Sex and consciousness. An hypothesis from brain science about high and low sex drives.


Todd Murphy 

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We’re not really going to be talking about sex here. We’re going to look at the states of consciousness (or states for short) in which people want sex. In a culture where people are expected to ignore the possibility of sex with most potential partners, we have to expect that sexual behavior won’t give us much insight into sexual states. We have to focus on sexual feelings, not behavior.

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In academic studies, this view has explored by Swartz (1993) with reference to the difference in the states of consciousness experienced by men and women, and by Davidson (1980), more generally.

Although it’s hard for some people to believe, different individuals experience sexual desire with very different intensities. It’s not that some people have better controls, it’s that some have more to control. Nobody can choose how horny they are. While its possible to suppress sexual interest when it appears, nobody can choose how often it happens. There are people who try to suppress all of their sexuality, for example. Some monks and nuns, to name only one such group. They can often stop their sexual thoughts and feelings before they have really formed. But even they cannot choose how often they will have to do it. Mohandas Gandhi, who choose the path of total celibacy, felt he needed to put himself to the test even after decades of practice.

One contemporary spiritual teacher tells of how he was so horny in his youth that sex was simply never out of his mind, but so shy with women that he did not have the courage to ask them to make love with him. The dilemma was so bad that he resolved to kill himself (Lowe, 1988). Eventually, he broke through without a suicide attempt, and began to have the relationships he needed.

Was he just being self-indulgent in feeling his need to be so great? No. He was simply at the extreme ends of two spectrums at once. One was low-self esteem. He thought women would never want him. The other was the spectrum of sexual interest. Sexuality, as its called in clinical parlance. He was experiencing his sexuality almost constantly.

The Spectrum of Sexual Interest.

The spectrum runs from a total disinterest in sex, called hyposexuality, to the burning, unrelenting, desire that never lets up, called hypersexuality. Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle. And again, I want to emphasize, its not a matter of choice.

Hyposexual individuals often don’t have an easy time in life. They are still fully capable of feeling romantic love, often quite deeply. They are liable to think that sex is a crude thing, and that “real love” should not depend on it. After all, they can live without it, and still be deeply romantic, so to them, it can look like sex isn’t really an important part of a relationship. When they do begin a romance, they find that they are either having more sex than they want to, or imposing a degree of celibacy on their sexually normal partners. This doesn’t make for fulfilling relationships.

Hypersexual people also find life challenging, too. Their unrelenting needs can disturb a relationship when they have a relationship, and make them unattractively needy when they don’t.

In Woody Allen’s film, Manhattan, there is a scene where he is talking to his therapist saying “we almost never have sex. It only happens two or three times a week.” Then the film cuts to his partner talking to her therapist saying “we’re always having sex. Its two or three times per week!” When two people with differing levels of interest in sex have a relationship, they may end up with each thinking that the other really should change. Each might think that the other is wrong, and believe themselves to be normal. “Something is wrong with her, she never really wants to have sex.” “Doesn’t he find me attractive anymore?” The hyposexual one, already having sex more often than they would choose freely, doesn’t do anything to make it happen more often. Their partner begins to wonder why they are always the one to initiate sex.

The hypersexual person is not being self-indulgent. The hyposexual person is not just “repressed.” Actually, there is no such thing as a right level of interest. It’s different for different people, and nobody can change their obsession or indifference about sex just by wanting it to be different. It can change, as we will see, but not by working on sexuality itself. No amount of “sensuality training seminars” will make sex exciting for a hyposexual person. And no amount of talk therapy will put sex “into proper perspective” for those who are hypersexual.

Sexual arousal is an altered state of consciousness, but it’s a normal, healthy altered state. The degree of interest in sex is directly related to how much time a person spends in non-ordinary states of consciousness.

One study (Waxman, 1975) found that temporal lobe epileptics (who go into altered states of consciousness, often very intense ones, during their seizures) were much more likely to be hyposexual than others. The normal states of consciousness for these people are different from those of others. They often have lower self-esteem. They tend to be irritable. They have a burning desire to express themselves that comes out through writing diaries and journals or in doing art, sometimes obsessively. They usually have a preoccupation with spirituality, philosophy, and religion.

I believe that what’s happening with these people is that they are spending so much of their time in altered states that their consciousness isn’t available to the sexual ones. It’s already engaged with states that rule it out. Probably there are many states of consciousness that inhibit sexual interest. Others seem to invoke it.

One researcher (Miller, 1986) has even gone so far as to suggest that changes in sexual behavior should be seen as a possible sign of brain injury.

Why should altered states of consciousness rule out feeling sexual so often?

Altered states are almost always either positive or negative. The positive ones range from a mild mania to total bliss. Fear is the most common emotion in the negative ones, and can include anything from mild anxiety to stark terror. When a person is filled with a sense of well-being, a lack of sex won’t make them feel that anything is wrong. If a person is carrying that foreboding feeling that something is wrong and/or the sense that they’re in some kind of danger, sex isn’t going to make them feel better. For both types of people, there won’t be any sense that sex is a real need.

Others who are prone to altered states have a different pattern for both sexuality and their experiences of non-normal states. For these people, altered states are not an ongoing thing.

They experience altered states once in a while. While they are having an experience, they, like the group that’s having them all the time, are not likely to feel sexual. However, when they are not having an experience, they will still have a sensitive trigger for changes in state.

This group will notice the experience, whatever it is, more pointedly than the first. So like the hyposexual ones, hypersexual people often find spirituality compelling.

These people will have exercise the parts of the brain that change their state, giving them more sensitive triggers. They will be more likely to alter their state towards another normal one in their ordinary range, instead of going into non-ordinary states,

For a physically healthy and normal person, one of the most likely directions for consciousness to shift is towards sex. If the trigger is sensitive enough, the person might be very horny anytime they are not having an experience of an altered state. They might be labeled as a nymphomaniac, or as having satyriasis (the male equivalent), as though they were being influenced by sex rather than their consciousness.

The evidence that sexuality relates to our states of consciousness is overwhelming.

The temporal lobes are the portions of the brain that manage our states of consciousness. Rhesus monkeys which have had their temporal lobes removed often demonstrated hypersexuality, including homosexual and solitary sexual behavior (Kluver, 1958).

Hypersexuality has been seen in people with lesions in their frontal and temporal lobes (Huws, 1991), and has been observed in association with limbic seizures (Andy, 1991 & Persinger, 1994).

Most TLE seizures begin in the amygdala, an emotional control area (Gloor, 1992), which explains why they have such intense emotions accompanying them. The amygdala is associated with many sexual phenomena. One of the more interesting is the observation that gay men have more connections between the amygdala on each side of the brain than straight men.

Just as importantly, the amygdala manages our emotions and helps to manage our states of consciousness.

To give a rough rule of thumb, those who spend all their time in altered states tend to be the hyposexual ones, while those who go back and forth tend to be the hypersexual ones.

One behavior worth looking at is voluntary celibacy. The ordained priest, monk, or nun who has chosen not to have sex at all. Ever. Why would someone make such a choice? Because they have positive altered state experiences, and they give them a religious interpretation. Their joy, they believe, is a gift from God.

While they are actually experiencing life as a gift from God, the idea of looking for pleasure or fulfillment in sex or romance seems just stupid. The trouble with this type of celibacy is that it usually depends on regular, positive, religious experiences. When these are absent, or stop happening for whatever reason, the vow that was easily kept at ordination becomes a burdensome travail later on (Slawson, 1973). When these experiences are kindled through prayer, meditation, or contemplative exercises, they are likely to stop if the practice stops. At that point, the change from regular altered states to occasional ones begins, and the person is likely to change from hypo-to-hyper in their sexuality. They might think that God was testing them, or that Satan was trying to bring about their downfall through temptations to “the pleasures of the flesh.”

If their altered states are appearing as a result of a brain difference, like a tumor, birth defect, head injury, or a sclerosis, then these states are much more likely to endure, and celibacy might be quite natural for such people. Some of the brain differences in these people could be quite minute, and might not create any other traits worth mentioning.

The brain comes in two varieties: male and female. They differ in many small ways, but there is a pattern to these differences. The male brain is specialized for doing one thing at a time, and the female brain is more truly a “multitasking environment.” Take an average man (if you can find one) and an average woman (if you can find one). Give them both a PET scan. Have them each do something, the same thing, during their PET session, and then look at the brain activity. The woman’s brain will almost always show more active regions than the man’s brain will. Women “cross-reference” things through more parts of their brain than men do, most importantly the emotional control centers in the limbic system (Moir, 1991). Women can often see the subtler implications of things more readily than men can. Because the process involves the whole brain, and isn’t localized or stronger in its language centers, women can often find it more difficult than men to put their perceptions into words. Women are more likely/able to make associations than men. While many of these associations might be irrelevant to anything practical, there will usually be something meaningful that an “average” man might miss. The sexual regions of the brain are more likely to be recruited into the seizure in women than men. The point is that the involvement of sexuality in enhanced TL sensitivity is different for men and women.

In fact, the range of epileptic phenomena in wider for women than men. For example, women may have orgasms during TLE seizures, while men do not.

Some readers might object to the way we are using the terms normal, average, typical, and so forth. Many object to what are called “sweeping generalizations”. The intention here is to state “rules of thumb”. Rules with so many exceptions that they really can’t be called rules at all. These are not rules for obedience, either. They are more like descriptive rules of grammar, which describes how people are probably going to speak, not how they actually speak. I’ll bet that there are as few people who “typify” their genders as there are who speak with perfect grammar. We have to make generalizations if we want to see the patterns in human behavior and consciousness. After that, it is much easier to see what’s really happening when a specific person is different from those around them. For many of those who experience themselves as different, their differences can be the source of alienation, low-self extreme, and can hinder the growth of ordinary relating skills. To forbid generalizations is to cut off a potential source of healing for these people. Problems only come up when we forget that our general statements, something like working hypotheses, aren’t complete.

Finally, we should look at how hypersexual and hyposexual people can respond to their dilemmas.

The hyposexual person who wants to change should look at the chance that their condition might have to do with epilepsy, and that it might respond to an antiepileptic medication. Many psychiatrists miss the proper diagnoses for the types of epilepsy that can create hyposexuality. An epileptologist is a good place to look for a second opinion.

I know of one case where a woman never experienced sexual desire until she became a massage therapist, and began spending several hours a day doing massage. She had been in an ongoing state of fear for almost 25 years. After doing massage for just a few months, she found that her anxiety had dropped to the point where she found herself feeling horny for the first time. At age 41.

The hypersexual person has fewer options. They, also might respond to antiepileptic medications, but stopping the altered state experience that lie behind their intense sexual interest usually has little appeal. Many people who have contacted me about this issue have said that they feel a stronger need to allow the other states than to lower their sexual energy.

I know of a couple of cases where women have taken up Yoga practice only to find that they became overwhelmed by sexual desire for the first few months of their practice. Other women, with more experience in Yoga, found that their desire had become so low that they almost didn’t care if they had sex or not.

This may sound good to some readers, but one such case includes a woman yogi hearing her husband tell her that he wanted her permission to sleep with other women, and that if she didn’t give it, she was about to become a single mother. He also bluntly refused to leave his kids and settle for 15 years of paying child support and weekend visits.

Some months earlier, she had told me that one of her goals was to “sublimate” her sexuality through yoga. I asked her how her husband felt about this, and she said that was his problem.

But when he faced his problem, it turned out to be hers as well.

Because hypersexuality seems to rely on going in and out of altered states. One simple measure for these states is to look at how often the person has simple, common altered state experiences. These include deja vu, and the feeling that there is someone standing behind you, but when you turn to look, you find nobody is there (“The Sensed Presence“). There is also “Jamais vu”, the sensation that everything is strange, unfamiliar, or a bit alien. There are “parasthesias”; like the “pins and needles” or electrical sensations that run through the body, or the chills that run up one’s spine when listening to music or that might fill one’s body during orgasm. Then there are vestibular sensations, like vertigo, or the sensation that the bed is moving while you are falling asleep. There is also the experience of sudden bursts of intense emotion.

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If a person is hypersexual, they may also be prone to these things, or were prone once in their lives.

This suggests a simple and easy response. When they enter a sexual state in moments when their culture or life circumstance doesn’t allow, they should change their state. While a “shot of whiskey” may have the desired effect for some, a more universal approach seems to be cognitive and emotional training.

And the most popular approach to that, across the world and through human history has been spirituality. Spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation

Because sexual desire seems to associate with activation of the (deep) left caudate nucleus, in conjunction with the left temporal lobe (surface), spiritual practices that “task” the left hemisphere so as to activate other structures deep in the left hemisphere might easily provide cognitive alternatives. Choices that can be made right in the moment.

Language centers are on the left, and spiritual practices that rely on it offer one alternative. Many religions offer reciting prayers as an effective way to avert “temptations of the flesh”. Mantra practice- repeating short invocations over and over- is found all through the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

I once spoke to a “Hare Krishna” Devotee, who told me a story about how he had gone to a woman’s home and how she had begun to seduce him, being quite forward with her hands and mouth. He began to become aroused, and remembered his vows. First, in his mind, he began to chant Hare Krishna. In spite of his long sexual deprivation and possibly hypersexual past (he had been a pornography addict), he not only “dropped” his desire, but had an episode of bliss.

He started chanting aloud, and the woman, he said, threw him out.

He said he felt like he’d been chanting the whole day – “totally blissed out”. The high levels of left-limbic activation brought on by sex were “shunted over” to the language centers on the left surface, which long practice with Hindu chanting had connected to the left amygdala (associated with bliss, ecstasy, and other positive emotions).

It’s more likely that (Murphy, 2001) his chanting resulted in a suppression of other states that demand activation of large portions of the left temporal lobes and limbic system.

When he wanted to suppress sexual desire, he had only to “Chant Hare Krishna and be happy”. The same held true for him with anger or his desire for tobacco.

Other left-hemispheric practices include Yoga, Sufi dancing, and service to others. Positive socialization involves having other people around and having conversations, both left-hemispheric “tasks”.

In principle, solitude, which seems to task the right hemisphere, might turn out to make bursts of sexual desire more likely. The appearance of a trigger, such as an attractive person, or even just a picture of one, could trigger a jolt of left hemispheric activity. It’s relative quiet after a period of solitude leaves it open for the task. No need to clear one’s mind at that time. The left hemisphere is so available that sexual desire can recruit is many pathways through several structures almost instantly, and suppress competing tasks more readily.

Choosing activities that engage many people might easily serve to lessen the intensity and frequency of true hypersexual episodes, most importantly the kind that facilitate high-risk sexual behaviors. A day spent with other people, at work or socially, might easily lessen the chances for risky behavior in the evening. Of course, it warrants empirical study.

Prayer, talking to the god of one’s belief, can also re-task the left hemisphere away from sexual desire, being both social (self-and-other) and linguistic.

These are all intervention techniques, but they would need practice before the states they create are available at will.

The most important technique will probably prove to be empowerment training that teaches people how to meet their need in a positive way, instead of fending them off.

The most popular and widespread approach to human psychology throughout its history has been religion, however backward its beliefs may often appear. It’s not surprising that its traditional practices, when seen as approaches to “cognitive and emotional management”, emerge as worthwhile. Not to say that modern science can’t do better – anticonvulsant medications can treat hypersexuality in many cases, but when these are not available or practical, a return to traditional religious approaches seems much more practical than surrender to high-risk behavior.

Studies among those who engage in high-risk sexual behavior are in order to test the various hypotheses offered here. Nevertheless, if validated, they might also find that patterns of limbic experiences (as evidenced through questionnaires) might indicate specific spiritual techniques for specific individuals.

Both hyper- and hypo- sexuality offer severe challenges, and despite the cultural biases that continue to surround them. Insights that take their neural bases into account are bound to offer more effective choices when put into practice than the techniques that appear when they are regarded as either addictions or psychiatric cases. If they are instances of human consciousness at its extremes, then they can be classified as spiritual dilemmas as much as behavioral problems.


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