Fourth in a series of articles discussing A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a controversial new book by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam that uses the internet to study human sexuality in some new and unusual ways.
Photo credit: Pedrosimoes7 via Creative Commons
There’s an App for That
Much like your average personal computer, the human brain comes outfitted with a whole lot of cool software right out of the box.
There are programs for language acquisition. An elaborate visual processing suite. Apps for learning to crawl — and eventually to walk without falling down. And a myriad other functionalities that are more than simply the sum of their neuronal parts. All pre-set and ready to run, from the moment you plug the thing in.
Which is a good thing. Because otherwise we’d have to learn everything from scratch.
Decades of infant research have demonstrated that babies from the moment they’re born know how to bond with their caregivers, and how to cry when their diapers need changing. By the time a young child learns to crawl, she already knows to fear heights — without being taught. Later she’ll most likely automatically crave sweets and fear bugs.
The fact that all this fabulous software comes pre-installed is nothing short of astonishing — especially considering that all the instructions for building and installing it are present in a single cell at conception.
Born to Learn
According to the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, we’re all born with sexual desire software as well — designed to help us find suitable mates.
Early in fetal development, according to this model, human males and females start out with the beginnings of the same rudimentary sexual software. But at certain stages of fetal life, under the influence of fetal sex hormones and other factors, certain gender-specific components are activated, never to be turned off again. And others suppressed, never to be developed. So by the time the boy or girl baby leaves the womb, its original unisex software has been specifically modified for male or female life.
The result is that male and female sexual software are radically different. Much more on that later.
The software is a learning software. Like the “mother cue” software of young geese, who will bond to anything that approximates the features of a mother goose, mental software tends to look for categories rather than specifics. As the authors write (p. 58), “The cue is simple and general because the gosling brain doesn’t know ahead of time what its mother will look like.”
The human sexual software responds to categories rather than specifics as well. Most heterosexual American men from the Baby Boomer generation like women to have pubic hair, whereas many if not most Millennial Generation men prefer a mate who is shaved or waxed. Both yearnings are the result of the same software, which simply seeks vulvas. But the software is a learning software. It learns the ways of one’s society and one’s generation.
Flexibility Within Limits
Both male and female sexual software, according to this model, are highly flexible in achieving their basic aims. A woman in a tribe of hunter-gatherers, we are told, seeks a man who is a good hunter. Whereas a modern New York woman may look for one who can provide her with a 3-bedroom apartment.
As the authors envision it, both are responding to a piece of ordinary female software, wherein a man’s desirability is enhanced by his ability to provide material essentials. Whether this really is an innate feature of the software, as the authors claim, or the result of other factors such as women’s historical position of dependence on men for resources, is sure to be debated.
Neither male nor female sexual software has unlimited flexibility. There seem to be constraints. Unlike men, most women don’t go hunting for a glimpse of a partner’s genitals. And most men don’t get more turned on by a partner who supplies them with material resources. Male and female aims appear to be quite different, regardless of geography or culture.
The Elements of Desire
Neuroscientists tell us that perception tends to be built from just a few elements, which our minds then combine into an infinite variety of arrangements. All colors can be produced by combining red, blue, and yellow. All tastes by arranging combinations of salty, sweet, bitter, and a few others. And all sexual delights, according to this theory, can be produced by the combination of basic erotic elements.
Ogas and Gaddam call these “sexual cues.” They are the building blocks of sexual attraction. Sexual tastes are built up of combinations of sexual cues, just as tastes in food are built up of salty, sweet, and bitter.
So OK — How well does this theory of a “software of human sexuality” fit with our ordinary experience?
From a computational neuroscience standpoint, the question may be unimportant. How we feel about the way our minds process visual cues is irrelevant to the science of how it works.
But sexuality is different. Most of us have strong feelings about sex. That’s an interesting fact in itself. Sexuality touches us deeply – in a way that visual processing does not.
So let’s look critically at the authors’ ideas about male and female sexual cues. Can they teach us something about our sexuality that we didn’t already know?
Before we can answer this question, we’ll need to know exactly what the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts think the main human male and female sexual cues are.
We’ll start next time with the major male cues. The basic theoretical ideas we’ll master in doing so will then allow us to appreciate the female version, which is (no surprise) much more complex. And is sure to be much more controversial.