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Decoding Sexual Desire: Why You’re Into It—or Not

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Courtesy of h.koppdelaney via Flickr.

Desire. When you have it, nobody questions it. When it is absent, it can be tricky to talk about. After all, the subject is delicate, and what is the point? You probably have little clue what is going on anyway. Luckily, scientists are looking out for you—because it is not even close to being just you. An astounding 40 percent of American women between the ages of 20 and 70 have problems with low sexual desire. Men have issues, too, but the numbers are shaky, because, as difficult as this is for women to talk about, men won’t touch the subject. (Even in a doctor’s office, their willingness to address an absence of sexual wants begins and ends with the mechanical issue.)

Plenty of folks have considered the usual suspects in the sapping of sexual desire. A recent study of young women shows the most common factor in females is stress and fatigue, followed by poor self-image and then sexual difficulties such as the inability to reach orgasm. But a lack of desire can stem from conceptual problems involving the way you view sexual experiences, says Syracuse University neuroscientist Stephanie Ortigue. “Desire is more than an emotion,” says Ortigue. “It involves brain areas involved in thinking intellectual things. That is why it’s so personal, so subjective, and so common.”

And although endocrine, genetic and psychological factors can all contribute to desire, or the lack of it, Ortigue’s perspective comes largely from looking at brain circuits.

Several years ago, Ortigue’s team and two others sketched a network in the brain that is always activated when we experience sexual desire. The three research teams independently landed on the same brain regions. These included areas governing emotion, motivation, body image—and, notably, memories associated with life experiences. Memories can affect desire in subtle, subconscious ways. For example, if a person has a feature or personality that reminds you of something positive in your past, a subconscious association between that person and pleasant reveries may trigger desire, Ortigue says. In this way, desire emerges from a collaboration of emotional, motivational and intellectual parts of the brain, she says.

Couple on bridge

Courtesy of Peter Pearson via Flickr.

Ortigue and her team recently took a look at these brain regions in 13 women between 26 and 47 who qualified as having hypoactive sexual desire disorder. These women either had no feelings of sexual interest or those feelings had plummeted to a low level of late; many had no sexual thoughts or fantasies. They lacked any impulse to even try to become aroused. And they said the absence of these feelings and thoughts distressed them.

The researchers asked these women—as well as 15 women with no lack of desire–to look at both pictures of male models and nonerotic photos while their brains were being scanned. As expected, the women who lacked desire showed abnormally low activity in the brain network previously linked with that feeling. More surprising, however, was that these same women also showed more activity in prefrontal brain regions involved in inhibition of action, attention to and judgment of the self, and interpreting the actions of other people. That is, that proverbial headache probably has its roots in this decision-making, self-control, theory-of-mind part of the brain.

The increased activity there suggests that people with depleted desire have two problems. One is that they are spending time trying to interpret the intentions of the other person—and probably coming to incorrect conclusions, says Ortigue. The second is that, they are monitoring or evaluating their own responses to erotic stimuli. They are not “living in the moment,” Ortigue says. Such analysis can interfere with the erotic experience, perhaps in the same way that explaining a joke can sap it of its humor.

The work dovetails with decades old studies by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, who coined a behavior called “spectatoring” they found common among people with sexual disorders. In spectatoring individuals become spectators of themselves during intimate encounters, viewing themselves from above and judging the situation.

“People really suffer from this,” says Ortigue, referring to hypoactive sexual desire. And knowing that the cause is less chemical in nature than psychological and intellectual may offer hope. Instead of fiddling with hormones, says Ortigue, teach people to stop judging themselves and others so much.

 

Postscript: Stephanie Ortigue is at the forefront of a field called social neuroscience, which blends chemistry, neuroscience and social psychology to improve our understanding of human relationships and develop treatments for social disorders such as autism. The second annual meeting of The Society for Social Neuroscience takes place November 10 and 11, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. zstansfi 1:26 am 10/12/2011

    Social neuroscience, also known as, “Hey, let’s see which parts of the brain light up when people answer social psychology questions”.

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  2. 2. DRHX 9:40 am 10/12/2011

    Good information. Something else of which all women should be informed: there is an estrogen and testosterone cream of which they can apply to their vagina. The estrogen helps with lubication, and the testosterone immediately enhances their desire.

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  3. 3. MikeB 9:58 am 10/12/2011

    “An astounding 40 percent of American women between the ages of 20 and 70 have problems with low sexual desire.”
    Problems? And in what way is low sexual desire more of a “problem” than not liking ice cream or playing golf? I would think that on an objective level freedom from sexual desire can be a positive thing, except in the case where it interferes with marital harmony. It’s kind of odd that the goal of many religious practices — substitution of spiritual fulfillment for carnal — is considered a malady.

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  4. 4. chubbee 10:55 am 10/12/2011

    Mike, you obviously don’t “get it”…….much.

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  5. 5. iwickelgren 1:08 pm 10/12/2011

    MikeB: Thanks for the query. I think the problems with sexual desire can have a significant impact on established relationships. In most cases, the impact is likely to be greater than not sharing interests such as golf. I agree that too much interest in sex can be a problem, too, and I may deal with that issue in a future post. Again, I appreciate your input.

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  6. 6. Nzidoran 8:05 pm 10/12/2011

    Few men will exert any effort to make their bodies more attractive. So many women spend too much time trying to look the way men want, makeup and leg waxing, uncomfortable shoes and bras, while herds of men will not even trim their nose hair or eyebrows. How arousing is it to look up into a forest of hair growing out of his nose. What a turn on when he takes his shirt off to show you hairy stomach looking ready to go into labor. No wonder we would rather take a bubble bath and eat chocolate.

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  7. 7. Venomlust 2:04 pm 10/13/2011

    Nzidoran: Your scenario makes little sense to me, and is quite bitter. If you weren’t attracted to a man’s features, why would you be with him long enough to find things to complain about? Sounds like you enjoy your lonely bubble baths and self-bought chocolate because you can’t ignore something as trivial as nose hair…

    In my life, I have met less than a handful of men who weren’t concerned with their looks, specifically in regards to impressing girls. As a caveat, I’m only 25 so I’m sure there’s something of a disparity between young unmarried men and older guys who have been married a while, but even the few married men I know care and try to look good for their wives.

    “So many women spend too much time…” Maybe it’s time this changed? Maybe both women and men should question the decisions they make, and the status quo they are so mindlessly maintaining. Maybe they’ll cultivate other qualities, so they have more to offer. Maybe they won’t, but at least they put some thought into it.

    Furthermore, I find it discouraging that you say women spend “too much time” prettying themselves, but rather than reduce the pressure for women to look good, the pressure for men to look good should increase. Let’s ALL suffer, right? Spare no one!

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  8. 8. collettedesmaris 5:13 am 02/20/2012

    Although I am kind of late in participating in this thread, I’m going to anyway; ’cause I’ve got some good valid information to contribute.

    I think what Venomlust said, in general, is quite wise.
    American females are far too preoccupied with how they look, when it would behoove them to cue into how they feel. Sexual attraction between a man and a woman is a thing of “chemistry”, as it were. If the chemistry is not felt, back & forth, between the two upon meeting, then they never will feel it. As well, once they lose the chemistry; it doesn’t come back.

    There is also a thing that Neuroscientists discovered years ago regarding physical attraction in correlation with mouth chemistry (saliva). A good friend of mine who is a Neuroscientist told me about research he participated in while attending college that focused on the exchange of saliva during “French Kissing.” Upon obtaining a bit of the male’s saliva, the female’s brain does an immediate genetic analysis of his saliva. If the brain evaluates him as a male whose
    sperm; when combined with her genetic make-up; will produce off-spring that will meet all kinds of ideal criteria, then the female will have a strong attraction for this male and pursue him. That’s why sometimes, Ladies, we really like a guy, but don’t quite understand why …. we might even be perplexed
    about it, saying to ourselves, “He’s not really my type; I don’t know why I like this guy, but I do.”
    I was so astounded when my friend divulged this very intriguing information; and it’s just another shining
    example of how incredibly intricate and complex the
    functioning of the Human body is, no?

    The information that this person named Ortigue said; that is featured in this article, seems like just plain poppycock to me, and gives the impression that he/she is really reaching for something different that just isn’t there. And that term, “Social Neuroscience”? It sounds like something they made up as opposed to a rigorous field of scientific endeavor.
    As well, to say that “Social Neuroscience” is a combination of chemistry, Neuroscience and social psychology is redundant – Neuroscience; simply put; is the study of brain behavior, and how the brain responds to a diverse array of stimuli, chemical or visual, or auditory, etc. That said, it involves all three of those already under the umbrella of just “Neuroscience.”

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