Sex and the brain; the psychology of sex

IUS Horizon

There was more than just love in the air this Valentine’s Day, there was also knowledge and laughter.

Meghan Kahn, assistant professor of psychology, presented her fourth annual Sex and the Brain talk Feb. 14.

The event provided a look at the psychological and biological factors that play a role in attraction including; smell, variance in immune systems and what she calls the “chemicals of love” – serotonin and dopamine.
The hour-long event covered a wide variety of factors that influence sexuality and relationships. Kahn said that smell plays a notable role, according to studies.
“As strange as it sounds, instead of love at first sight, it can be love at first smell,” she said.

Symmetry is also the key to attraction, Kahn said, as well as variance in immune systems.

“If the parents have really different immune systems, their children will have a wider range of immunities,” Kahn said.

Kahn said birth control can cause this to change. She said when the brain is tricked into feeling pregnant it is more attracted to similar immune systems.

“It finds them less threatening to the child,” Kahn said.

Kahn said she has also found that there is lots of overlap within the portions of the brain that cause sexual arousal. She said that these parts of the brain also influence drug use and appetite.

Brain imaging tests done on men were shown, as well as studies on chemicals and hormones involved in sex.

Shown to be particularly important were serotonin and dopamine, which are released whenever one enjoys something. Kahn said they are “technically, the only two things you enjoy.”

Kahn also discussed studies on non-human species, particularly in regard to mating habits and monogamy.

“Monogamy is not really common outside of humans,” Kahn said. “Genetic tests often don’t support it.”

For the first portion on non-human species, footage from BBC’s “Planet Earth” television series was shown.

Kahn also incorporated humorous pictures into her speech for comic relief, such as an excerpt from the popular online comic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.”
In all, a crowd of more than 50 students was in attendance, which Kahn said was on par with past years.

“We always get a really good turnout,” Kahn said. “After all, very few people go their whole lives without sex or relationships.”

As the co-adviser for the Psychology Club on campus, Kahn has found that events discussing sex are often among the most popular.

“We get the best attendance for events with ‘sex’ or ‘ghost’ in the title,” Kahn said.
Kahn first became an IUS faculty member in fall 2009, and she gave the talk for the first time during the spring 2010 semester.

“Right off the bat, [the IUS faculty] really liked the idea of a Sex and the Brain event,” Kahn said.

Kahn said it quickly caught the attention of students as well.

“We initially had a small room set aside for the event, but it got to the point where we couldn’t fit everybody,” Kahn said. “Thankfully, we’ve gotten UC 127 – a bigger room – the past two years.”

Sally Sturgis, psychology senior, said Kahn is able to make the Sex and the Brain event feel fresh each time.

“There’s been recent development in studies on women’s brains, which [Kahn] incorporated this year,” Sturgis said. “Dr. Kahn always has some new things to teach.”

Sturgis said she has also taken Kahn’s sensation and perception class, which focuses on the study of the senses.

Kahn said she plans to be involved in several other campus events in the near future.

In April, she will be involved in a screening of the award-winning HBO biopic “Temple Grandin,” which is being shown to celebrate World Autism Day.

She also plans to have an event where students can demonstrate their research from the school year.

“The research is very hands-on, and appeals to students who want something tangible,” Kahn said.