Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fun with Brains

Brainzzzz……

I want to change my field and be a brain researcher.

They get to do all the cool stuff. Like sticking the heads of five people into a machine (functional magnetic resonance, fMRI ) that scans their brains while they watch twenty commercials aired during the Super Bowl. The researchers’ intents were to gauge what type of a reaction they had, and the anatomical areas of the brain that were affected.

Commercials produced variable responses and in different areas of the brain. The so called ‘reward-centers’ (ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) in the brain showed activity during some ads. In response to other ads, the visual and auditory regions, or areas that contain “mirror neurons” were responsive. The latter are neurons that fire in an animal’s brain when it performs a task and also when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal like itself. They ‘mirror’ the other animal’s behavior and thus this activity is indicative of empathy.

Their qualification of a ‘good’ ad or a ‘bad’ ad was less objective and questionably interpretive. A ‘bad’ ad was interpreted by activity only in the visual and auditory areas, usually short-lived. On the other hand, ‘good’ ads were interpreted by responses of longer duration in the brain’s reward and empathy centers. However, I question the qualification of their terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The complete analysis shows that the best ads are the Disney/NFL ad and the Sierra Mist ad,” Marco Lacoboni says, referring to the theme-park and soft-drink commercials. “In the Disney ad, NFL players ecstatically repeat ‘I am going to Disney’. I can see how this ad can elicit strong empathic responses.1

The scientists considered the Disney commercial a ‘good’ ad. Now I challenge you to find a handful of fathers in a sample pool of 100 that with sincerity and honesty admit they look forward to and love going to Disney, spending a month’s salary in a few days, fielding hundreds of screaming kids, and maneuvering the traffic and crowds. Perhaps the reward-centers and empathy were confused with internally muffled terror and anxiety of memories and anticipation of repeat visits. Is that really a ‘good’ ad, Docs?

Another commercial depicted a woman playing football with other women but that also somehow advertised beer. The fMRI revealed that the mirror neurons fired in the brain of a female subject, indicating empathy. I wonder if it was more related to woman player’s clothing, hair and physique than actual play moves (“OhmyGod, how could she wear that and get it dirty?”). The same commercial induced activity in the reward-centers of a male subject’s brain. That makes sense: beer and women. What better rewards than that?

Now here’s the best one: put a handful of men and women in the lab and turn them loose on erotic films. Then instruct them to masturbate or engage in intercourse to orgasm. Take blood samples and then give them a questionnaire to fill out. 2 I would love to be a fly on the wall in that lab or in the offices of the researchers and staff.

Although I could have predicted the rise in prolactin both after masturbation and intercourse, I was surprised at the degree of increase (400% !!) after intercourse compared to masturbation. What this means, fellas, is that you had best prepare for a long refractory period after intercourse. In other words, you’re done for awhile.

Dopamine is released during arousal (and foreplay), which intensifies erections – harder and for longer duration. Prolactin is a dopamine antagonist, it’s dopamine’s ‘yang’ so to speak. Typically, dopamine levels plummet right after orgasm, following the spike in prolactin. So you can see why prolactin and dopamine are a feedback loop for erections and orgasms. I suspect prolactin also is connected to the post-orgasm oxytocin release, the ‘bonding’ hormone. (Yes, guys, you have response that, too.)

But why the large disparity in prolactin levels after intercourse and masturbation? Perhaps the answer may lie in other sensory input: tactile stimulation, smell, increased anticipation, all the physical and psychological stimulation that accompanies intercourse between two humans (gender not withstanding). Perhaps examining changes in other hormones and neurotransmitters may shed a clue. I mean, if you’re going to bother them before and after by taking blood samples, you may as well make the most of the test samples and assay for a cocktail of chemicals.

Or scientists could just read the Kama Sutra for research insight. Although no blood samples were used to test hormone changes when it was written, the astute power of observation recorded many ‘tricks’ to prolong pleasure and achieve multiple orgasms. Though not properly ‘peer reviewed’ by today’s standards, I suspect the use of such techniques down the centuries provides valuable evidence.

Maybe I really need to move on from investigating skeletal muscle proteins……..

  1. “Brain scans reveal power of Super Bowl adverts.” NewScientist.com news service, 07 February 2006.
  2. “Sex with a partner is 400% better”. From New Scientist Print Edition. 22 February 2006. Also, Biological Psychology, vol 71, p 312.

1 comment:

  1. ""The scientists considered the Disney commercial a ‘good’ ad. Now I challenge you to find a handful of fathers in a sample pool of 100 that with sincerity and honesty admit they look forward to and love going to Disney, spending a month’s salary in a few days, fielding hundreds of screaming kids, and maneuvering the traffic and crowds. Perhaps the reward-centers and empathy were confused with internally muffled terror and anxiety of memories and anticipation of repeat visits.""

    Wow, it's as if you're speaking right to me. Let me save you the trouble, cost & expense and frustration of the test subjects.

    NO! Disneys sucks! "Good" ad, my ass!

    The FedEx Caveman ad... Now *THAT* was funny!!

    ReplyDelete