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What Turns You On? 10 Fascinating Facts About Sexual Attraction

Your brain is reacting to stimuli and sending out signals that you may not even be aware of.
 
 
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"Turn-ons: The color green and sports cars. Turn-offs: Women drivers.” 

Those were the stated turn-ons and turn-offs for Linda Gamble, Playboy’s Playmate of the Year, 1961. Oh, how we love turn-ons and turn-offs -- as much a must-read as the centerfold was a must-see. It was fun to wonder how you would answer the question, and to wonder what constitutes a turn-on or a turn-off, anyway? People’s likes and dislikes are marvelously capricious, but when it comes to actual sexual turn-ons or attractions, your brain is reacting to stimuli and sending out signals that you might not be aware of, shaping your reactions and choices. From certain sounds to actual physical changes that could alter your sexual self in bizarre ways, here are 10 ways your brain might be controlling the on/off switch for your attractions.

1. Get your motor running.

“You and that car. It was like Love Story. You got it and you loved it and it died.”

That’s what my friend Bob said about the used Mercedes I bought for a song in the '90s, a car that spent more time with the mechanic than with me. The car’s engine had a distinctive sound, and to this day when I hear one like it my entire system perks up.

That’s why I’m not terrifically surprised by the stereotype-confirming study by Hiscox (no joke), a British insurance company reporting that the testosterone in women’s saliva rises when they hear the sound of a sports car. (Testosterone is an important hormone for female sexual arousal, although most of us associate it with men, who produce 20 times more of it.) 

Keith Barry of Wired reported in 2008 that psychologist David Moxon had men and women listen to the sounds of four cars -- a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Maserati, and an economical compact, a Volkswagon Polo -- and then tested their saliva afterward. Testosterone went up in both men and women after listening to the sports cars, “but the amount women had was off the charts,” Barry wrote. Even women who weren’t into cars had the same reaction.

By contrast, after listening to the Polo testosterone in all groups dropped. 

What? Vroom-vroom is sexier than a down-to-earth consideration of fuel economy? Make of it what you will. I’m going to take a moment to listen to this Mercedes engine and dream of what might have been. 

2. Right on the left.

We probably listen to the sound of sports cars with both ears, but when it comes to whispering sweet somethings it might be advantageous to lovers to try to get around to one ear specifically: the left one. A study from Sam Houston University found that the left ear is better at picking up emotional words than the right. Sixty-two men and women listened to some emotional words (“loving”) and some neutral words (“combine”) read in a voice devoid of emotion, with the words presented to the left or right ear. In an abstract on MITCogNet, study authors T.C. Sim and Carolyn Martinez write, “When emotion stimuli appeared on the left ear, the accuracy of recall was higher, with a mean of 64.43% and 58.15% for the right ear. Our study shows that in the face of competing verbal information, emotional words compete more strongly when they are presented through the left ear.”

An NIH abstract on the study notes that the “findings are consistent with the role of the right hemisphere in the perception of emotional information.” 

So, “I love you,” might have stronger impact whispered in the left ear. Anyone else trying to remember which side of the bed you sleep on and wondering how to sneakily switch places? 

3. Why the piece of pie in the glass case looks better than the one you’re eating.

Whichever ear your partner whispers those words of love into, the fact is, he does it. He's attentive, attractive (play along here) and always there for you. You’re a lucky duck…and yet…there’s a particular co-worker, one you’d swear is flirting with you, whose shirt is just tight enough to present the outline of a little fantasy, who only pops into your part of the office occasionally. You know it’s not right, but your mind wanders off to that person time and time again, like someone on Silver Alert who can’t remember where home is. 

Cheer up, dummy! There might be a reasonable explanation that someone barely there has your rapt attention. Richard A. Friedman wrote in the New York Times about a brain scan study from 2001 by psychiatrist Gregory Berns that may explain why some people respond to elusive promise rather than constancy. Subjects getting MRI brain scans were given fruit juice and water, but in one part of the study those rewards came every 10 seconds while in the other they came randomly. Berns found the rewards centers of the brain were more highly activated when the rewards came at unpredictable times than when they came on schedule. This reaction was the same for both rewards, juice or water, even if a patient said she preferred one or the other. 

Friedman writes that these reward circuits, when activated, “tells the brain something like 'Pay attention and remember this experience because it’s important.' This circuit releases dopamine when stimulated, which, if it reaches a critical level, conveys a sense of pleasure.” Our reward circuits, Friedman writes, "have evolved over millions of years to aid our survival; new stimuli hold the promise of telling us things we don’t know from which we could benefit.”

From my purely observational standpoint it makes sense that the novel experience would excite the brain to pay attention because it might not come back, whereas something that is always there can always be attended to…kind of the way you listen to breaking news but when you’re watching something that’s been sitting in your DVR since July you know you can get up and wash the dishes because it's not going anywhere.

4. Show us your tips!

Wanting something elusive that you can’t necessarily have is the essence of many types of entertainment, and the lap dancer is right up there; there’s a reason it's called a strip tease

In their book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction, authors Brian Alexander and Larry Young detail the work of psychologist Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico who “tracked stripper income across ovulatory cycles.” The results show that our drawing power is highest when we’re fertile. The strippers who got the most tips were the ones at or near ovulation. From the book:

The effect Miller discovered wasn't small or subtle; he calls it "shocking...." When the strippers Miller chronicled were in estrus, they made about $354 per five-hour shift. Anestrous women made about $264 -- a difference of $90. Menstruation cut dancers' earnings in half. The difference can't be attributed to one woman's attractiveness over another's, or to fashion choices, because the research took place over two months. The estrous and anestrous women are the same women, documented at different points in time….”

But how would the men know the women were ovulating? They didn’t -- consciously.

“When men have been exposed to odor samples taken from women at or near ovulation, they, like their monkey cousins, show a spike in testosterone, compared with men who sample odors taken from women who aren't ovulating. The close contact required for conversation in a noisy club might be giving the men olfactory hints.”

Alexander and Young go on to say that Miller thinks other factors enter this hotter-in-heat picture, including subtle changes in women’s voices, body shape and facial attractiveness as well as her body confidence and even “higher verbal fluency and creativity."

Anyone else just think of an ad pitch for ovulation predictor kits? 

5. Whither boobies?

Okay, that doesn’t sound terrifically attractive, but since we’re talking strippers, it’s a good question: why are many straight men breast-obsessed?

A good enough answer would seem to be, why not? Breasts are beautiful, often fairly visible (depending on the outfit) and more fun than a room full of puppies, right? But it’s that “fun” part one researcher thinks might hold a chemical key to men’s fixation on breasts in a sexual context. 

Larry Young, whom we met in the previous item, spoke to Natalie Wolchover atLife’s Little Mysteries about why women are forever having to say, “Hey, my eyes are up here." When women breastfeed they release the hormone oxytocin, helping them to bond with their babies. Also, nipple stimulation has been shown to be a serious source of sexual stimulation. Wolchover writes, “When a sexual partner touches, massages or nibbles a woman’s breasts, Young said, this triggers the release of oxytocin in the woman’s brain, just like what happens when a baby nurses. But in this context, the oxytocin focuses the woman’s attention on her sexual partner, strengthening her desire to bond with this person.” 

Young told Wolchover, “Evolution has selected for this brain organization in men that makes them attracted to the breasts in a sexual context, because the outcome is that it activates the female bonding circuit, making women feel more bonded with him. It’s a behavior that males have evolved in order to stimulate the female’s maternal bonding circuitry.”  

It makes an intuitive kind of sense: men like breasts because breast stimulation makes women feel hot and bonded. Breasts make most men happy, because the fact that breasts make most men happy, makes most women happy. Happy?

6. Sniffin’ the tears.

So we know a few things that turn men on. What turns men off? Crying. It’s a weiner wilter. 

Researchers at the Weizman Institute in Israel set out to study the effect of tears on people, expecting to find empathy and sadness. Nope! The New York Times reports that the scent of women’s tears -- applied to pads under men's noses to “approximate a hug with a teary woman” -- didn’t effect male empathy, but it made them decidedly less horny. The effect was observable through lowered testosterone levels, skin responses, self-reporting and brain images. It didn’t happen when men sniffed saline that had been dribbled down a woman’s face instead of real tears. 

Why crying has this effect on men is uncertain, but it would seem to work out fairly well, since if you’re crying you’re probably not in the mood for sex -- unless you’re crying about the fact that you never have sex anymore. 

7. The things we smell for love.

To further explore the area of scent, consider our grooming process, which is essentially an exercise in body odor eradication: scented soaps, deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, perfumes and colognes serve to make sure Eau de You will never come to anyone’s attention.

That’s a lot of money spent covering up something that could be the key to romance.

We may think that only animals sniff around one another, but humans sense by scent, too, sending and receive subtle chemical signals and possibly finding ourselves a good biological match in the process. Our nose for MHC -- major histocompatability complex, or the “sequence of more than 100 immune system genes” writes Elizabeth Svoboda in Psychology Today -- could lead us to, or away from, a potential mate, even more quickly than getting a look at their DVD collection.  

Svoboda writes about a study by Claus Wedekind of the University of Laussane in Switzerland in which 49 women were asked to sample sniff clean T-shirts that had been worn by men two nights in a row, thus imbuing them with the men’s distinctive odor (the men were supplied with unscented soap and aftershave). Asked to rate the scent of the T-shirts, the women far and away preferred the T-shirts of men who were “immunologically disimilar” to them, which makes sense as the combination of two different MHC profiles would produce more resistant offspring.

See? You spend all kinds of time and money on gyms, clothing and hair color and all you really needed was already seeping out of your pores. 

The upside is there’s no one out there setting a standard, or, “There’s no Brad Pitt of smell,” as psychologist Rachel Herz put it, so if you can stink you’re in with a chance. And everyone can stink. 

8. Melodies of love.

It’s not exactly news that music and love go together -- or music and any emotion, for that matter. But only recently has science pinpointed exactly what it is about music that makes it soothe the savage breast…or at least makes you frisky.

ABC News reports that researchers at McGill University in Toronto did PET scans and MRIs on eight participants, age 19-24, while they were listening to self-chosen “chill-inducing” music, and found that while dopamine was present in the brain during the music it spiked up to 9% around the “chilling” passages. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter directly associated with pleasures like eating...and sex.

So while it’s long been obvious that a little well-placed music is as good as a little well-placed smooch, now we know just what chemical it is that makes it so. In fact, in a study commissioned by Spotify on 18- to 91-year-olds in the UK on the relationship between music and romance, 40% said the background music would be a more likely turn-on than their partner’s touch. 

If any of their partners knew they responded that way you have to wonder how long it would be before the respondents were alone with their music (at last!).  

9. You know how you like to masturbate in public? 

 Well, of course you don’t, for God’s sake. Your social skills aren’t that bad. But people with the rare impairment Kluver-Bucy syndrome suddenly find themselves doing things like that and much worse. Kluver-Bucy is the result of damage to both anterior temporal lobes of the brain.

Altered sexual behavior is not the only symptom, as science journalist Jesse Bering writes in Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? Kluver-Bucy sufferers experience all kinds of alterations including appetite changes, diminished fear responses, memory loss, dementia, and inability to recognize objects. But the sexual change can be pretty severe and scary; Bering describes one female sufferer as masturbating in public and soliciting family members for sex. So while we’ve talked about the normal brain’s response to stimuli -- releasing testosterone or dopamine, etc. -- this is a case of a physical change in the brain making a behavioral change in the person.

If this story doesn’t get you to wear a helmet, wear your seatbelt or otherwise protect your coconut, I don’t know what will. 

10. Whatcha gonna do? 

Finally, your brain does a lot of things in the present associated with sex, but can it actually predict anything about your sexual future?

Actually it can.

Holly Parker, a lecturer on psychology at Harvard University notes in an email that a study at Dartmouth "found that the extent to which a person’s brain (specifically the nucleus accumbens) perceives sexual pictures as rewarding predicts their sexual behavior six months later.”

Dartmouth Now reports that researchers in the 2012 study got a pretty novel thing going in using brain scans to predict actual behavior. Female participants viewed various images while researchers targeted the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain’s rewards center. The images included food, erotic imagery, environmental scenes, people and animals. Six months later the subjects responded to questionnaires and their responses were compared to earlier responses and brain scan data.

Sure enough, those who had responded strongly in the brain scans to food images had gained weight, and, says Kathryn Demos, “Just as cue reactivity to food images was investigated as potential predictors of weight gain, cue reactivity to sexual images was used to predict sexual desire.” The people who responded to food images gained weight, but didn’t engage in more sex and vice versa.

This research may help people trying to curb compulsive or impulsive behaviors in the future, Parker writes, because as the Dartmouth researchers explain, “when we are exposed to images, situations, people, or objects that are related to something we find rewarding (e.g., food, sex, smoking, alcohol, etc.), this activates the representation of the reward and stimulates our brain to envision how to obtain that reward. The challenge is that sometimes we encounter something that reminds us of a reward and we don’t even consciously realize it, but our brain is thinking of the reward and subconsciously figuring out how to work to get it.”

So the whole time you’re thinking about resisting that cookie, your brain is thinking about how to get the cookie. Replace “cookie” with “nookie” for our purposes in this story.

To let the doctor continue…

“This is why people sometimes feel a craving or urge that comes on suddenly, seemingly out of nowehere. The authors also noted that although the prefontal cortex does a good job of controlling behavior and helping people to resist these cravings, the prefrontal cortex does not do as good a job helping people regulate their behavior when they’re stressed.”

If the sex you’re having when you’re stressed is safe and emotionally healthy, no worries, but if not, Parker says it’s a good idea to “create a stress management plan. On second thought, create a stress management plan regardless -- it’s good for everyone.”

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.

 
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