APPEAR to exist and meet and exceed every standard of attractiveness.

A problem for another day. Also a problem for another day: sexual orientation. It’s a different and TERRIBLY complicated issue.

What I want you to remember here is that the “sexually relevant stimuli” to which SES responds are not “hardwired” in the sense that they’re there spontaneously in an organism regardless of where it grows up. If sexually relevant stimuli are in any way hardwired (and I’m convinced that some of them are, in this other, special way), it’s insofar as they result from the developmental process of a human growing in an environment in which those stimuli are learned – and learned EARLY. In the case of boys, who have a more stereotyped set of sexually relevant stimuli, these stimuli seem to be established by the time the boy gets through the initial phases of puberty.

Needless to say, it’s different for girls. Females have more plastic, adaptable responses; nearly anything can become sexually relevant through experience.

(And it interests me strangely, Jeeves, how this works for trans folks, pre- and post-hormones. I’d guess that FTM folks experience a stereotyping of cues for desire, though not to the extent of biological men, as they get more and more T, but that MTF folks KEEP their stereotyped cues for desire. Of course there’s like NO research on that. One of you go do that research and let me know, okay?)

So neat, eh? No innate sexually relevant stimuli!

I can’t think of any practical implications for this bit of knowledge, other than as yet another one of those tidbits to share at parties. Just be careful, as talking about sex at parties can apparently lead the listener to think you’re open to the idea of sex with them.

Jun 182010
 

As you’ll read all over, the FDA unanimously denied approval for Flibanserin.

I followed the day’s proceedings via The New View Campaign’s twitter feed from inside the meeting. It was amazing stuff. The result is not an unmitigated success because the committee apparently expressed support for the IDEA of a drug for sexual desire and the HSDD diagnosis, but felt the drug in question had not provided adequate evidence of benefit against risk.

Be that as it may, Petra Boynton noted that she was celebrating the defeat of Flibanserin with this video:

It pretty much captures how I feel too. :)

Jun 182010
 

As Liz Canner, director of Orgasm, Inc, was quoted, I can’t see why it will be approved and I’m shocked the drug has gone this far.”

It’s Flibanserin day at the FDA. If you’re obsessive like me you’ll read the publicly available data that the FDA is reviewing (PDF) and you too will wonder how the drug ever made it this far.

If you’ve seen the Discovery Channel opinionmercialtainmentary and/or read what I had to say on the subject, you may be steaming just a little bit from the ears.

Which is not where you want to be steaming from – it’s certainly not where I want to be steaming from. I want to steam from entirely different places for entirely different reasons. (And just by the way, Flibanserin would not assist me in THAT kind of steaming. Have I made that point?)

Obviously I’ll be paying attention to that. We’re hoping for the same result that Liz Canner filmed in her documentary, Orgasm, Inc, which I can’t recommend enough for this reason: when the moment came that the FDA rejected the testosterone patch for approval, I sat in the audience with my hand over my mouth, smiling like a dope, and then Liz panned over to Leonore Tiefer, who was sitting in EXACTLY the same position – hand over mouth, smiling like a dope.

That’s what we’re looking for today.

So. Stay tuned. I only wish they broadcast FDA hearings on C-SPAN.

Jun 172010
 

And now for part three of what Bill calls my “inexcusably delicious nerd-fun.” (It’s SUPPOSED to be an edu-taining introduction to survey research and its problems, so ya’ll can be critical consumers of science journalism and also so I don’t have to reiterate this stuff every time I mention some survey results, but can just refer back to this.)

In our last edition of survey results, I said, “That number is the average number of time per week the person reported wanting sex, by their own personal definition of “sex.”

But that was a lie. Or at least a fudge. It was DEFINITELY a problem.

What it ACTUALLY was was the average of the score that I assigned to individuals, based on their response to the question:

Imagine that you can wave a magic wand and have your ideal sex life. How often would you have sex? (Use whatever definition of sex works for you.)

Both the scoring and the interpretation of the question were problems.

Scoring. I deliberately did not offer response options, like “a few times a year” or “a few times a week” or “at least once daily” because those kinds of options shape the way you think about your answer in all kinds of ways that I’m not going to bother describing. However, those kinds of response options are helpful because they generate a uniform set of answers that are easy to compare with one another.

Since ya’ll could say whatever you wanted, in order to do any kind of quantitative analysis I had to convert your freeform answers into a simple “score.”

Sometimes it was easy, as in the response “Daily.” That’s 7. Or “4-5 times a week.” That’s 4.5. Okay.

But what do you do with:

[On average, daily.] But I’d rather it were sometimes twice or three times, and some days once, and some days none. I don’t like the routine of daily sex.

I called that 7.But it’s not, quite. This response includes important information about sexual desire that is not at all represented in the data as I scored and analyzed it.

Or worse, what about:

Whenever my guy wants it (barring soreness as in the beginning, it was totally like that). I’m a pleaser. *shrug* I’m guessing it’d be about twice a day?

I called that 14, but it’s not really, is it? It’s an important piece of information about sexual desire that ends up not being represented in the data at all.

One response – “every so often” – I deemed uncodable, so it is not included in analyses; it was very likely a lower response than the average, but for all I know “every so often” is “every couple minutes.”

So one problem with the results as I presented them to you is that the “score” doesn’t really capture people’s actual response. The results aren’t really what people SAID, it’s my numeric interpretation of what they said – it’s like getting a stained glass window and calling it a church.

But again, I asked an open-ended question without response options because I wanted you to generate your own answer, free of interference by me. I could have manipulated the results by framing the response options in various ways; instead I manipulated the results by scoring the responses in a way that *I* controlled, rather than a way that YOUR interpretation of the response options controlled.

Interpretation of the Question. We know that there was some issue with interpretation because people said so. To begin with there’s the straightforward problem of “times” having “sex.” What do we mean by sex? What do we mean by “a time.”

Example:

So, now I’ve read the other posts; I was counting ‘once’ as at least two rounds of sex in a night, then in the morning too. Perhaps every one else is counting that as 3-4 x 3.

I scored that a 6. But is it?

Also, was the question asking, “How often do you want sex (whatever that means to you)?” or was it asking, “How often you want to want sex (whatever that means to you)?”

As in:

Well, in my ideal sex life, I’d have the sex drive of a man – ready to go at a moment’s notice with no mental, emotional, or physical blocks, and frequently eager enough to initiate. If that were the case, I’d want to have sex as often as I could, without risking injury and without interfering with anyone’s “real” life.[...] Of course given the substantial bulk of my baggage and my (not always, but usually) lamer than lame sex drive, I can go for over a month without particularly missing it.

(I called that 14. How inadequate.)

I know that some people answered it one way and others answered the other way and still other people, I don’t know which answer they intended to give. Regardless, I scored them all the same. But they’re not the same.

So in the last post on this subject, what I should have said is NOT that I was reporting, “the average number of time per week the person reported wanting sex,” but rather that I was reporting the average number of times per week the person reported EITHER wanting to have sex or WANTING to want sex.”

Another difficulty with the question is, obviously, the definition of sex. This reply got a great deal of support from others:

Every day, but I say that knowing that I need solitary days too, and evenings just for reading books snuggled up together and snuggle mornings that are for sleeping in spoons till you just *have* to get up for a sunny breakfast. Lots of ‘ordinary’ sex days, occasional surprises and quickies, and at least once a month a big, juicy adventure.

(I called that 7. *sigh*)

I posted the survey with the subject heading “don’t mistake this for science.” The sundry and various problems I’ve mentioned are the reason it’s not science. In well-controlled, well-designed studies, these problems are addressed as well as they can be. Some of them can never be fully addressed and we just acknowledge that.

But the next time you see survey results in fuckin’ Cosmo or Glamor, bear in mind that they’re not telling you much about their methodology or interpretation, they’re just handing you fun facts and maybe some charts. Could all be bullshit.

Jun 162010
 

Periodically I look at the search terms people used to find the blog. Mostly it’s stuff like “emily nagoski,” “sex nerd,” or “have to pee during sex.” But occasionally there are things that just crack. me. right. up. There’s been a spate of good ones lately. The best of the best:

5. fetus boggle. Took them to anatomy boggle the third: philtrum. (Double points if you can remember what it is without looking.) So they got a nice little anatomy lesson, but What On Earth could they have been actually looking for? Boggle for fetus development? What?

4. pointy clitoris? This was probably some anxious young woman worried that her clit was abnormal, so I shouldn’t giggle, but it reminds me too much of Steve Martin reading Pointy Birds in The Man with Two Brains. (He also read it in LA Story.) “Oh pointy clit/ Oh pointy pointy….” Anyway if she wanted to know that she was normal, at least she found my homage to the clitoris. Good.

3. penispenispenis. What?!?! Until I myself googled this, I did not realize that (apparently) it’s a term that refers to a particularly unedifying type of trolling behavior. Well, just goes to show ya, huh. This search eventually goes to the post about talking frankly about sex in inappropriate situations.

2. nerds looking at vaginas. This also finds you the post about talking frankly about sex in inappropriate situations. I can not begin to guess that the person was actually seeking, but I must say I just adore the thought “nerds looking at vaginas.” I envision an acne-ridden kid in Buddy Holly spectacles, who’s on the school ping pong team and is likes astronomy, gazing entranced at his or her girlfriend’s glorious secrets for the very first time. Nerds looking at vaginas! Hurray!!!

1. sexual fruit salad. Undoubtedly took them to of chocolate cake, fruit salad, and pornography, a post about the relationship between cognitive load, impulsivity, and stimulus salience. I’m guessing that’s NOT what they were looking for. But god, don’t you just want one now? A sexual fruit salad, I mean. Strawberries, provocatively sliced, and bananas. Lots of berries, indeed – turgid, bursting ovaries that they are. And flowers – also sex organs. Peaches.

Jun 162010
 

I’ve been pretty heavy on the nerd lately, and not paying as much attention to the sex. Let’s fix that.

How to maximize your torment of your partner.

Haven’t you wanted to be in that position of power where you stand at the gate of your partner’s orgasm, tempting them gradually closer, then wickedly slamming the gate in their face and sending them to the back of the queue, only to draw them, even more eager, forward, over and over, until they hate you and love you in equal measure and they can’t think and can’t move and are begging you in choked gasps in end their torment?

Sure you have. Here’s how.

When you partner is at the breath-holding stage of the proceedings, that indicates that waves muscle tension are causing the contraction of both the thoracic diaphragm and the pelvic diaphragm. If that sentence made no sense, don’t worry, just notice that your partner has gotten to the breath-holding stage of the proceedings. Each held breath slightly escalates tension, edging your partner closer to the threshold of orgasm (which is not a fixed point, but don’t worry about that for now).

When giving beginner advice, I generally say that breath-holding is exactly the time to KEEP DOING EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Same speed, same pressure, same everything.

For the more advanced student, you can use this phase to take the reins of your partners orgasm.

Necessary Supplies. In addition to the confidence and joy necessary for all excellent experiences, it requires a great deal of attention to muscle tension and breath. Those who practice mindfulness will therefore be better at this than everyone else because they’re trained to be more sensitive to sensory stimuli and I therefore suggest that all of you start practicing mindfulness meditation every day for the rest of your lives. (Also, with dudes you can pay attention to genitals as well as breath and tension. Not so much with chicks.) So:

Your supply list:

  • Confidence
  • Joy
  • Your willing, relaxed partner
  • Well-tuned Attentiveness to your partner

Arritey. Now.

Step 1. When they’re well entrenched in a pattern of breath-holding, notice how long your partner is holding their breath. (If noticing how long the breath is requires counting seconds in your head, that’s okay, but ideally you’ll be so intuitively connected with your partner that you don’t need to count. You just KNOW, you know?)

Step 2. When your partner is approaching the end of a long breath-hold – so they’ve been silent for, what, like 8 seconds-ish, that’s when you STOP. Make it nice recognizable full stop so they don’t think you’ve just made a mistake or are changing position or whatever. Just stop. Keep physical contact with them – if this is oral sex, keep a hand on their thigh or something; if it’s penetration, stay totally still but make direct eye contact.

You stop at the END of the held breath, because tension is at its maximum then. If you stop after they’ve released a breath, they’re already on a down-wave of arousal and you’re not interrupting anything.

Step 3. Wait. Without breaking contact, watch the tension ease from their muscles and face, listen to their breathing steady. If they ask what you’re doing, lie. Say, “Nuthin’” or just smile at them or say “takin’ a break” or “What are you doing?” If they say “I was about to come,” that indicates that your timing is SUPERB; feel free to boast about this. Give your partner a villainous grin and say, “Yeah I know.”

Step 4. Start again. When they’re less definitely aroused (but still SOMEWHAT aroused), start again, slowly at first. Gently. Gradually increase intensity. When they get back to a stable breath-holding rhythm…

Step 5. Near the end of another held breath, stop again. Stop. They may, at this point, give you a dirty look. That means you’re doing it right. Be sure to answer their glare with a smile. Shows you’re friendly. We don’t want open hostility after all.

Step 6. Wait again. Watch their arousal dissipate. Allow time for dirty looks, questions, bafflement. Be sure to stay in contact, physically and emotionally. Run your hands over any number of body parts not ordinarily considered “erogenous.” (Remember, arousal is context dependent, so by the time you get done, EVERYWHERE will be erogenous.)

Step 7. Start again. You may prefer to start VERY INTENSELY this time, to switch things up, keep them guessing. Or not. You decide. Don’t let anything your partner says sway you – unless you want to.

Repeat Steps 5-7 as long as necessary/fun/physically tolerable/your partner doesn’t grab you, pin you down, and either beat the shit out of you or torture you in return.

The art of this strategy lies in the management of your partner’s arousal level. Pay close attention, feel their arousal without becoming so aroused yourself that your judgment clouds.

Something to note: The longer you continue, the more slowly their arousal will dissipate and the faster it will return. Eventually you’ll be able to do almost nothing and send them instantly to the tearing, thrashing edge. That’s fun. Also, the longer you do this the more intensity they will (probably) be able to tolerate, so feel free to escalate if you like.

There you go. Some (nearly) science-free sex stuff. Happy Wednesday.

(Note: I recently learned that my mother regularly reads the blog, so I would therefore like to make it clear that I never have and never will do anything like what I’ve just described. And preemptively let me say: shut up Bill, that’s not funny.)

Jun 152010
 

Well, ladies and gentlemen, time for another round of “survey research and its problems,” as illustrated by our tiny little survey.

It turns out that feminine-identified (or female-identified; I put the two in the same category) readers of this blog who responded to the survey want sex a bit more frequently than the masculine-identified (or male-identified) readers of this blog who responded to the survey. (Due to small N and no non-arbitrary way to plonk them into either of the other categories, the genderqueer-identified folks were removed from this analysis. No disrespect intended, I just couldn’t report anything meaningful.) Like this:

Feminine Masculine
6.5 5.37

(That number is the average number of time per week the person reported wanting sex, by their own personal definition of “sex.”)

This might go some way in explaining why there was some resistance to the idea that men, globally, have higher sexual interest than women.

Actually, I can tell you that the difference is made up entirely by women aged 25-45:

Age Feminine Masculine
18-24 5.92 7.33
25-44 7.375 3.75
45+ 5.33 5.07

But that’s a lot of qualifiers: feminine and masculine identified. readers of the blog. who responded to the survey.

In excess of 1000 people VIEWED our “survey,” but only around 100 responded. 10%?? That’s a TERRIBLE response rate. There is very likely some difference between those folks who posted a response and the folks who didn’t, making the results ungeneralizable. I don’t know what differences (how can I know, unless they tell me, and by definition they won’t!)

Response bias is a continual problem in sex research. The kinds of people who are willing to respond to a sex survey may be different in important ways from the kinds of people who are not. Kinsey, clever biologist and specimen collector that he was (bless him), tried to overcome this problem by surveying entire populations: every member of Sigma Chi, every inmate at a prison, every student in a class, every man in a gay bar. 100% samples, to avoid sampling bias.

(People don’t do survey research this way now because there are inherent ethical problems of the potential for coercion!)

To make matters worse, there are very likely differences between the kinds of people who read a sex blog (or a blog that linked to a sex blog) and the kinds of people who don’t – precisely what differences I don’t know, but going by your responses to my religion post you’re a bunch of leftwing godless heathens with nothing but social justice and science on the brain, like me.

♥Weirdos.♥

I might also suggest that according to these results, women between the ages of 25-44 who responded to the survey want sex more often than women between the ages of 25-44 who didn’t, based on national results.

So when you read survey results, do bear in mind sample size, response rate, representativeness of the sample, etc etc etc.

Oh, and my next discussion of the results will be about the problems with the question itself and the coding of the responses. VERY exciting because it means everything about sampling bias might be canceled out because of the utter uselessness of the question I asked! Stay tuned.

Jun 142010
 

Hey folks, in response to popular demand (well, like 5 people) I’ve added RSS feeds – see right corner above). I don’t actually know what an RSS feed is or how it works, but for those who do and would like to have one of your very own…. there you are.

Because I am both lazy and ignorant, I made it happen not by “creating” a feed, but by changing the background “theme” to one that automatically included it, so you’ll notice the blog looks a little different.

That is all.

Jun 142010
 

This post is 99.44% nerd, I’m afraid, with not so much sex in it. But it has become urgent to post it, since lack of this idea has generated a number of comments and emails whose answer is… this post.

Sadly, this is one of my favorite things to talk about, but I’ll try not to be too pedantic. Really I will.

When I talk about levels of analysis and things that are “only available at the population level” I’m talking about emergent phenomena usually. These are characteristics of a group or a population or a system that are not descriptive of any individual or unit WITHIN that group, population, or system.

Flocks of birds are the classic example. How does flocking emerge? Well, each bird has a mechanism in its brain saying, “stay about yay far from your neighbor and make your way south.” (Roughly – for details see Craig’s beautiful work on “boids”.) The actual mass of movement we observe is a whole other thing. There is no leader, no followers, no DECISION on the part of the birds to create a flock. It just HAPPENS. It emerges.

You can say many, many things – indeed you can say EVERYTHING – about an individual bird without saying anything about a flock. And vice versa.

Let’s take a human example. Have you been to a big theater to see a performance and afterward we all clap for a long time and gradually all of us in the audience end up clapping together, like a chant, and then we gradually desynchronize, like we planned it that way, and then if we continue to applaud long enough, we clap together again, and then phase out again? That phasing in and out of synchrony is an emergent phenomenon. No one is leading it. It just happens. Take any massive group of humans anywhere or anywhen and put them in a giant room and make them clap for 15 minutes. It’ll happen.

Patterns emerge at the system level that can only be described by describing the SYSTEM PER SE, rather than by describing the individuals in the system or their behavior. Flocks of birds, herds of bison, schools of fish, and of course groups of humans.

Not a lot is understood about complexity in human social systems, and even less is understood about complexity in human sexual systems. But it’s true that patterns emerge at the population level that don’t describe (or only incidentally describe) the behavior of any individual in the group.

We know know, for example, that even just the barest minimum of a preference for people who are like oneself can, at the population level, result in widespread and absolute segregation of two or three different populations. All the other emotional, political, and sociological drama around discrimination may be sufficient, but it is not necessary.

What’s important about this is that it tells us that discrimination doesn’t require design or purpose; it doesn’t require a leader or a conscious decision of any kind. All it takes is a lot of people, all of whom, given 100 choices about who to sit next to, choose to sit next to someone like themselves 51 times and someone not like themselves 49 times. From that we get absolute segregation. That’s all it takes. The segregation is the RESULT of the problem, not the problem itself.

In human sexual systems, one of the population level characteristics that I think is an emergent property of the dynamics of the system is the existence of sexual “hubs.” My own extremely nerdy and boring dissertation found that hubs – that is, individuals with an exponentially higher number of partners than their consepecifics – result when there is a normal distribution of sexual motivation in the population. If the distribution is skewed – like, if pretty much everyone has high sexual motivation (high SES, low SIS) OR if pretty much everyone has low sexual motivation (low SES, high SIS) these hubs don’t emerge. I made it happen in a computer model, but the neat part is that it parallels real life. There is a normal distribution of sexual motivation, and we have sexual hubs in the population. Cool, eh?

Humans being the extraordinary creatures that we are, we can see a result of these dynamics and declare them good or bad and then make a law or policy to prevent or enforce the dynamic, as with discrimination (this, btdubs, is what’s fundamentally wrong with don’t ask, don’t tell (IMO); it reinforces rather than prevents the dynamic of discrimination). We can make intellectual moral declarations about what the result of the dynamic means. But maybe the most important thing we can do is understand what dynamic gave rise to the emergent property.

It’s important to understand complexity in human social systems because that’s how we’ll make policies and laws to create positive change. I can talk about this more at some other point, but surely you’ve all stopped reading by now anyway. :)

Jun 122010
 

My friend Andrew, he makes fun of fMRI studies, and he makes even more fun of how they get explained by journalists.

He sent me a link recently and said, “the ‘romantic love’ and ‘attachment’ bits light up!

(He was being sarcastic. For all you comparative literature, English, business, and sports studies majors out there, “light up” is NOT a technical term.)

The story goes on to add that engaging in novel activities with your partner activates dopamine systems. Oooooooooh.

I would add here that Andrew recently got engaged to a lovely gal who’s obviously too good for him (insofar as she is smarter than he is AND makes the best lamb curry I ever had – seriously this curry lives in my dreams). Indeed I made him a present of The Dynamics of Marriage: Dynamic Non-Linear Models because John Gottman’s research is the best relationship research in the universe and because Andrew is a nerd to whom the phrase “dynamical systems model” is a turn ON rather than a turn OFF as it is for the rest of us. Fortunately, the lady in question is quite as geeky as he. For the rest of you, I recommend instead Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage or Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work.

So here’s my newly affianced friend, an avowed, be-blogged scientific psychologist, reading this frankly stupid article in, of all places, the NYT! (The NYT! Sad betrayal, NYT! The one place I’ve learned I can expect GOOD science journalism. Well, it’s in the Fashion & Style section, not the Science section, so I won’t grouse too much.) As a man facing marriage, what does he NEED from his science journalism about marriage? What will help him not to fuck it up, to be as effective a life partner as he can be?

In my opinion (and his, I bet), he does NOT need to know which parts of his brain “light up.”

People fuckin’ LOVE brain scan research. They LOVE hearing that there’s a “romantic love” part of the brain and an “attachment” part of the brain.” They LOVE to hear which bits light up under which conditions. They love finding out that doing new things with your partner “mimics the brain chemistry of early romantic love.”

And people, ya’ll, my dears, I have NO IDEA why you love it. I mean, it interests ME because I’m a socially awkward nerd who loves science in general and brains in particular. But I don’t hear this research and think, “And so that means I can improve MY relationship by doing novel things with my partner!” I just think, “Oh! Interesting! Dopamine! Reward! Novelty! Neat!”

“Neat!” is just about all you CAN say about it. But that’s not so helpful day to day.

But imagine you’re a brain researcher and a journalist calls you up and asks you how a general audience can apply this information to their every day lives. I can tell you from (limited) experience that you feel compelled to say SOMETHING, otherwise you feel useless and pointless, and who wants to feel that way? I want to feel useful and helpful, don’t you?

And god knows you don’t want to say, “Well we don’t actually know enough about the brain to understand what this means for people’s lives,” because that’s, you know, telling them you don’t know.

I’ve strayed from the point a bit. The point is, what does Andrew – and everyone else – need from their science journalism about relationships? Well, don’t they need practical advice? Tips, behaviors, hints about what people do when they suck at relationships, so you know what to avoid?

You can’t get that from brain research – not yet, anyway. Maybe 5, 10, 20 years from now. Right now, behavioral and psychophysiological research is much more enlightening. It’s less sexy, involves less technology, I know. But trust the older school work because we actually know what the physiology of stress is made of and we know what facial expressions are made of. We don’t REALLY know what brain activity is all about.

Beware journalism that tries to draw an immediate link between what a brain does and what a person should do.