A significant percentage of adults experience strong sexual fantasies.
Scientists have tried to explain human thought patterns by observing brain activity, studying human response to stimuli, and conducting innumerable studies.
This is useful in explaining what’s going on when I try to think of something sexual. But to the best of our knowledge, there are no peer-reviewed studies demonstrating data on how the brain functions during an episode of unintentional sexual fantasy.
And there may never be.
Our brains don’t work like filing cabinets. They’re actually quantum machines capable of processing information across numerous connections (called synapses) simultaneously.
Despite the fact there’s no actual scientific basis for it, the average person tends to think that our neurons fire off in distinct patterns in specific locations that differ depending on what we’re thinking about.
The big idea there would be something like, if you think about your first orgasm it causes your brain to light up in the same place every time. That’s probably not correct though.
That’s an example of “shrug science.” Basically, since scientists in the past have had no feasible way of tracing and codifying neuronal activity at the scale of each individual neuron, everyone sort of tacitly agreed on the simplest explanation.
The Fermi paradox is another example of scientific thought based on nothing more than speculation and pointing out the obvious. It’ll hold up to all scrutiny unless we discover intelligent extraterrestrial life and then it will hold up to none.
In the case of how our brains process neural activity, the theory that specific patterns emerge in exact locations in our network is outdated and no longer applicable.
At least it certainly appears to be, after having read a recent paper from a team of neuroscience researchers at Columbia University in New York.
Dubbed “Representational drift in primary olfactory cortex,” it describes the team’s successful efforts to use AI to figure out what’s going on inside of the brains of lab mice as they’re smelling food.
That probably doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with sexual fantasies, but what the researchers learned is actually quite relevant.
Per the paper:
Although activity in piriform cortex could be used to discriminate between odorants at any moment in time, odour-evoked responses drifted over periods of days to weeks.
That means the scientists were able to identify exactly what the mice were smelling by looking at their brain activity. But the brain activity they looked at happened in different places over time.
When a mouse smells something in June, neurons in specific places light up. If it smells the same thing in July, it remembers the exact same smell but the neurons light up in completely different places.
The difference between a mouse smelling something in June and July, as far as its brain is concerned, is like the difference between smelling an apple and a carrot on the same day!
This is astounding and, if you think about how our sexual fantasies work, it makes total sense.
Some folks might have go-to fantasies they break out whenever they’re trying to get turned on, but according to the researchers, these memories don’t work like files stored in a Windows Explorer folder.
Your brain puts them back together across neurons, but those neurons aren’t in the same place. The march of time has changed everything in the universe, including your brain since you last had that fantasy.
You’re a different person experiencing the fantasy than you were last time, even if you’re not conscious of the changes to your brain’s neural makeup.
This could explain why seemingly random sexual fantasies pop into our heads, why straight people sometimes claim they can’t help but have homosexual fantasies, and maybe even why some of us crave variety and exploration no matter how satisfying our sex lives are.
Tristan is a science and technology journalist who values life, humanity, and taco soup. He/him