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Kayt Sukel

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Dirty Minds: 5 Sex Myths Bashed By Brain Science

Posted: 01/19/12 08:19 AM ET

We've heard it time and time again: there are "rules" when it comes to love. You have to act this way (never that way) to attract love. You have to represent your gender-specific planet if you want to nurture and keep it. And you can--no, you must--change up some of your natural inclinations if you want to find any semblance of happiness in your relationship. We hold hard and fast to a lot of ideas when it comes to love and sexual behaviors. But does science actually back them up?

Neuroscience, the study of brains and behavior, is offering us a new lens to view love, sex and parenting. And, as I learned while researching "Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships" [Free Press, $25.00], these new and exciting brain studies are blowing some commonly held ideas about relationships right out of the water.

Love is an emotion.

In my son's kindergarten class, love is classified in the same category as anger, sadness and surprise. They call it an emotion--as do many poets, authors and boy bands. But anyone who has ever been in love knows it's not quite as fleeting as the other items in that emotion group. And neuroscientists have uncovered neuroimaging evidence that suggests love is more of a drive--not unlike our drive for food, drink and sex.

Helen Fisher, an evolutionary biologist who studies love at Rutgers University, recognized that romantic love is a very powerful physical experience. Think about it: your heart may race, your palms may sweat and you may find yourself feeling a little obsessive. And when Fisher found a distinct system in the brain for romantic love, separate from nearby systems implicated in sex and attachment respectively, she concluded that romantic love is a drive there to not only help fuel reproduction but to also help us connect with others. Simply put, romantic love is not just a "nice to have"--it's evolutionary drive. Time to change the kindergarten emotion chart!

Men want sex, women want relationships.

This story is as old as time--we're told from day one that men and women want different things from their co-mingling. Namely, men only want the booty while women want something deep, meaningful and long-term. Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence to discount this notion, we still cling to it. Yet, brain science suggests that there is a lot more variability within one sex than between the two sexes when it comes to relationship behaviors. Not only that, but there is no difference in romantic love's brain signature (that is, the type and areas of brain activity seen when people look at photos of their beloveds) in men and women. Pair those studies with epidemiological and survey data that show that men and women have the exact same reasons for having sex and it's time to rethink this stereotype.

Love and hate are polar opposites.

Going back to that kindergarten emotion chart, love and hate are thought to be polar opposites. They certainly feel that way! But Semir Zeki, one of the pioneers in the love neuroimaging space, decided to see whether he could find a hate signature in the brain. He did--and while he saw some unique brain circuitry light up, he also demonstrated that love and hate share some key brain areas. Zeki admits that the result may be due to the fact that many of his study participants directed their hate toward a past romantic partner--but the old cliché about there being a thin line between love and hate may just be backed up by our brain activity.

Porn appeals only to men.

Our brains, it would seem, are hard-wired for porn. Thomas James, a neuroscientist at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, says that sexual stimuli create a brain response 2-3 times stronger than any other kind of image he's ever used. This phenomenon is not limited to men. Women's brains also light up like Christmas trees when they check out images that are sexual in nature. Researchers at the Kinsey Institute found that men and women showed some differences in brain activation when they looked at sexual images which led Heather Rupp, the lead researcher on the study, to say that arousal circuitry may be differentially activated in men and women depending on the images. Despite this, however, both sexes rated the images used as equally arousing and looked at them for approximately the same amount of time--suggesting that women also have some appreciation for visual sexual stimuli.

Men are genetically programmed to cheat

If only it were that easy--I'm sure a lot of guilty people would sleep easier tonight! Alas, it's not.

First off, if men were genetically "programmed" to cheat, we wouldn't see as many women skipping out on their partners. But even if we could ignore that little fact, genes are not little generals directing our sexual and mating behaviors. Genes can certainly predispose us to certain behaviors--but ultimately, our large, evolved frontal lobes (implicated in judgment, decision making and empathy) allow us to make a choice, even when temptation seems just too compelling to ignore.