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Neuroscientists find secrets of ‘sex on the brain’

By Tracy McVeigh, The Observer
Sunday, September 8, 2013 2:35 EDT
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Survey asks men and women to rank parts of the body by pleasure – and some of the results prove surprising

The mind, said Raquel Welch, is an erogenous zone. And it is the brain, and how it organises our erogenous zones, that has intrigued scientists for decades. Why is a nuzzled neck sexy when few would be turned on by a nuzzled nose? And why do men seem to have fewer erogenous zones than women? A new study has measured just how erotic our body bits are – and there are a few surprises for neuroscientists.

The research, a joint project between two British universities and one in South Africa, is billed as the first “systematic survey of the magnitude of erotic sensations from various body parts”.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that feet were not considered sexually attractive by the 800 people, mostly from Britain and sub-Saharan Africa, who took part in the study.

Three quarters gave their feet the lowest, zero rating – alongside knee caps – which might disappoint those who have invested time and energy in developing their foot massage or toe-sucking techniques.

The fact that people consistently placed feet so low on their rankings of sensitive areas seems to completely undermine previous explanations for the distribution of our erogenous zones, which have suggested that the sensors in our brain that deal with the feet were right next to the sensors in charge of our genitalia.

Another surprise was the consistency of responses. “A lot of people assume that women’s bodies are just full of erogenous zones and that men have only one, the obvious one,” said Professor Oliver Turnbull of Bangor University’s School of Psychology, who led the study and worked alongside scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“But this is clearly not the case,” said Turnbull. “It’s pretty equal, with just perhaps a modest advantage to women – but certainly nothing like the way the sex differences have been so hugely exaggerated.”

The scientists were also surprised to see that there were “remarkable levels of correlation” between the ratings for all the people who responded, no matter their age, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or race. Men and women listed the 41 body parts they were asked to rate in remarkably similar order. The obvious bits of genitalia were at the top of the rankings, as were lips, ears and inner thighs, followed closely by shoulder blades.

There were a few major differences between the sexes – the back of the leg was barely acknowledged by women, for instance, while men rated it as important as their ears. Hands were also more erotic for men than for women, researchers found.

“We have discovered from this that we all share the same erogenous zones in at least two very different continents, whether we are a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman sitting in a London office or a gay man living in a village in Africa. It suggests it is hardwired, built in, not based on cultural or life experience,” said Turnbull.

This is in stark contrast to earlier theories, among them that of the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran who first suggested that feet are sexy because of the neighbouring sensors in the cortex, though he made a crucial error in mistaking a fetish – “where one enjoys looking at high heels and stockings, etc”, said Turnbull – with an erogenous zone. “He may have made a mistake between touch and looking at things.”

The central issue is not so much where the erogenous zones are, but why non-genital ones are erogenous.

“The Cosmopolitan magazines of this world have been running half-baked surveys on this for years and years,” said Turnbull. “But we wanted to look at the question of why the side of the neck is interesting if nibbled but not the forehead or head, when both have the same sensory receptors.”

This study would seem to suggest that there is a completely different part of the brain controlling our saucy spots, he said.

“I think there is a good argument for it being the insula [cortex], although there are a few ethical issues in trying to take the next step and measure that, as it obviously means that someone has to be stroking someone else whilst the brain is monitored.

“It is interesting, though. A lot of people think that science shouldn’t be looking at such things, but if it’s something that human beings are interested in – and we clearly are around sex and intimacy – then it’s something scientists should study,” Turnball added. Neuroscientists, he said, had already come up with the optimal speed to stroke human skin (5cm per second if you wish to test it out at home).

So even if many can be accused of having sex on the brain, it’s unlikely we have it in our cerebral cortex.

The full report appears in the neuroscientific journal Cortex

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

 

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