Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, Resolution

by Jason Tougaw

I’ve been enjoying the “asap Science” videos, YouTube’s “weekly dose of fun and interesting science.” They’re brisk, brightly colored, fact-filled tours on topics like the power of music, the creation of pearls, or the physiology of orgasm.

I’m curious about the making of the videos. Somebody’s doing some serious homework, which must involve sifting through dozens, if not hundreds, of scientific studies to find the bright and shiny facts. In the process, though, the videos replicate an all-too-common tendency of science education: display the facts and erase the wonder and complexity that drives real scientists pursuing those facts in real labs.

There’s a back story to every fact. Take a few from this video: orgasms average 3 to 10 seconds for men, 20 seconds for women; fMRI scans show 30 “discrete regions” of the brain active during orgasm; the brain chemicals dopamine (“feel good”) and oxytocin (“bonding”) involved; PET scans show that brain activity associated with reason, control, self-evaluation, fear, and anxiety are dampened “shut off”; trancelike states ensue in women, but not necessarily in men, at least according to brain scans; men’s orgasms, it seems, are so quick that it’s difficult to see what their brains are doing.

I want to know more. I wish the folks behind “asap Science” would include “behind the scenes” videos, pointing us to some of the more interesting studies on oxytocin and love or the difficulties of scanning men’s brains during orgasm, or women’s orgasmic trances.

I’ll give you one admittedly idiosycnratic example that just happened to resonate with my own experience. “The Science of Orgasm,” begins with a diagram that reminds me of Aristotle’s famous description of plot structure–a diagram seared into my consciousness as a college English major in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

High school students have been introduced to Aristotle's description of plot with diagrams like this for decades, if not centuries.

The story of an orgasm–Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, Resolution–follows the same trajectory as Aristotle’s story of everything: Exposition, Rising Action, Conflict, Climax, Denouement, Resolution. I remember learning to pronounce denouement in English class, feeling like the word was a secret pass to a literary club I was foaming at the mouth to join. I didn’t know then that there was actually a debate among literary critics about the analogy between plot and orgasm. Narrative theorist Robert Scholes, among others, proposed that “the archetype for all fiction is the sexual act” (in an essay entitled “The Orgastic Pattern of Fiction”). Of course, it’s usually a bad idea to make statements about “all fiction” or all anything, really. The literary scholars in the room will know that feminist critic Susan Winnett objected to Scholes account of fiction, suggesting that it described only certain kinds of orgasms–men’s–and certain kinds of conventional fiction modeled on the quick release and retreat of male pleasure. This is a long way of saying that it’s not surprising that asap Science‘s account of the orgasm looks so much like Aristotle’s account of plot.

To compile these facts into 2 minutes and 44 seconds of entertaining educational video, the producers had to do their research. If they did it well, they’d have traced the facts to dozens, if not hundreds, of scientific articles. Many of these articles would offer a more complex picture of the “facts” shared in the videos. For example, the video informs us that various brain areas are “shut off” during orgasm. Does this mean they are not active at all? Surely not. What’s happening in them? What might the shorthand “shut off” really mean? A “behind the scenes” video might point us to sources–from an article in Nature to an episode of Radiolab–that could tell us mores.

According to the video, the back story of an orgasm’s plot is arousal, which stimulates blood flow to the genitals and increased heart rate.  Arousal is a state of consciousness whose manifold causes and effects surely elude current brain scanning technologies. I’d love to know what research has been done on orgasm’s back story.

To cut a long story short: “asap Science,” I love you, but you can do better. Richard Feynman, I’d imagine, would think you could do better. In his famous lecture, “The Value of Science,” he suggests that wonder and doubt go hand in hand:

I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvellous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us to be stuck — half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea. . . . It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

If you’d like to read a modest proposal on revamping science education to emphasize the wonder and doubt inevitably wedded to the facts, check out Thomas Martin’s “Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse” (published in SEED magazine).




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