Neuroscience and the vagina

Following the publication of Naomi Wolf’s book, Vagina: A Cultural History, there has been a lot of speculation about what we really know about the brain’s role in women’s sexuality.

This post by Maia Szalavitz seems like a very useful overview of the problematic claims that Wolf, and others, frequently make, for example about the roles of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and about the hormone-of-the-moment oxytocin. I particularly liked the line

we need to be a little bit irrational to stay with partners who are far from perfect! … Read more… 

There is also some useful clarification about the role of the clitoris in orgasm.

Maia’s article is a useful warning to authors to be very cautious about drawing on neuroscience if they don’t really understand the field. There is a real temptation to throw some neuroscience into popular psychology/philosophy books because it is commonly regarded as making things ‘real’ or ‘scientific’.  However we don’t need to go to neuroscience in order to speak usefully about how human experiences (of sexuality and relationships, for example) work.

If we are going to go there, to provide a fully biopsychosocial understanding, then I think it behoves us to do the following:

  • to learn at least the basics of biological psychology ourselves,
  • to run our writing past colleagues in neuroscience,
  • to ensure that we write cautiously, for example, when applying animal findings to humans, or when linking brain areas or neurotransmitters to behaviour.

As Maia, and many of the neuroscientists she draws upon, make clear this is an extremely complex area with much that remains unknown. Indeed David Nutt, speaking on Radio 4 last night, suggested that neuroscientists still don’t even really know the questions that they need to be asking about the brain. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about neuroscience, but it does mean that we should do so very carefully.

If you hear somebody making grand claims, for example about the current buzz areas of oxytocin or mirror neurons, then proceed with caution!

Find out more:

Other good articles on these issues include

The vagina scientist strikes back

Oxytocin is not a love drug

Pseudoscience and self help

For a great blog on such matters, check out Neuroskeptic.


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