The Science of Sexual Connection



Is there a science to getting it on? Italian neuroscientist Giovanni Frazzetto has studied human intimacy at length, from marital bonds to online hook-ups. The writer of Joy, Guilt, Anger and Love will be among the featured speakers at this year’s PINC Conference in Sarasota on December 8. SRQ spoke with him in advance of his visit to the Gulf Coast.

Why do humans place a different sort of emotional attachment on sexual intimacy than we seem to otherwise see in nature? Frazzetto: It is common to separate body and mind, and sexual instinct from a feeling of attachment, but sex, even when casual, is not just one or the other. Experiments have shown that erotic desire not only involves the primal functioning of the limbic system (an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain that governs basic instincts and rewards), but also a certain degree of higher cognitive processing in the brain cortex. Our rationality adds a layer of complexity to the way we go about sex. Our sexual intimacy emerges from fears, needs and yearnings that are rooted in our biographies as well as cultural and societal customs.

What are the most immediate desires that drive people to seek personal intimacy? As a species, we are inclined to connect. If deprived of meaningful relationships, we will suffer from the ensuing solitude, especially if prolonged and our health, both physical and mental, will deteriorate. From the need to be touched to the need to communicate and express ourselves and how we feel, we aspire to belonging and to being understood.

How does the personal connection between individuals end up shaping society as a whole? Behavior is contagious. Attitudes propagate and we can adopt habits or features that we observe in others. Portrayals of relationships in art as well as media also contribute to shaping an image of what it means to connect today and to the legitimization of certain standards of behavior. For instance, today’s fear of commitment and inflation of partner choice in the dating scene contributes to a widespread avoidance of intimacy. If we individually practiced more compassion, forgiveness, openness and respect, we would see more of these virtues in society. 

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