February 7, 2012

Book review by Christiana von Hippel: Dirty Minds

Monogamous prairie voles, cheeseburgers, and the body's largest sex organ await in Christiana von Hippel's review of Dirty Minds

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Dirty Minds… you are not alone if, when picking up this book for the first time, your curiosity was titillated by the possibility of all the steamy insights into sex that a book with this title might unveil. I thought the same thing. But believe me, this book holds the answers to even better questions you may never have thought to ask about more than sex: How difficult is it to orgasm in an fMRI machine? Why are bad boys so attractive on a neurochemical level? Does sexual orientation have a neurological basis? Is maternal love really that different from partner love? What do prairie voles and monkeys have to do with it? The brain is an intricate organ and these are tough questions to answer. But Kayt Sukel, a science writer, manages to stitch together the current science with age-old wisdom to provide us with a seamless explanation of the brain’s influence on human attachment, and you don’t have to be a scientist to understand. So you will not be disappointed when you discover that in this case, “dirty” means complex.

In part, what makes neuroscience so complex is the emerging research trend of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of the myriad ways in which environmental cues may affect how our genes express themselves. For Sukel, it may have been the cheeseburgers that her mother ate while carrying her in utero that influenced her own eating habits as an adult, or her great maternal love for her own son, or even her partner love that fizzled out as an adult. It could be that our parents’ behavior when we are young molds our brain development, shaping how we eat and how we love when we become adults. Or maybe cheeseburgers are just cheeseburgers. But the question indicates the need for continued research.

You may have heard that the brain is a human’s largest sex organ. And according to Sukel, it is. Whether you have studied neuroscience or not, the crash course provided in the first chapters of this book proves a helpful reminder of all the components that play a role in how humans feel and perceive love in all of its forms. Most important are the neurotransmitters. The presence or absence of vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine and a few other select neurochemicals alter whom we love, for how long, and to what extent. Observational and experimental research on the mating and parenting of monogamous prairie voles and seductive monkeys under the influence of these neurotransmitters lends greater understanding to humans’  variability of commitment partners (as compared to the consistent strength of maternal love).

This is not a self-help book with instructions on how to get, maintain, or keep love, but rather a look into why, how, and in what ways we love. Sukel leads us down the winding pathways of our neurons, as well as our American roadways, to explore the current trends in the study of neuroscience. Whether near to home here at Indiana University, or far away at South Korea’s Catholic University, or anywhere in between, Sukel permits us to remain seated in the comfort of our chair as she takes us along with her on a global tour of academia. What she discovers may not be new to scientists and sex researchers. But she writes in a way compelling enough to challenge even the most well-versed on what they think they know about how it all fits together.

Sukel’s book does run into the pitfall inherent in any science text: She attempts to act as an all-encompassing resource, which is impossible given the constant state of flux and innovation characteristic of the scientific field. There is a singular rough chapter which tiptoes around the current politics of the sexual orientation debate, in an effort to lay out the scientific facts without emotion. But it is not for her to explain the intricacies of sexuality; at least not in this volume. So do relish this unprecedented tour of what we know about the brain today with the neuroscientist’s essential disclaimer in mind: that all may change and develop tomorrow.

Christiana von Hippel is an M.P.H. student in Behavioral, Social and Community Health at Indiana University. With her research, she aims to help advance sexual health communication and public health practice in the United States.