Let’s talk about sex…

I often find it fascinating how sensitive many of us are when talking about sex. In gym changing rooms I listen to men talking about their sexual conquests, while others steal anxious glimpses of their genitals. I hear the repressed homoerotic impulses of many men locked in loveless heterosexual relationships. I watch some women trying unsuccessfully to cover their latest installment of fifty shades with their hands as they wait for their children at the school gate.

Sexual curiosity is natural and yet historically, society has ruthlessly suppressed our healthy exploration and expression of sexuality, often with dire, sometimes tragic consequences (think Catholic Church, sexual violence, the proliferation of extreme pornography), it with this in mind that I set off looking for studies that would penetrate through our repressive cognitive defenses into the often confusing world of female sexuality. I found a couple but the following study was by far the most entertaining…

” A growing body of scientific research that suggests that female sexuality is an underestimated force that is not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emo­tional intimacy and safety, and is not, as is often believed, better made for monogamy than the male libido. But much remains to be understood. Daniel Bergner’s recent overview of research in the field, What Do Women Want?, reports on a variety of surprising new studies. In one such study, both heterosexual and homosexual men and women were shown a variety of different pornography videos. Their reactions to the videos were gauged by both self-reporting via keypad and scientific instruments measuring their physiological reactions. In the case of men, there were close correlations between the two. For the women, there were wide discrepancies. Why the mysterious difference? One theory is that society has given men more freedom to be honest — even with themselves — about their sexuality than women:

“This is what [Dr. Meredith Chivers’] female subjects did as they sat on a brown leatherette La-Z-Boy chair in her small, dimly lit lab in Toronto, where she first told me about her experiments. Semireclining on the La-Z-Boy, each subject watched an array of porn on an old, bulky computer monitor. The two-inch-long glassine tube of the plethysmograph beams light against the vaginal walls and reads the illumination that bounces back. In this way, it measures the blood flow to the vagina. Surges of blood stir a process called vaginal transudation, the seeping of moisture through the cells of the canal’s lining. So, indirectly, the plethysmograph gauges vaginal wetness. It was a way to get past the obfuscations of the mind, the interference of the brain’s repressive upper regions, and to find out, at a primitive level, what turns women on. …

“Women with women, men with men, men with women, lone men or women masturbating — Chivers’s objective num­bers, tracking what’s technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. Lust was cata­lyzed; blood flow spiked; capillaries throbbed indiscriminately. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, varia­tions in degree, one of them curious: [the women were also shown the species of ape known as bonobos having sex and] the humping bonobos didn’t spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, [a] chiseled man ambling alone on the beach — an Adonis, nothing less — lost out to the fornicating apes. What to make of such strangeness?

“There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians. Over the series of studies Chivers did — to be sure her data were no fluke — they were a little selective; amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians’ blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn. When Chivers analyzed the evidence, transmitted from vaginal membranes to sensor to software, when she set it out in graphs of vertical bars, the female libido looked omnivorous.

“The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced in­difference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted — even less linked to what was going on between their legs. Chivers was staring at an objective and subjective divide, too, in the data from the lesbians: low keypad scores whenever men were having sex or masturbating in the films.

“She put heterosexual and homosexual males through the same procedure. Strapped to their type of plethysmograph, their genitals spoke in ways not at all like the women’s — they responded in predictable patterns she labeled ‘category spe­cific.’ The straight men did swell slightly as they watched men masturbating and slightly more as they stared at men together, but this was dwarfed by their physiological arousal when the films featured women alone, women with men, and, above all, women with women. Category specific applied still more to the gay males. Their readings jumped when men masturbated, rocketed when men had sex with men, and climbed, though less steeply, when the clips showed men with women. For them, the plethysmograph rested close to dead when women owned the screen.

“As for the bonobos, any thought that something acutely primitive in male sexuality would be roused by the mounting animals proved wrong. The genitals of both gay and straight men reacted to these primates the same way they did to [mere] landscapes, to the pannings of mountains and plateaus. And with the men, the objective and subjective were in sync. Bodies and minds told the same story. How to explain the conflict between what the women claimed and what their genitals said? …

“The discord within Chivers’s readings converged with the results of a study done by Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University, [whose work demonstrates that men are much more honest about their sexual experiences and preferences than women. She] was emphatic about the contortions imposed, the compressions enforced. ‘Being a human who is sexual,’ she said, ‘who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom ac­corded by society much more readily to males than to females.’ ”

Daniel Bergner
Title: What Do Women want

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To sleep, perchance to dream…

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud argued that, far from being random events, dreams were full of hidden meanings that were projections of the dreamer’s secret hopes and wishes. In effect, Freud identified the unconscious, a realm of thought beyond the mind’s control that colours our desires and intentions. Every night when a person went to sleep, Freud said, the mind cloaked these thoughts in symbols that could be uncovered and interpreted with the help of a therapist. Without dreams, our unconscious concerns would be so overwhelming that few of us could function. …

Perhaps unfairly, Freud’s theories soon became reduced to the view that everything in a dream had a sexual meaning that reflected and uncovered long-repressed urges from childhood. One review of Freudian literature found that by the middle of the twentieth century, analysts had identified 102 stand-ins for the penis in dreams and ninety-five symbols for the vagina. Even opposites — flying and falling — were called symbols for sex. Freudians pointed out fifty-five images for the act of sex itself, twenty-five icons of masturbation, thirteen figures of breasts, and twelve symbols for castration.

In the mid-twentieth century, dream research became stagnant until a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland named Calvin Hall decided to catalogue what people dream about. Hall spent more than thirty years gathering dream reports from everyone who would share them. By the time he died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream’s setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

Hall’s conclusion was the opposite Freud’s: far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn’t know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man’s dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers’ homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

Hall’s research deflated the idea that dreams are surreal.

The plot may not follow any logical order and characters may have strange requests, but the dream world isn’t that far from reality. More important, dreams tend to be unpleasant. Hall found that the average dream is filled with characters who were aggressive, mean, or violent. Dreamland, in short, sounds a lot like the worst days of primary school.

But disagreement remains over the purpose of dreams. In one theory, Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas — watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities — that few people experience today. It is possible that those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event and processing the material in dreams were more likely to survive over the long run than those who consciously ruminated on the negative effects of trauma.

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Creative gumbo

I loved New Orleans pre Katrina. A few years back i walked down Bourbon street revelling in the myriad of experiences available. The Mardi Gras was in full battle cry, a heady combination of jazz, sex, soul food and some seriously powerful Mojo which enlivened me in deep ways. I stumbled through the throng, sitting with strangers on street corners drinking neat bourbon having intense discussions, eating gumbos with thick white bread, watching madness sweep through the gathering leaving no one untouched. I felt so alive that I wrote feverishly for days, possessed by a creative spirit which left me spent like a manic lover. Once the fever had passed I awoke and examined my ink stained fingers through swollen lids, i discovered that some of the ideas I had had were good, but most were not nearly as inspiring in the cold light of day. As I returned to Cape Town, I ached for the intensity of the experience. The unbridled creative expression of Self. I can still connect with a dim feeling sense of that intensity and use it as a beacon as I search for ways to reignite my creativity.

The problem with activating creativity is that in this age of information abundance and overload, nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying. In searching for ways to release my creative constipation (yes I know I mention constipation often), I stumbled upon this…

“The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. Write a poem on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working — make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.”

It appears that the right constraints can lead to your very best work. My favorite example? Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

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Mapping the emotions.

An exploratory model for the psychology of emotion.

We tend to think of our emotions as having laws unto themselves, but one psychological researcher has suggested that our emotions do follow certain general rules.

Professor Nico Frijda puts forward twelve laws of the emotions (Fridja, 2006). As with most laws there are exceptions, but these have been synthesised from years of psychological research and hold true much of the time.

1. The Law of Situational Meaning

The first law is simply that emotions derive from situations. Generally the same types of situation will elicit the same types of emotional response. Loss makes us grieve, gains make us happy and scary things make us fearful (mostly anyway – see all the other laws).

2. The Law of Concern

We feel because we care about something, when we have some interest in what happens, whether it’s to an object, ourselves, or another person. Emotions arise from these particular goals, motivations or concerns. When we are unconcerned we don’t feel anything.

3. The Law of Apparent Reality

Whatever seems real to us, can elicit an emotional response. In other words how we appraise or interpret a situation governs the emotion we feel (compare with laws 11 & 12). The reason poor movies, plays or books don’t engage us emotionally is because, in some sense, we fail to detect truth. Similarly it’s difficult to get emotional about things that aren’t obvious, right in front of us. For example grief may not strike when we are told about the death of loved one, but only once it becomes real to us in some way – say when we pick up the phone to call them, forgetting they are gone.

4, 5 & 6. The Laws of Change, Habituation and Comparative Feeling

The law of habituation means that in life we get used to our circumstances whatever they are (mostly true, but see laws 7 & 8). The emotions, therefore, respond most readily to change. This means that we are always comparing what is happening to a relatively steady frame of reference (what we are used to). As a result our emotions tend to respond most readily to changes that are relative to this frame of reference.

7. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry

There are certain awful circumstances to which we can never become accustomed. If things are bad enough, it is impossible to escape negative feelings like fear or anxiety. On the other hand positive emotions always fade over time. No matter how much we are in love, how big the lottery win, or how copious the quantities of drugs consumed, positive emotions like pleasure always slip away.

8. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum

Time doesn’t heal all wounds – or if it does, it only does so indirectly. Events can retain their emotional power over the years unless we re-experience and re-evaluate them. It’s this re-experiencing and consequent re-definition that reduces the emotional charge of an event. This is why events that haven’t been re-evaluated – say, failing an exam or being rejected by a potential lover – retain their emotional power across the decades.

9. The Law of Closure

The way we respond to our emotions tends to be absolute. They often lead immediately to actions of one kind or another, and they will brook no discussion (but see laws 10, 11 & 12). In other words emotional responses are closed to goals other than their own or judgements that can mitigate the response. An emotion seizes us and send us resolutely down one path, until later that is, when a different emotion sends us down the opposite path.

10. The Law of Care for Consequences

People naturally consider the consequences of their emotions and modify them accordingly. For example anger may provoke violent feelings towards another, but generally people refrain from stabbing each other willy-nilly. Instead they will shout, hit their head on the wall or just silently fume. Emotions may absolutely dictate a type of response, but people do modulate the size of that response (usually!).

11 & 12. Laws of the Lightest Load and the Greatest Gain

The emotional impact of an event or situation depends on its interpretation. Putting a different ‘spin’ on a situation can change the feeling. The law of the lightest load means people are particularly motivated to use re-interpretations to reduce negative emotions. For example we might reduce the fear of the credit crunch by generating the illusion we won’t be affected. The exact reverse is also true: whenever a situation can be reinterpreted for a positive emotional gain, it will be. For example anger can be used to make others back down, grief attracts help and fear may stop us rashly attempting difficult or dangerous

You may not agree with all of these ‘laws’ as this is quite an individually based account of emotion and tends to downplay the social aspects of emotion. Nevertheless, it is an excellent starting point which provides a useful way of thinking about emotions, and helps to shed light on an initial conceptual framework for examining individual emotions.

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