De Wetenschap Van Seks

How much do you really know about the science of sex? Not enough, suggests science communicator Pere Estupinyà. In this fun and educational TED-talk, he describes his own journey into the realm of sexology and its fascinating recent discoveries while making the case that a healthy sex life is contingent on an open mind. 

"In fact, I'm a science disseminator out of curiosity, that extreme curiosity in understanding the way nature works, our body, the universe, the brain, these 87 billion of interconnected neurons that encode this strange behavior we have, that we don't know if we should follow reason or feelings. Science, actually, gives us a different perspective of the reality and opens up our minds and amazes us even in the most ordinary events.

In fact, one of the most revolutionary days in my career as a science disseminator was at a neuroscience congress where, walking by the posters section, I read the following work: "Clitoral stimulation induces Fos activation in the rat brain." Sure, you keep staring at the poster and get closer to the researcher and say: "Do you stimulate the rats' clitoris?" (Laughter) "Yes, I do." "And how do you do it?" "With a brush; I do three or four repetitions and stop. Three or four repetitions and stop. Because that is the way rats copulate."

I kept thinking and she noticed I was somewhat skeptical. And I said: "Hey, it is very important that we investigate the sexual function. We, scientists, investigate the complete functioning of the body, why aren't we going to research on sexuality?" I thought for a while, and it's true: after so much time working as a communicator, Why haven't I written about sexuality? Out of taboo?

The same taboo society has about sex, is shared by medicine and science. But she said something very curious: "I study the hormones that encode desire. And I'm convinced about it because neurophysiologically, we are not that different from rats -- and it's true; psychologically, yes; but neurophysiologically, no -- I'm convinced that behind that there could also be an explanation for some male and female issues related to desire.

There are many sexual problems." "More than you think," she told me. And I was wondering, is it true? I searched for scientific material, and, indeed, I found in "The Lancet," one of the greatest science magazines, data that show that approximately 40 percent of men and more than 50 percent of women, even excepting old age, at a certain moment will have a problem related to sexuality. Clearly, it was something I had to investigate about. And where to start?

To see the researcher then and learn about all this hormone issue; testosterone and desire increase, dopamine and pleasure stimulation, prolactin and pleasure decrease, oxytocin segregated after orgasm is the love hormone keeping us together, but also, let's see something -- I teach you right now because, surely, you have never seen it before -- (Laughter) clitorial stimulation of rats. It's curious, because a lot of people say: "I had no idea rats had clitoris." And some women say: "Well, there are some men that seem to ignore women have it too!! (Laughter)

But many of us don't know -- I didn't know it, at least when I started this research -- is that clitoris is much bigger than we think. It is internal, in most of the cases; on the exterior, the glans is like the tip of the iceberg. Actually, these images you see in grey, with a triangular shape, is the internal part of the clitoris, it is like a penis, that grows inside, has an erection and it is so big that gets closer to the front wall of the vagina and sometimes, you've heard about G spot... the G spot none of you know about; you know it's a spot that generates more sexual arousal, but you don't know why. It is because the clitoris gets so close to the vagina that when you touch 2 to 3 centimeters upwards, you get in contact with its internal part, and, at that moment, pleasure increases.

But truly, what is an orgasm? Orgasm, physiologically, is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. That is, to experience sexual arousal, to be normal, we have a parasympathetic nervous system which keeps us relaxed. But during sexual arousal there is a moment of explosion when the pupils dilate, the blood flows to the muscles, a series of secretions are released in the body that activate this orgasmic response.

A piece of advice: for example, now you know this, if you are having sexual intercourse and someone groans with pleasure, but pupils are not dilated, there is no tachycardia, or no blushing of the upper part of the chest or chins, that person may be faking it. It's really important to know that, because these sympathetic nerves regulate the coming of the orgasm.

For example, when someone is nervous and has the fibers excited, has premature ejaculation. Or when wine relaxes us, if we drink a lot of wine that slows down the sympathetic nervous system, women, particularly, take longer to reach orgasm. Or dominance and submission that generate tension in the body and facilitate orgasm. Or the tantra, that wonderful species of sexual behavior that allows the body to feel relaxed and excited at the same time and entirely sensitive.

I had to move a step forward, because eventually, when we talk about orgasm, people say: "Yes, they are clitoral or vaginal orgasms." Actually, they are all brain orgasms. The order to begin orgasm comes from the brain.

I interviewed Barry Komisaruk. Barry Komisaruk is a researcher of the Rutgers University who asked women to stimulate different areas of their genitals to see which areas of their brains were activated in order to study the sexual response. It was really interesting, because he even saw different types of orgasms. If you haven't felt different kind of orgasms it means you haven't experienced enough. Because they are real, different nerves send the information from the internal part of the vagina, from the external part, so it is worth the exploration.

But Barry told me something. He said: "I'm going to start a research with men. Would you like to be a volunteer?" And my first answer was: "No." And I realized this social restrain we have regarding sex. I had taken part in a lot of studies; why did I repressed myself from participation on a study on sexuality? So then I rebelled, and became the first man in the world having an orgasm under a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (Laughter) (Applause)

And this is my brain from the beginning of the stimulation to the end, and it was interesting as it perceived the areas that started; the limbic system, the hypothalamus, the cortex. Well, in fact, a part of the brain cortex related to control, is the only one off during orgasm. All the rest of the brain was... is the activity that activates most areas of the brain at the same time; except for this cortex. And it was fantastic, 20 seconds later, the brain was completely off.

And it is very similar to what happened with women. Actually, the scans were the same; men and women. Men and women are more alike than we believe. There is much more diversity within the men group and within the women group, than in the opposite sex cases. But this takes place when we move forward and take the psychological part and here comes the complexity, because sexuality, indeed, has an endocrine, physiological, neuroscientific, psychological and cultural side.

And now, one of the most peculiar cases is the attraction. Why are we attracted to a certain person and not to another? Surely there is a biological aspect. It's said the symmetry is a beauty trait. Surely, there's a cultural part: in a culture, we like ones and others. But through experiments you realize that even, the emotional part plays a relevant role. When we are sad, we don't like the same people than when we are happy. When you go to a party and feel the most attractive woman there, you'll check out certain kind of guys. If you are not that self confident, and see other women you consider prettier, you will check out other guys.

Even hunger affects your choices. And this is a very funny experiment. Half of the students were asked to come to the experiment satisfied, after having eaten a lot. They had no idea. And other students came hungry, with a 10 hours fast. They were shown these images of the same girl, but they distorted her shape from a slimmer to a more plump body. And you know what? They were asked which they liked best. And the hungry group liked more plump figures. Our inner emotional state conditions our likes in each moment. Talking about attraction, there is a very important issue.

If I tell you, we should respect any sexual diversity it's rather obvious. A lot more people say so. But, I had a question from a scientific point of view which is valid from that approach. Can the sexual orientation be changed? It's absurd, we know that, to ask people to try to change their nature, but, is it possible? And I ran into this scientific study from 1968 where it was intended, through electroshocks, and aversive chemical therapy, when they were watching homosexual images, to change gays' sexual orientation.

And I interviewed, since he's still alive, the author, John Bancroft, once the director of Kings Institute. You know what he said? It was quite revealing. He said, "We, at that time -- now we know it's atrocious -- but we thought we were doing them a favor, because at that time, homosexuality was not approved and they suffered a lot and we thought we could change them. You know what? Despite their intentions, and electroshocks, aversive therapy, they didn't change. And the ones who tried it, bore a great suffering for not changing. So, the conclusion is pretty obvious: the ones to be cured are not homosexuals. The ones are homophobes. (Applause) We... (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)

It is essential to accept diversity and we have to be the first ones to accept it. For instance, each person lives sexuality as desired. Kiko is a boy who uses a wheelchair. And has no sensitivity in his genitals. I'm treated as if I were asexual; as if I had no desire, and of course I have it, of course I get aroused, and of course I have a different sexuality." Actually, Kiko is a very sexual person, who has his partners.

Opposite to Rebeca; she is asexual and has no desire. She has never felt desire; not even as a teenager, and she doesn't feel attracted to anybody either, neither boys nor girls. This is called an asexual person. And Rebeca told me: "And you know what? I'm really happy."

But the key is not about having more or less sex, it's about having the sex quantity and quality you want. That's the important thing. Then, we get into this scientific-sexual adventure into something even more complicated. The couple; it's not about one but two. And here there is a constant interplay between nature and culture. Because if we look at our nature, we do have a monogamy tendency, since we are primates -- actually, in this aspect, we are more similar to birds than to cats -- because our offspring needs both progenitors to survive. That's why nature has codified monogamy; that is, the tendency to fall in love and have a couple. Monogamy is natural. But not fidelity. There is no animal species that is faithful to a partner, even birds, that are such a romantic couple. If they get lost, when going for food and find better genes, they definitely take the most of it.

So, here we have the culture pressure in our relationships with a partner. And it's ok, we have to obey culture not biology. But, there are people who start looking for other couple models, they look for broadening this behavior to polyamory or swinging in order to adapt them to their needs. I, after all this adventure, realized that there are five steps to have a complete sexual life.

The first one, to eliminate traumas. Possibly, most of you have no traumas, but the ones who unconsciously have them and are a little haunted and not fully aware of them, should have a psychological cleanse. Be at ease with yourselves.

Then, health. People always ask me: "Is sex good for health?" I say: "Yes, but health has to be good for sex." That is, the cardiovascular and the nervous system, they have to be in very good condition to have satisfying sexual intercourses.

Then, after knowing yourself; self awareness seems a cliché but I mean knowing how our body works and also our couple; men have the feeling that they already know a lot of themselves, and... No, no, no. We have to know ourselves better. With these three things: psychological cleanse, health and self-awareness, we have a satisfactory sex life. Now, if we want to have a great sex life, it's the turn to open our minds, read, explore, and, finally, experiment.

I wish you a joyful sex life and, above all, enjoy science and knowledge as well. Thank you very much." (Applause)


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