Justified & Ancient
- Aug 6, 2003
Sex is back on the brain
SOME things ought to be sacrosanct, and most people would feel libido is one of them, but it seems that no area of the human psyche is beyond reducing to the tedium of scientific measurement. An attempt has recently been made to quantify this elusive phenomenon. The topic has generated more interest than it deserves. This was perhaps at the back of the researcher’s mind, for it was the lead story in New Scientist - maybe they want to sex up the fuddy-duddy image of science?
"Publish or perish" is a maxim followed in medical academic circles. It leads to a heavy weight of dross in the journals as ambitious folk seek the "bubble reputation".
Occasionally the dross provides some light, entertaining moments. From the technology institute Technia in Haifa, Israel, comes the news that watching brain waves by electroencephalograph (EEG) might prove useful for telling people who have lost their sex-drive just how below par they are. EEG waves are known to measure attention and are used to diagnose epilepsy. Researcher Yoram Vardi took 30 volunteers with normal sexual function and monitored their brains’ responses to 40-second film clips which included erotic interludes - "only the most stimulating were used" - to footage of sport, nature and romantic vistas. The amplitude of brain waves changed significantly more for the sexual clips than for the others. He correlated this with questionnaires from the volunteers about their degree of arousal. The test requires standardising, he says, and he thinks it might be useful in the context of libido loss in patients on antidepressants or after car accidents.
This cutting-edge research - "there has never before been any attempt to quantify libido" - which was presented at the European Society for Sexual Medicine, comes from an Institute that won the Nobel prize for chemistry in October 2004.
It really is astonishingly pedestrian and ill-informed. Testing normal people alone is uninformative. Then there is an immense gender difference between male and female means of arousal. Voyeuristic porn and its capacity to stun the brain might adjust male capability in bed but it does not much influence that of the female. A woman’s arousal is extremely person and environment specific. It is difficult to see this work having any real practical application. It sounds like a bit of candyfloss, an amusing end to a serious scientific session, but this was the academic high-spot. I wonder if the erotic clips were shown in the presentation at the international conference?
All this fuels the belief of some that medicalisation of our everyday lives has gone way too far, usually propelled by sales of some product.
One might speculate that if this work attracted any sponsors, they might be the manufacturers of Viagra rather than anti-depressants. I do not generally consider sex to be a spectator sport but that is probably a gender-specific opinion.
However I note that the New Scientist, which puffed the brain-wave story, has had no fewer than 42 stories about libido in the last decade or so, and they are indeed amusing and eye-catching. For example, we are told women are aroused and have more sexy fantasies after sniffing breast milk. They are also programmed to have more sex when fertile. Surprise, surprise. Another story thought Tintin, who never grew to manhood in his 60 years of fame, must have suffered pituitary damage through his trade-mark head injuries and consciousness loss.
Rather more chilling was the news that a drug company is developing a pill, VM670, to help overcome the libido loss induced by anti-depressants. They think it might have a symbiotic effect with Viagra, and plan to test this hypothesis too. When we need medication to overcome the side-effects of other medication, we are lost in a chemical maze.
Needing a boost to my confidence that science can still be taken seriously, I discovered on a net-scavenge that EEG has been adapted to a technique called EEG neurofeedback. Participants connected up to the machine can read their own wave patterns and can assess and change them.
The technique was tested first on students and was designed to improve performance by sustaining attention. The subjects trained themselves to focus their powers of concentration at will and that ability was durable. The potential for medicine is huge.
It has applications for treating epileptic foci, rehabilitation after brain-injury, even treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For these problems, a therapeutic tool which does not rely on mind-bending drugs is a hugely life-enhancing advance. This is what good science is all about.