Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Understanding Sex, or just filming a unique perspective

Pornography or porn is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter. Pornography may use a variety of media, including books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, and video games. The term applies to the depiction of the act rather than the act itself, and so does not include live exhibitions like sex shows and striptease. A pornographic model poses for still photographs. A pornographic actor or porn star performs in pornographic films. If dramatic skills are not involved, a performer in porn films may be also be called a model.

In the world of science Dr Pek Van Andel's MRI sex video has thrust its way into an argument that periodically convulses the public and the courts. The video shows the first moving images of a couple's sex organs while those organs were in use. It gives graphic new life to a question as old as sin: what is pornography? Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1964 US supreme court decision that defining which materials are pornographic is hard, but recognizing them is easy. Quoth the justice: "I know it when I see it."
Van Andel made the video in the late 1990s, but kept pretty quiet about it for a decade. He instigated and orchestrated the entire project at a hospital in Groningen, the Netherlands. He and three colleagues published a monograph in 1999, in the British Medical Journal. (Two co-authors, Ida Sabelis and Eduard Mooyaart, themselves engaged in intercourse in the MRI tube. Several other couples also contributed their all to the project.) A year later, the entire team was awarded an Ig Nobel prize.

Called Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal, the study includes two copies of an MRI midsagittal image of "the anatomy of sexual intercourse". In the second copy, labels and hand-drawn outlines identify the bits that are of medical significance ("P=penis, Ur=urethra, Pe=perineum, U=uterus, S=symphysis, B=bladder, I=intestine, L5=lumbar 5, Sc=scrotum"). Unknown to almost everyone, Van Andel asked the MRI technician to gather all the static images and assemble them together into a motion picture. The result: the 21st century's greatest challenge to easy assumptions about porn.
Looking beyond the skin in the act of sexual intercourse, seems to interest not only the biologists but also neuroscientists. Professor Barry Komisaruk, a psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and his team hope to uncover what goes wrong in both men and women who cannot reach sexual climax.

Using brain scan images to create the world's first movie of the female brain as it approaches, experiences and recovers from an orgasm. The animation reveals the steady buildup of activity in the brain as disparate regions flicker into life and then come together in a crescendo of activity before gently settling back down again. To make the animation, researchers monitored a woman's brain as she lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and stimulated herself. The research will help scientists to understand how the brain conducts the symphony of activity that leads to sexual climax in a woman. The animation was compiled from sequential brain scans of Nan Wise, a 54-year-old PhD student and sex therapist in Komisaruk's lab.
The five-minute movie shows how activity changes across 80 separate regions of the brain in snapshots taken every two seconds. The animation uses a "hot metal" colour scale that begins at dark red and progresses through orange and yellow to white at the highest levels of activity. "The general aim of this research is to understand how the orgasm builds up from genital stimulation and what parts of the brain become recruited and finally build up into an orgasm," said Prof Komisaruk, who presented the work at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC on Monday. The work has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

 As the animation plays, activity first builds up in the genital area of the sensory cortex, a response to being touched in that region. Activity then spreads to the limbic system, a collection of brain structures involved in emotions and long-term memory. As the orgasm arrives, activity shoots up in two parts of the brain called the cerebellum and the frontal cortex, perhaps because of greater muscle tension. During orgasm, activity reaches a peak in the hypothalamus, which releases a chemical called
oxytocin that causes pleasurable sensations and stimulates the uterus to contract.

Activity also peaks in the nucleus accumbens, an area linked to reward and pleasure. After orgasm, the activity in all these regions gradually calms down.Komisaruk speculates that people might be able to learn how to change their brain activity, a feat that could perhaps help treat a broad range of conditions, such as anxiety, depression and pain. "We're using orgasm as a way of producing pleasure. If we can learn how to activate the pleasure regions of the brain then that could have wider applications," he said.

1 comment:

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