Media Alert! The Brain Loves Optimal Waist-to-Hip Ratios

LOS ANGELES—Earth to research scientists. Just because the brain produces chemicals when it is stimulated by images or thoughts it finds pleasurable does not mean that pornography is therefore the equivalent of crack. While it may be a neat syllogism that conveniently conforms to a certain world view, the suggestion is arguable at best, dangerous at worst.

Unfortunately, media headlines are taking the idea and running with it. Case in point is Fox News, whose headline—“Hourglass Figures Affect Men's Brains Like a Drug”—makes the claim, and whose lead completes the circle. “Watching a curvaceous woman can feel like a reward in the brain of men, much as drinking alcohol or taking drugs might, research now reveals,” Fox says. “These new findings might help explain the preoccupation men can have toward pornography, scientists added.”

The latest revelations are the result of a recent study conducted by Steven M. Platek, a researcher with the Department of Psychology, Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, and Devendra Singh, a researcher with the Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin.

The study—“Optimal Waist-to-Hip Ratios in Women Activate Neural Reward Centers in Men”—used MRI scans to determine the effect on 14 men aged about 25 years of age who were “scanned while making attractiveness ratings to randomly and individually presented pictures (one from the rear and one from an oblique rear position for each woman) of seven naked female bodies prior to and after recovery from an elective cosmetic surgical procedure to reconfigure and optimize WHR (waist-to-hip-ratio).”

The researchers found that, “Changes associated with cosmetic surgery (aimed at optimizing female WHR) have specific effects on men's OFC (orbital frontal cortex), an area of the brain that is associated with evaluations of rewards.”

In follow up interviews, Platek also has made a connection between his study and the controversial issue of sexual or pornography addiction, which some groups are using to further the argument that pornography, like some drugs, is so inherently addictive that it should be regulated by the government or legally prohibited altogether.

'These findings could help further our understanding [of] pornography addiction and related disorders, such as erectile dysfunction in the absence of pornography,” he said. “The findings could also lend to the scientific inquiry about sexual infidelity.”

The problem, according to psychologist and family counselor Marty Klein, is that there is no clear understating within the therapy community that sexual, internet or pornography addiction actually exists. According to Klein, the sexual, relationship, pornography or internet issues that many people are facing—and which many therapists are attempting to address—are really monogamy issues. The media, he adds, does not help matters.

“The misuse of studies in this way is an old problem,” he told AVN. “I remember a tiny little study 35 years ago which USA Today picked up, with the headline, ‘Men Reach Sexual Peak at 18, Women at 35.’ Therapists and patients have been quoting it ever since."

"The term 'neural reward' is a fancy way of saying that our brain enjoys what it enjoys," he continued, referring to the study. "A pretty flower, a pretty touchdown pass and a pretty vulva all do it for me. Your preference might be chocolate, reality TV and Leviticus. The idea that we could be addicted to our own hormones is like saying exercise is bad for us because we become too dependent on our muscles to lift things.

“Of course we're addicted to our own hormones, and also to the rest of our physiological processes,” he added. “We like the feeling of fullness after we eat. We like taking a deep breath at the sea. We like the feeling of emptiness after a long-delayed pee. It’s just crazy to think we're victims of our own hormones, but lay people love the idea.”

It isn’t just lay people who are making the argument that pornography addiction actually exists, however, as evidenced by Platek comments as well as many others in the therapy industry. Klein is surprised by none of it.

“People are still trying desperately to blame porn for taking men away from allegedly enjoyable sexual relationships,” he told AVN. “But what people don't want to look at is the possibility that monogamy is inherently flawed (remember, it's never, ever worked on a long-term basis in any human society ever known), and that many adult men aren't choosing between exciting, nourishing sex and porn.

“Rather,” he continued, “many men are choosing between partner sex that's boring, aggravating, emotionally expensive or missing and a form of sexual expression that is easy, rewarding, varied and validating (i.e., porn). Under this condition, does the porn choice seem so bizarre that it demands an alternative explanation (e.g., neural rewards, satanic temptation, etc.)?”

Not to us, it doesn’t.