Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Flaw in Pascal Beverley Randolph

In any history of the association of modern magickal thinking and sexuality, one of the ur-texts is the 'Magia Sexualis' of Pascal Beverley Randolph ['PBR'], a mid-nineteenth century American, but part of a broader body of work that was, in turn, part of the American transcendentalist approach to occultism. Randolph had a second round of influence, through the translation and interpretation of the work by Marie de Naglowska, in France but the historical importance of Randolph is not our primary concern here. What we want to do is critique his work from a modern perspective and see where this leads.

The flaw in P. B. Randolph's work is one very familiar to contemporary thinkers and not just those who set their stall on 'queer theory'. It is the very notion of polarity between male and female. Indeed, the flaw in all simple thought, one of the themes of our postings in general, is polarity - yin/yang, good/bad, male/female, love/hate and so on. It is convenient and it can be creative but it is not 'true'.

As regular readers will know (taking the last as one of many), I recognise the fundamental opportunity for difference between categories taken in the round - so that there is male and there is female - but there is no value judgement to be ascribed to either, certainly not in relation to each other. Human variation means that there is no exemplar of a 'type' and the Bell Curves of normality shade and overlap in complex and fascinating ways.

We have asserted elsewhere that the differences between the genders are real 'in the round' but are so highly specific and functional that attempts to extend the category that includes some specific attributes in order to represent some absolute, any absolute, is absurd. There are specific partial functions of feminity and masculinity with some public policy implications (and cultural codings overlaying these based on a reading of the functions for their use value in struggles for power or social cohesion) but there is no absolute quality of feminity or masculinity.

The terms of categorisation are always approximations, based on an averaging out of common attributes so that, as several friends have pointed out, a highly feminised male can still be a man, a highly masculinised female a woman and many entities between the two can be properly regarded as something else entirely.

In other words, the sexual relationship between persons can be ideologically 'genderised' as some sort of meeting of opposites or (in gay relations) of 'sames' but the actual practice of sexuality is far more interesting and complex than this, a matter of the 'magic' of personal rather than gender relations. To build a system around (say) a positive female pole and negative male pole, as PBR does, as if the earth's polarity and magnetism automatically applied to people, because of a primitive insistence on a debased form of microcosm reflecting macrocosm, is, to say the least, sloppy thinking.

As solipsistic poetic allegory, it may work but poetry is a perception of existence and not existence itself. This is not to argue that gender playfulness cannot incorporate such absurdities but only that, once understood to be absurd, we must, perforce, move on. Randolph, for example, writes that 'as in nature' the female attracts the male but, in fact, this was not a matter of 'nature' but one of culture, or rather his culture (a culture that determinedly persecuted him).

In another culture, the male attracts the female and the male attracts the male and the female the female and so on - his culture was the rigid culture of the dominant patriarchal male (much as I loathe the loaded feminist term 'patriarchy' as propagandistic distortion today, it does apply to gender relations in mid-nineteenth century church-going middle class Anglo-Saxon society) and his equally disturbed and disturbing fixed matriarchal counterpart.

But having excoriated PBR for writing nonsense at a strategic level, we can dig deeper into his poetic allegory and try to uncover what tactically exists of value in the false metaphor and a cod-scientific approach involving the volts and magnetism of a mid-nineteenth century American autodidact and fantasist. For, the essence of PBR's system is vitalism. Vitalism is not much liked scientifically or philosophically today but, taken as allegory rather than as 'truth', it represents the personal perception of the flow of biochemical change in a person and is a way of explaining what is not yet fully understood by science - the instincts of attraction and repulsion.

Some people are undoubtedly more 'vital' than others (which is not a value judgement about worth but merely an observation). Some have experienced unexplained attractions and repulsions whereas others go through life with no consciousness of their own connectedness to unexplained phenomena. PBR is making an honourable attempt to deal with and make use of a reality that will not bend itself easily to scientific investigation and, although his own system may be nonsense in relation to reality, his awareness of the phenomenon is generations ahead of his own culture.

Instead of repressing this vitalism, expressed most profoundly in sexual terms, he at least makes an honourable attempt to bring it into the open on terms that his generation might just understand - scientific materialism. He gets it wrong but then so did Karl Marx. Both, I contend, moved us forwards (as did Freud and Reich) without being 'right' and subsequent problems arise not from the authors of radical new ideas but from the dumb acceptance of them without critical thought after the event.

PBR, in linking sexual vitalism to another fascinating absurdity, magic, manages to bring in yet another aspect of the matter - the fact that for some persons in some situations sexual vitalism, as a practice rather than a theory, can lead to shifts in consciousness similar to those of some drugs. To extend this to magical purpose in the sense that sexual vitalism will lead to changes in the material world may pile on yet another absurdity in the eyes of many - until we start to consider that (as we have argued elsewhere) much of our reality is social.

Consciousness changes can shift our own viewpoint in regard to that social reality. Therefore, while the magician who thinks that will and magic will cause him to fly in the air is an utter fool, the 'magician' who believes he or she can use sexual vitalism to transform their personal nature and social presence is decidedly not.

However, the most effective argument against magical practice is generally that magical practitioners are not great advertisements for their own method. Their practices seem to be constantly associated with failure and social exclusion, with marginalisation and even with neurosis. To be successful appears to require that you embed yourself wholly in the reality presented by society and, although there is room for singular creativity in one line of endeavour (the way of the 'genius'), any attempt to question the broader grounds of false mass perception is to have one consigned to the mad house, the prison, the execution block or a troubled isolation (the modern solution). But this is deceptive on two grounds.

The first is that the marginalised and isolated are, in the first instance, drawn to desperate measures in order to integrate themselves into the social and yet to individuate. They are drawn to the fantastic and to the magical. The more marginalised they are (as was PBR as a mixed race petit-bourgeois in a racist aspirant and fast-growing society) then the more drawn they are towards such radical metaphors to explain their position. The history of voodoo in Haiti might be an exemplar of this relationship.

The second is that radical thinkers take enormous risks with their reputation to transform themselves and society. The massive dead weight of conventionalism with strike down the pioneer even if, in the long run of history, the flawed insights of that pioneer might prove themselves correct - Nietzsche, PBR, Crowley: all failures of a sort and yet ...

Any 'sensible' person would never think radically but would seek out the conventional, especially if they have a family to feed. Most do. Some simply give into necessity. Others are philosophical zombies, creatures of the social rather than individuals operating within the social. Things are probably better in this respect today compared to almost any previous age but there is still a price, even today, to be paid for not being a zombie and, living amongst zombies, many of us have to have dress in the stench of their kind so as not to be eaten alive.

As for PBR, his approach to sex magic is perhaps still worth reading but only in order to establish just how much he was embedded in the Christian culture of his day. His rules are filled with religiosity, involve complicated and ascetic limitations on behaviour that imply a sexual union that is over a month in preparation and has no serious understanding of sexual differences in orgasm.

Indeed, by the end of them, one's conclusion is that PBR is more concerned to make his congress moral and respectable than to encourage the sort of sexual energy that might transform consciousness. When he gets around to sexual positions, he seems open-minded and no doubt much fun was had but it is a sexuality surrounded by anxiety and magical protection and always conscious that respectability requires that the act be contained within a 'sacred' box.

PBR has nothing to teach us now about sexuality or consciousness except negatively - that is, he tells us that 150 years ago, the power of the conventional fear of sexuality was such that a person with a sense of sexual vitalism had to cloak his nature in the language of the 'enemy': ascetic, 'spiritual', theistic ... and that even a person whose 'passion' for the 'vital' forced him into the role of cultural maverick was forced to bend the knee to social convention if he was to be able to talk in any way about mutual male/female sexual love.

Of course his contemporaries were rutting around like crazy as all generations do but the language of the time meant that men and women had to inhabit separate linguistic environments - that of the prostitute and that of the home. PBR, to his credit, made a serious attempt to include women in a sexual dialogue and he compromised by bringing that dialogue into the Victorian hearth and this is what makes him a progressive force who was not without courage.

Unfortunately, the very act of speaking about the sexual in such a shared discourse proved shocking to Christian sensibilities and so this very mild-mannered and rather dull and exhausting sexual magic became demonised. An attempt to escape from zombie status and communicate sexual love was doomed in that culture at that time. Worse, those who went underground with it brought the compromising language of PBR into their 'spiritual' determinations of what sexuality was and should be and so the mastering ideology infected even the potential for resistance.

However, his existence as an underground figure, rarely actually read, helped to open the door to sexuality as something that could be spoken of between men and women. He was succeeded by equally brave women like Woodhull and Craddock who began a process of transformation that has led to today's freedom and openness. Even today, the American Evangelical Right would drag America and the world back to those neurotic and disturbed days when zombies ruled if they possibly could.

So, although PBR's system was scientific nonsense and his magic onerous and excessively essentialist, he should be lauded today for his eccentric courage and his preparedness to (at least) attempt to bring women into equal status, as sexual partners, with men. In this last he failed to take the final step and he remained 'the priest' but his determination to offer women rights to sexual pleasure (albeit in a weirdly religious framework) should make him a hero to all free persons. The right tribute would be to free his departed soul from the trammels of the religiosity that he felt it necessary to make part of himself to justify what really did not need to be justified at all - human freedom.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

On Male & Female Brain Differences ...

To many liberals honed on the language of equality, evidence of fundamental differences in the architecture of female and male brains can be dealt with in only one way - denial. But at some stage, they are going to have to face the implications of any neuroscientific findings that undermine much of their universalising project.

We have already provided a number of essays on how social reality is constructed but the essence of that reality is that it is a simulacrum, a creation of often a minority of leading persons in order to enable effective communication and to ensure the control and management of resources.

We have looked (elsewhere) at how sense inputs reconstruct objective reality as individual reality and at how no single individual can see the world precisely as another sees it. The conclusion we have drawn is one of mutual toleration within a framework of a culture that is designed to limit exploitation and protect the vulnerable on a broadly democratic basis.

The Problem of Universalism

The question of male/female difference of brain function is important because the universalism that so often denies individuals the rights of dissident self-expression against the social norm is criminally compounded if this difference fails to be recognised where it exists.

By taking two sets that have already been inappropriately normalised as the type of man or the type of woman (to the detriment of particular individuals in both abstract categories) and repositioning them as one abstract category of human, male and female individuals are being even further alienated from their intimate individual natures.

This is not to be construed as a statement against the equality of persons in regard to their rights to make their own choices within their categories or in relation to other categories but only as a statement against the turning of persons into abstractions where the equality is simply the equality of things to be manipulated by 'guardians of values'.

Understanding differences between broad categories is a first step in unravelling the claims of universalism on the path to understanding the differences between all persons and so their equality as persons with free choices rather than as objects of ideology.

The Politics of Sexual Difference

This is politically important. The then-President of Harvard University was lambasted simply for asking the question in 2005 whether innate differences in male and female brains might be a factor in the scarcity of women in scientific fields. He was right to ask the question but not to assert an answer.

It is a legitimate question.To introduce quotas within functional elements in society that do not accord with objective reality (even if that reality may have cultural or social aspects) is asking for social functionality to be diminished. It may place the liberal who asks for quotas, as social engineer, on a par with the creationist in their potentially damaging effect on knowledge.

The questions must be asked but the answers must not be assumed because it is factually true that there are great women scientists (though few) just as there are men who cannot count beyond ten. The reasons why this is so should be uncovered before blundering in with short term solutions that damage the very enterprise of science itself. The issue may not be one of ability but of will - will to be a scientist perhaps.

This applies across society and across categories. We need to understand difference and then build a society in which difference has no meaning in relation to fundamental equality - which is the equality of autonomy between free individuals rather than the equality of categories manipulated by their leadership cadres.

Culture and Nature

Let us be clear - there is no evidence at all that brain difference is linked to any intellectual ability that should stop women from becoming scientists if they so choose so the issue may be one of certain ideologues trying to demand that women make choices that they do not wish to make and then getting angry at their 'failure' to fit the model as much as one of some claimed patriarchal denial of the right of women to be scientists.

Difference may lay partly in genuine economic or social disadvantage (i.e. blocks to free choice) or it may lie in free choice itself (in which case, it is no-one's business but that of the woman herself). She does not have to become anything she does not wish to be, especially something implicitly dictated by an ideological feminist.

The modern liberal mind seems unable to draw this distinction, one which leads (in this author's view) to a commitment to a socialism of enablement and a libertarianism of uptake that works against the ideology of the middle class progressive who is obsessed with avoiding the serious investment required in social change whilst imposing his or her own values on others.

But let us return to the science - where are men and women really different and what may this mean? The answers are vital medically because, as in issues of race, inheritance does have meaning in disorders of the body and the mind and, if we do not understand these differences, we cannot cure them.

The Revolution in Understanding Difference

If brains are different, then perception and use of language may be different. This means that the very structure of research and experimentation in the social sciences will need to take account of these differences even before research starts.

The revolution in understanding male and female brain differences is very recent. It is no accident that the world of the baby-boomers who are like a sclerotic dead weight on our culture had an academic view that restricted sexual difference to reproduction and mating - and so the brain bits related to sex were judged the only points of difference.

Any liberal of a certain generation with a smattering of scientific education would have assumed, without further enquiry, that males and females were different only in their sex hormones and hypothalamus. The fact that observable human behaviour day-to-day suggested otherwise was put down to culture, not entirely without reason but not entirely with reason either.

All this has been overturned very recently - so recently that the world-views of someone under thirty and over thirty may be be radically different. A conceptual revolution is taking place where the dead weight of the past may culturally inhibit the revolutionary changes required to progress. A conflict expressed perhaps in the war between feminist generations as much as anywhere.

Where Differences Lie

There are now demonstrable differences in many areas of cognition and behaviour - memory, emotion, vision, hearing, the processing of faces and responses to stress hormones and across the brain, far beyond the hypothalamus.

Given that we construct the world through the management of sensory inputs, any differences in mind management techniques and sensory input imply qualitative differences in how men and women construct their reality. Here are some of the findings:-
  •     parts of the frontal cortex (basis for many higher cognitive functions) are bulkier in women than men
  •     parts of the limbic cortex (involved in emotional responses) are bulkier in women than men
  •     parts of the parietal cortex (involved in space perception) are bulkier in men than women
  •     the amygdala (which responds to emotionally arising information) is bigger in men than women
The existence of these discrepancies (which, of course, do not relate to particular individuals but to the bulk of persons in a category who are identifiable as being in that category) is a sign (based on experience with other animals) of difference in function - brains are working differently. What this means beyond the crude fact is up for grabs.

Differences also exists at the cellular level. Women have a greater density of neurons in the parts of the temporal lobe cortex associated with language processing and understanding. Similar findings have been made in the frontal lobe. What this means (perhaps nothing) is also not yet clear but it may have a great deal to do with enhanced female verbal fluency - or it may not.

This fact of difference (if not the meaning of difference) is all just common sense and it is amazing that it has taken so long to sweep away ideological presuppositions and think about what we are as biological entities. Sex hormones affect the fetal brain so if sex hormones were recognised as a cause of difference as early as the 1960s, then other effects should have been expected.

The Thorny Question of Toys

The latest thinking is quite clearly that sex differences in cognition are not just cultural and do not result from later hormonal changes in puberty but owe something to these sex hormones and are present from birth. To a degree, men and women think a little differently even before they are born. Again, common sense to any non-ideological mother.

The obvious bone of contention has been the way children choose toys in a sexually dimorphic way, with saddened liberal mothers unable to get their daughters weaned off Barbie or their sons from guns. They have been wasting their time. Even monkey kids choose the same type of gender-specific toys.

What is going on - male toys are things that are propelled through space (cars) or involve rough and tumble play whereas female toys are centred on nurturing. This much is in accord with otherwise over-egged behavioural psychology.

To bend the child away from these instincts is to try to drive brain plasticity from outside - an aggressive approach to acculturation that might be feasible, much as the Soviet theory of the New Man was theoretically cogent, but is asking for trouble with most kids in most situations.

Babies, Faces & Anxiety

One year old girls spend more time looking at their mothers than their male equivalents who prefer film of cars rather than film of faces. Hollywood budgets are built on these differences. When extended back to one day old children, still we apparently find that girls prefer faces to mechanical objects and vice versa for boys. That's day one of existence if true ...

Differences are also clear in how the sexes react to the environment and stress, a material political fact in itself. There are indications (in experiments unrepeatable in humans for ethical reasons) that separation anxiety has different effects in young males and females which may help to explain why anxiety disorders may be more common in girls than boys.

The difference in size of the hippocampus (memory storage and spatial mapping) also appears to be relevant. Men appear to navigate by 'dead reckoning' (estimating distances in space and orientation) while women navigate by landmark. This again is observable in daily life and in rats, so it seems to be in-built in mammalian sexual difference.


Although the experiments are done with rats and not humans, females seem to increase neuronal connections in a highly stimulated environment and this is linked to memory formation. Complexity seems to have no effect or the opposite effect on males - they start to forget, perhaps to trim the sensory inputs that they cannot cope with.

However, if a complex but stable environment (with many persons involved) enhances the life of female rats but slightly troubles the male rat, the opposite takes place when stress is induced into the picture - and this accords with everyday observation to a degree.

Male rats learn better if stressed but stress has the opposite effect on female rats. On the other hand, female rats are better at dealing with chronic stress than male rats whereas female rats suffer more from acute stress. Rats are not humans but intuitively we can see two possible social conclusions straight away:-
  • A society of men and women must be sufficiently stable and complex with many personal interactions to keep women happy but men need to escape periodically or they become dulled, stressed and unhappy: this seems intuitively correct;
  • Teaching boys requires very different approaches to teaching girls - optimal learning requirements are different for the sexes: again, intuitively, this seems right.
Memory is another area of difference where ethical guidelines permit the scientists to move from rats back to humans. There are hemispheric differences in processing emotional difference in responding to stressful events that suggest that the sexes require different approaches to dealing with trauma.

Medical & Social Considerations

Depression also looks as if it should be considered differently in men and women. Men, generally, produce serotonin at levels 52% higher than women. This may be a factor in increased incidence of depression amongst women. Findings on addiction suggest that women can become dependent, on stimulants in particular, more easily than men. We do not present all this as fact but as possibilities - not to be evaded or avoided for ideological reasons but investigated.

There are also (apparently) differences underlying schizophrenia which are currently poorly understood but the point has been made - overall, biological sexual difference is becoming important in understanding the treatment of medical disorders of the brain and, I contend, is becoming a relevant factor in social and political policy as well without in any way diminishing the fundamental human equality which is now accepted as a value in a modern liberal society.

The sensible approach remains one based on the equality of individuals as rounded persons (rather than as universal abstracts) but, within this, the recognition of sexual difference suggests a true equality between males in general and females in general which takes account of their separable nature. We may go further and say that the equality of individuals is not in the least compromised by recognising any form of difference, including age, ethnicity, interests or whatever is simply different.

To force a little boy into playing with a doll for ideological reasons is as oppressive as placing a teenage girl under high achiever stress in a mixed school. To force a male into the chronic misery of a large communitarian household without escape or authority is as cruel as to deprive a woman of extended society and intellectual stimulation.

Some Tentative Political Conclusions

A 'liberal' society that is built around turning a few women into male-type leaders and suppressing the risk-taking and experimentation of males is not a liberal but an oppressive society, as oppressive as one that treats women as second-class citizens and deprives of them of full access to education and their fair share of resources.

And it is important to understand that there is no 'normal', average or typical type of person but only massive variation within a general type of difference so there will always be the man who is more like most women in some aspect than some women and vice versa.

The point is that, in treating persons as individuals, the differences do not matter but the differences do need to be understood when generalising into public policy that is (as a fundamental value) fair to all individuals. Identity politics, for example, is a negation of difference but politics that enable notionally 'normal' male or female behaviour to flourish (even if some men flourish undertaking female modes and some women male modes) is getting closer to a truly liberatory political culture. 

[This posting owes its science to the neuroscientist Larry Cahill's article 'His Brain, Her Brain' in Scientific American but the social and political conclusions are entirely my own]

Sunday, 12 October 2014

'Nerve Zero' and Speculation on Human Happiness

R. Douglas Fields. the neuro- and cognitive scientist, wrote a curious and very cautious account of a cranial nerve in the sperm whale in Scientific American some four or five years ago which, true or not, gave rise to some thoughts on our perception of reality.  He has postulated that this Nerve Zero is an additional 'sense' and that it might be operative as such in the human being, given common mammalian structures.

Whether his thesis will be confirmed or not, Fields is dealing with a mystery - whether a tiny nerve, hitherto ignored, at the base of the brain, is at the heart of subliminal sexual attraction. Do pheromones hit this nerve and relay deep subsconscious signals to the brain? Does this explain 'instant attraction' and what does it mean for sexual free will?

Most nerves enter the brain through the spinal chord but cranial nerves go direct to the brain and so to the 'mind'. They are linked to our sensory inputs and to the way we express ourselves, so a 'sixth' sense linked to a cranial nerve looks to be intimately connected to the way we construct our reality and the way that we behave.

Such a nerve is a part not of the autonomic process or of our willed movement (though we can will much of our expression) so much as of the system by which sensory inputs compete for attention and so create our model of the world - if the nerve exists quite as Fields suggests. It may also have (see below) an expressive component of its own.

The nerve itself provenly exists in all vertebrates (discovered in humans as long ago as 1913) but what exactly it is for is what remains disputed. What we do know is that it sends its endings to the nose which has led some sceptics to believe that it is merely a frayed strand of the olfactory nerve. Field's whale autopsy threw that thesis in doubt.

The role of the olfactory nerve with its complex of 347 types of receptor cell in determining sex, social rank, territories, reproductive status and even the identity of individuals such as mates and offspring is well accepted and there are certainly indications that humans, like other animals, exchange secret pheromone messages.

Pheromones are, according to Fields and others, very different from odor-producing molecules. Pheromones are large molecules that need intimate contact to pass between persons (such as kissing or 'snuggling'), whereas smells are small and volatile molecules that can travel large distances. Pheromones also do not need to 'smell' - if a pheromone goes straight to our brain, it could by-pass our consciousness entirely so the issue is only whether there is a mechanism for doing this. So-called 'nerve zero' allows the possibility of that by-pass.

There is a pheronome detector in the animal brain as it is - a specialised area within the vomeronasal organ which connects to the olfactory bulb in the brain that sorts and makes sense of olfactory inputs but which then routes these to the amygdala (sexual arousal through release of hormones) rather than the olfactory cortex (conscious perception). Pheromones (it is believed) can influence the oestrus cycle, stimulate sexual behaviour and ovulation and even, when it goes wrong, cause abortion. Pheromones from familiar and unfamilar mates can have different effects in this respect.

In 2006, Buck and Liberles (one of whom is a Nobel Laureate) found a new family of receptor proteins [TAARS] on the mouse nose, on the surface of the sense cells that detect pheromones. This, we are told, increases the possibility that mammals, at least, have a separate pheromone pathway. Certainly the mouse pheromones are intimately linked to sexual behaviours. Buck found that humans have the genes to make at least six of the 15 pheromone receptors found in the mice. However, the human vomeronasal organ appears to be vestigial, like gill slits, in humans so if pheromones are travelling to the human brain it is not by that route.

This is where 'nerve zero' may be relevant - its endings are in the nasal cavity (the 'pick up' point) and its nerve fibers reach into those ''hot-button' [Fields again] sex regions of the brain that are concerned with basic reproduction, that release sex hormones and control thirst and hunger, completely by-passing the conssciousness-creating olfactory bulb. The sort of cruel experimentation done by scientists to extend our knowledge - the 'original sin' behind all knowing in this area - has shown that severing 'nerve zero' in hamsters results in a failure to mate. Electrically stimulating the nerve in fish and other animals seems to be related to the triggering of sexual responses. The evidence mounts.

Other research by Fields suggests that nerve zero fibres were stuffed with peptide hormones that led him to conclude that the nerve could even be a neurosecretory organ in its own right, regulating reproduction by releasing hormones. But nerve zero remains a mystery. It is doing something different from analysing smell and it connects to the part of the brain controlling reproduction whilst also releasing a powerful sex hormone into the blood. If its early embryonic pathway is disturbed, the result is a syndrome that leaves the animal unable to mature sexually beyond puberty.

Nor need nerve zero have a solely sexual function since electrical impulses are travelling out from the brain through the nerve with no current understanding of their function, leaving room for some interesting and wholly unscientific speculation about our ability to communicate intimacy beyond immediate consciousness ... could this be love? Fields raises the old free will problem since, if he is right, external stimuli are by-passing consciousness in order to control brain and behaviour.

Psychological experiments seem to indicate that cognitive abilities improve when people smell the sweat of fearful rather than happy people so that the psychological state of one person seems to be able to trigger the cognitive state of another if they are within 'smell' distance. Socially, this suggests that groups can operate at some level like flocks or herds, certainly in states of excitation or danger. Chemical warning signals may be being transferred from person to person at a level well below the consciousness of each.

Women with more pheromone release around their nipples tend to get their children to latch on and gain weight faster than women without such glands - another intriguing example of an instinctive biological operation beyond consciousness. But there is another aspect to the case. It is pretty well established that the mind is selective in choosing inputs from the five senses so that the picture of the world on which we operate is a representation of it but it is not the only possible representation and it is a representation that deliberately excludes large tracts of objective reality in order to allow us to function.

As we have noted in earlier essays, our social reality is a compromise between millions of individual realities where the socialised mind of each individual helps in choosing between sensory inputs, prioritising the inputs into a mental map that starts on the basis of 'prejudice'. To de-socialise the mental map is to re-see the territory. Now we have a sixth instinctual sense to cope with, one that adds intimacy and sexuality to the socialised mind either to subvert it perhaps or to direct it to its own instinctual nature regardless of social norms. This instinct is animal and personal, based on intimate communications with very significant others and on a guardedness about the world beyond.

Universalists and rationalists will hate this. Perhaps they would want this nerve removed. But it is an essential part of who we are and socialisation and failed attempts at 'perfectability' flounder, to our great individual benefit, on the subversion offered by our instinctive desires and our need to flock with those we feel comfortable with. The pheromonal nerve zero may not only mean that love is blind and 'against reason' (which we knew) but that pheromonality represents some higher reason where the mind-body that is more than ego-consciousness is seeking out what is best for it in a world where 'all things are equal'.

Of course, social norms and culture do not permit 'all things to be equal' (this is classic 'alienation' territory) so perhaps this is the dilemma - to have a culture where 'nerve zero' constantly fights for happiness against the acculturation process or one that is adapted to 'nerve zero' and is, thus, happy. Such an integrated culture could be a revolutionary one.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Minds, Placebos & Orgasms ...

Now here's a funny story. There was this woman, see ... and she hadn't had an orgasm in three years, wasn't making love to her husband, got no pleasure from touching herself and had no sexual fantasy life at all.

And, then, suddenly everything changed - orgasm, love-making, pleasure, fantasy. So what miracle drug delivered all this? No drug at all! She was in a blind test for a testosterone patch and she believed that she was getting the drug when, in fact, she wasn't.

The belief was sufficient to shift her from a state of cold sterility to rampant sexuality and pleasure. This is the power of the placebo effect, the simple belief that something is happening when it may not be.

We make what we are from our beliefs but if the mechanical, technological or physical input is not there, then we may still need some input, something that triggers the re-organisation of our mental state in order to make us something different, in order, indeed, to make us happy.

This is perhaps the tragedy of thousands of years of sterile communitarianism. It has removed joy and pleasure for reasons both good and bad in their time but nothing has yet emerged to strip away this nonsense and give us back our bodies, place them under the command of our own free minds.

The mystery is not that the environment, including our culture, can drive hormones but that we continue to believe that hormones cannot be under the command of minds, that we are not the commanders of minds that can command, to a much greater degree than we believed, our hormones.

We can, within reason, will ourselves to happiness and pleasure - and be willed to misery and happiness by powerful cultural forces which we allow to control us at our own peril. Perhaps we can will our destinies and perhaps we can defy the attempt by others to will our destinies for us.

The dessicated cultures of Middle America and the Greater Syrian desert alike both fear sexual imagery because such imagery can trigger our own wilfulness.

To get sexual pleasure requires that we allow ourselves to close down the centres of our brain that make us watchful (if we are males) or thinking and feeling creatures (if we are female).

To be anxious if you are male or to be thinking or feeling too much (as a female) is to create a huge block in our ability to experience sexual pleasure. Anxiety and thought, in particular, dampen desire - worry, defensiveness and inability to communicate compound the problem.

Is this why intellectuals so often have sexual hang-ups?

Nor does desire have to lead to orgasm - sexologists see the erotic and the satisfaction of the erotic as a matter of achieving pleasure at any stage of the sexual cycle. Orgasm does not become iinvariably central to the process. There is an obsession here in our culture with epiphenomena.

As with so much in the post-ideological age, the game is not one of some 'normal' progressive fulfilment of some pre-arranged cycle regulated by the average person's response times but is, instead, a matter of a variation of responses within an almost infinitely variable sexual community.

The evils of Iron Age religiosity and State involvement in sexuality become clearer when one sees how prescribed models for sexual expression result in proscription of anything out of the allegedly normal range, a normal range experienced by no living person precisely because it is an abstract.

So what is desire? As so often we have been lied to in the rational man's determination to simplify and regulate matters. The standard line is that beastly men are triggered by external tactile and visual stimulation and gentle women by 'a richer cognitive and emotional context'. This results in the dangerous courtly myth of the moral superiority of the female.

This becomes a story of women requiring safety and bonding without ever really teasing out what it is that can make anyone, let alone a woman, feel safe and bonded. If a society prescribes particular forms of bonding and norms of safety, then a woman will bend to that social will instead of her own - and so will a man.

Yet scientists seem to have demonstrated (one is always cautious about scientists) that women can just as much be aroused by sexual imagery devoid of emotional connection as can men (according to the 2007 study of Meredith Chivers at the Toronto Center for Addiction and Mental Health). A whole range of visual sexual activity (including that of bonobos)  was shown to men and women and it was the men who differentiated between the type of actor in the sexual drama.

Heterosexual women, it seems, saw their levels of sexual excitement increase with the intensity of the imagery regardless of the type of performer. Hetero women will get excited by men, women and bonobos alike, whereas men are focused wholly on their preferred sexual style (hetero or homo with no interest in bonobo bonking) and only gay women do not 'get' male sexuality.

Women, it seems, are far more flexible than men in their sexual responses - but are they more enslaved to the social? A 'normal' (ouch!) woman may think in terms of security but this may be misdirection ... it may be that social acceptance is of more consequence.

The key point is that orgasm itself is not purely physical - sense inputs construct an orgasm out of a variety of cognitive and emotional responses but where the orgasm ultimately leads in men and women is instructive.

There seem to be neuroscientific observable differences (leaving open whether they have evolved within the species or within the individual through acculturation) between the way sense and emotion are balanced between men and women.

If there is a species-specific element it may be this. Male orgasm reproduces. Female orgasm may have reproductive benefits but seems to have much more to do with the bonding process referred to above. So much, so cliched.

But we need to tease out this bonding because it may be the context for the possibility of orgasm yet not necessarily relate to the experience itself except tangentially. The bonding impulse may be prior to the pleasure principle. And bonding may be disconnected from pleasure.

Female orgasm is possibly more contextually 'social' than male, more contingent on social reality (the conditions for bonding) and far more prone to have its terms of engagement defined by male proprietorial demands or the jealous communitarianism of matriarchal society.

A woman's ability to exercise wilfulness in choosing her own orgasm faces far more pressure from society, patriarchal or matriarchal, gerontocratic or priestly, than does a male's wilfulness. She is far more likely to be an easy victim of the social norm than a male whose discipline is more likely to be externally imposed than internally accepted.

Research has looked at actual brain behaviour in men and women. Neuroscientists at the University of Groningen scanned brains in a state of orgasm. The results were fascinating. The intensity of male response in the ventral tegmental area was so intense as to be likened to the effect of heroin - suggesting to this author (me) that the global drugs problem is little more than a mass cultural response to sexual deprivation. Ejaculation is a just a high that is designed to create babies.

More to be expected, the ejaculating male shifts energy from the watchful centres of the brain where vigilance and anxiety are to be found into those areas where memory, the visual and emotional are located. In short, the male is deeply engaged in his act at the time of the act, almost certainly fantasising to a degree his reality. We have written on the tantric-spiritual impulse elsewhere and there may be some evidence for this in the language of that curious sub-culture.

However, the opposite happens with a woman. At the point of orgasm, it is as if she temporarily ceases to be - most of the brain goes silent in a way that is still clearly not perfectly understood. The signs are that a woman, at that moment, is liberated from tension and inhibition but also from all moral reasoning and social judgement - blanked out as a person, as a socialised thing.  The woman ceases to think, in effect.

The orgasm may be regarded (and this is me, not the scientists) as a dramatic point of liberation from what social reality demands of a woman, from communitarianism, from priests, from mothers, from patriarchs, from the old and the dessicated. How very dangerous for society!

Paradoxically, the bonding (unless in the oxytocin context noted below) is really a complete non-bonding - as if the female's unconscious is saying, "the bond lies in a total loss of fear of you (the sexual partner) and the world". The silence in the brain is almost deafening.

Perhaps this helps to explain the age old mystery of why authority seeks to control sexuality - perhaps the dangerous liberation of that orgasmic moment (from which, as every man knows, a woman may awake as unbonded as bonded) might liberate women from an allotted role in the past designed to hold things together in societies of scarcity.

The constant allusion in (male) literature to the 'fickleness' of women might also well relate to this orgasmic nature because the loss of being in the act does mean that a woman is not addicted to the partner but can look at the partner afresh if the oxytocin has not kicked in. Above all, the essence of the female orgasm is that the removal of fear and anxiety in a woman's mind is very much more central to her than for a man. And that it is not necessarily replaced romantically by 'love' or its cognates.

Instead the woman may have all emotion stripped out from her at the moment of orgasm - a level of almost Buddhist detachment being evidenced by the neuroscience although there is other important evidence that some types of orgasm are connected to a very specific heightened emotional response, linked to oxytocin, that does imply bonding. Again, there are tantric analogies.

Perhaps (the science is as yet unclear) there are 'detached orgasms' and 'bonding orgasms' for women that exist according to circumstance but that the male simply has a 'high orgasm' that leaves him begging for more and his oxytocin comes from the 'cuddle' and the touch and not the fuck.

Much would be explained by this model. Which type of orgasm a woman has or even whether she has one may have surprisingly little to do with the flow of chemicals into the body but a great deal to do with the intimate, community and social conditions in which it takes place. These are ideally ones of trust but also one where there is no fear or anxiety and the woman herself makes all the choices. But one other thought arises - the fear of addiction.

Sex therapists appear to fall into two camps which tell us more about the libertarian and puritan cultural tensions of America than they do about what it is to be human: those who see the erotic and the orgasmic as essential to long term bonding and those who see it as dangerously addictive.

This is a nonsensical dichotomy. The issue should be one of either will to pleasure or a firm decision, based on full facts, that pleasure is not appropriate in such-and-such a situation for rational reasons. For centuries, pleasure has been denigrated but it may be that there are conditions where survival suggests that this negativity has been appropriate.

Yet, all things being equal, there seems to be no rational reason why any person should actively avoid pleasure, with all its other associated bonding and health benefits, out of an irrational acceptance without question of the values of an earlier age or those of the local dominant culture. Above all, the type of 'liberatory' feminism that sees the male as oppressor rather than as a useful tool for that beautiful state of non-being (alongside the more practical matter of providing for a family) is particularly odd.

A society where males get their regular 'hits' and females get to lose anxiety and their duty of care to the world in an explosion of pleasure periodically is actually more likely to end up in long term stable relationships and well balanced children than one where the males are permanently frustrated and the females see only a world of anxious drudgery as the norm.

Neuroscience can make few claims to understand the sociology of sex but the evidence is heading in one direction - the acceptance of pleasure and the elimination of our fear of addiction in favour of a world of life-enhancing natural highs for men and of brief tastes of nirvana for women.

[This essay owes a great deal to neurologist Martin Portner's article in Scientific American on 'The Orgasmic Mind', 2009/2010. The opinions are, however, wholly mine.]