The Frontal Cortex

Porn and Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a classic illustration of a scientific idea that’s so elegant and intriguing our theories get ahead of the facts. They’re an anatomical quirk rumored to solve so many different cognitive problems that one almost has to be suspicious: how can the same relatively minor network of motor neurons be responsible for tool use, empathy, language and be a core feature of autism?

I’m not saying that mirror neurons don’t have the potential to be an astonishingly cool cortical feature, especially when it comes to the intuitive understanding of physical actions. But I have yet to be even close to convinced that they will do “for psychology what DNA did for biology: provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.” For one thing, mirror neurons have been most convincingly studied in monkeys, which makes them an unlikely candidate to explain a host of uniquely human talents.

That said, I do think there’s good initial evidence that mirror neurons play an important role in helping us decipher the meaning of another person’s movements. Consider porn, which is a very big business. (I first wrote about the neuroscience of porn a long time ago, but I think it’s worth repeating some of that post, since porn is such a perdurable feature of civilized life.) When you include Internet Web sites, porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, phone sex, and magazines, the porn business is estimated to total between $10 billion and $14 billion annually. As Frank Rich has noted, “People spend more money for pornography in America in a year than they do on movie tickets, more than they do on all the performing arts combined.” Sex sites are estimated to account for up to thirty percent of all Internet traffic.

But how does porn work? Why do humans (especially men) get so excited by seeing someone else have sex? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching porn triggers an idea (we start thinking about sex), which then triggers a change in our behavior (we become sexually aroused). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Porn is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work.

But this straightforward answer is probably wrong. Porn does not cause us to think about sex. Rather, porn causes to think we are having sex. From the perspective of the brain, the act of arousal is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via the television or computer screen. The act itself is the idea. In other words, porn works by convincing us that we are not watching porn. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.

Mirror neurons facilitate this process by allowing the brain to automatically imitate the actions of somebody else. So if I see you smile, or lick an ice cream cone, or do something X-rated, then my mirror neurons light up as if I were smiling, or licking an ice cream cone, or doing something X-rated. We mirror each others movements, which allows us to make sense of all these flailing limbs and contorted muscles; the body is a pretty tough thing to read.

Obviously, this is all just idle speculation. Nobody has shown monkeys some primate sex tapes and recorded from their mirror neurons. (Sounds like a fun experiment to me!) But there is one paper, published in Neuroimage, that looked at the neuroanatomy of porn. The researchers flashed images of aroused genitalia to both men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. As expected, brain activity correlated with sexual preference: the minds of homosexual men mirrored the minds of heterosexual women, and vice-versa. But what was really interesting was the pattern of activation itself. When subjects looked at porn in the fMRI machine (not a very erotic place), “the ventral premotor cortex which is a key structure for imitative (mirror neurons) and tool-related (canonical neurons) actions showed a bilateral sexual preference-specific activation, suggesting that viewing sexually aroused genitals of the preferred sex triggers action representations of sexual behavior.” In other words, looking at still pictures of naked people triggered our mirror neurons into action, as the brain began pretending that it was actually having sex, and not just looking at smutty pictures in a science lab.

Obviously, a similar logic can be applied to a range of other actions that people love to watch, such as sports, which I’ve written about here.

Comments

  1. #1 Bruce
    August 24, 2009

    Thanks for the post. It’s seemed fairly obvious since I first learned of mirror neurons that porn has to work through an imitative mechanism, but I’ve seem little if any discussion of it. If a theory of mind were the explanation, then we ought to see pornographic stories and novels thriving, rather than literal media like photos and videos. Don’t believe that’s the case.

    By the way, this headline should increase the hits on your blog. My money’s on 2x at least.

  2. #2 royniles
    August 24, 2009

    Perhaps this will lead to therapeutic porn sites, the legitimacy of which could result in much better performances all around.

  3. #3 Pierce R. Butler
    August 24, 2009

    There is a major gender difference in reactions to porn.

    Is there a comparable difference in mirror neurons?

    If not, where do we send cards and flowers for this hypothesis’s memorial service?

  4. #4 Mariposa Blanca
    August 24, 2009

    Great discussion! Thanks for an intelligent perspective to contemplate.

  5. #5 QoB
    August 24, 2009

    Any female-male difference in response to porn, if it exists, could be due to the type of porn. As the post says, people enjoy porn because “porn causes to think we are having sex. …. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.” Most porn is produced with the heterosexual man in mind i.e.: with the camera’s focus on the women; no wonder that it wouldn’t have the same effect on straight women as straight men. Anecdotally, I know a lot of women who prefer watching gay porn. Not time to declare the hypothesis dead just yet.

  6. #6 Jordi
    August 24, 2009

    I’m a little fuzzy on how the mirror neurons are supposed to work, but aren’t they supposed to mirror the behavior we see? It would seem then, that in order for straight men to think they are having sex when watching porn, they would have to view men having sex with women. Since a women’s sexual behavior is different, it should not trigger as many mirror neurons to become active. How then do we explain that many men find it arousing to watch naked women alone or in lesbian action, even more so than watching another men have sex with a woman even though that more closely resembles what the porn-watching man would do if he were actually having sex?

  7. #7 Xenia
    August 24, 2009

    I agree with Jordi. The canonical Theory that the mirror neuron mechanism workes by activating the same sensory-motor neurons in the observer that should be active in the observed individual based on the exhibited behavior of this individual seems questionable. The data supports Pierre Jacob’s claim that mirror neurons are not involved in mirroring processes but instead activate more abstract concepts or meanings associated with observed and performed behavior.

  8. #8 William
    August 24, 2009

    with the camera’s focus on the women; no wonder that it wouldn’t have the same effect on straight women as straight men.

    If there was as high a demand for female-oriented porn, there would probably already be a comparable supply to male-oriented porn – the porn industry is too large and profitable to have overlooked such a market.

  9. #9 royniles
    August 24, 2009

    Mirror neurons basically allow you to put yourself in another’s place, assessing by their actions what they may be feeling and planning, especially as it might relate to your own feelings and plans. Men will try to “mirror” feelings of women as much or even more than that of other men, depending on the situation. And presumably vice versa.

  10. #10 Jeff Knapp
    August 25, 2009

    I actually work in the porn industry as a video editor. It is my job to “sculpt” the raw footage (often not that sexy) into what feels like a spontaneous, natural, sexual encounter between two (or more) adults who are attracted to each other. (Note my use of the word “feel” here.) My degree of success is better in some cases than others (quality of the shot footage varies quite a bit). To do this, I need to be keenly aware of natural human sexual rhythms and timings – starting out slow and build to a climax over the ten to twenty minutes the sex scene runs. Interestingly, shorter sex scenes are often much better and more gratifying than are the longer ones. Ten minutes does seem to be a magic number. (I would love to see some research into this.)

    I agree very much with the notion that one is having sex by proxy when watching porn. That certainly is how I experience it and it is the assumption I make when editing the sex scenes. This discovery of mirror neurons, to me, seems to explain a lot of what I understand as a porn editor. I have been following this for a while and very much keep it in mind as part of my knowledge and experience I bring to the craft of editing porn.

    Yes, more goes into making porn than most people realize.

  11. #11 Ray Ingles
    August 25, 2009

    Hmmm. Could the ‘standard motor-neuron’ theory help explain why lesbian porn is so popular among heterosexual men? If mirror neurons both “allow you to put yourself in another’s place” and “activate more abstract concepts or meanings associated with observed and performed behavior”, then lesbian porn would, for heterosexual males, tend to hit both functions.

    How to design an experiment to test that, though?

  12. #12 royniles
    August 25, 2009

    The experiment could be designed to examine the distinct possibility that our performances are motivated in part by the extent to which others are pleasured.

  13. #13 QoB
    August 25, 2009

    @ William: there are other, social factors which would influence the “demand” for porn aimed at women; acceptability, subculture, availability, and indeed legal complications. For example, most printers (in the UK, at least) won’t print photos of men with visible erections – google the recent appeal by Filament Magazine.

  14. #14 bryan
    August 29, 2009

    If mirror neurons are involved in the enjoyment of hardcore pornography, and autism is a dysfunction of mirror neurons, you would expect people with autism to not enjoy hardcore pornography nearly as much as non-autistic people. I wonder if this is the case.

  15. #15 thinott
    August 29, 2009

    Well, speaking for myself, and I am deeply into porn, 80% of my masturbation occurs to explicit nude images of naked women, and I have terabytes of what’s termed ‘hardcore’ porn on hand.

    I fail to see the mirroring

  16. #16 Baylink
    August 29, 2009

    @Jeff Knapp: My favorite (possibly apocryphal) statistic comes from someone who works for Spectravision who says that the average viewing time for that hardcore-in-your-motel-room service is…

    17 minutes. Rimshot.

    @Ray Ingles: I’ve seen some *real* “lesbian porn”, and it bears little resemblence to the mainstream “girls-getting-it-on-for-a-male-audience” stuff I think you’re asking about.

    @thinott: Got an IP address? ;-)

  17. #17 Jen
    August 30, 2009

    @William: I agree with QoB, and also think something could be said for erotic novels functioning as the female equivalent of male-oriented porn. They can work in the same way regarding mirroring, just less visual and in long-form. I’m not sure how this would fit in with Lehrer’s theories on mirror neurons since his work seems to focus more on visual examples.

  18. #18 helmling
    August 30, 2009

    “Obviously, a similar logic can be applied to a range of other actions that people love to watch, such as sports”: indeed–and these days, politics. Arousing people viscerally bypasses the mental function, the thought process. We obviously live in an age that has made great advances in the technique. TV of course has been instrumental. Good thing it’s in the control of powerful and responsible corporations, eh?

  19. #19 vikinggal
    August 30, 2009

    I am a straight female, love sex, and pictures of erect male genitalia turn me off.

  20. #20 Xenia
    August 31, 2009

    Same here.

  21. #21 nails
    September 6, 2009

    Pierce-are you talking about major differences in this study, or in general? Because stuff made for commercial purposes rather than studies is made with dudes in mind, with a lot of social messages woven in. It can’t be a question of equal reaction when the product is a really graphic representation of inequality.

  22. #22 iaN
    October 26, 2009

    Hey, great post!

    I am still reading it because the information you have provided is such an eye opener to me, so I am taking my time to read it to absorb it all in.
    As petty as this may sound, there is one grammatical error. The part in your post where you are talking about mirror neurons lighting up. Here is the excerpt:

    So if I see you smile, or lick an ice cream cone, or do something X-rated, then my mirror neurons light up as if I were smiling, or licking an ice cream cone,…

    it should read:

    “So if I see you smile, or lick an ice cream cone, or do something X-rated, then my mirror neurons light up as if I we’re smiling, or licking an ice cream cone,…

    it’s just missing an apostrophe on the contraction “we’re”. I’m Obsessive Compulsive when it comes to things like this so thanks for reading, and taking it as positive and not negative.
    iaN

  23. #23 ian
    October 26, 2009

    haha, never mind. I thought that the “I” you wrote was a back slash mark. I have no criticism. I apologize.
    I’d remove it if I could!

  24. #24 ramusulma
    December 24, 2009

    speaking for myself too, I am deeply into porn, occurs to explicit nude images of naked women, and I have terabytes of what’s termed ‘hardcore’ porn on hand. i.e. free galleries

  25. #25 ramusulma
    December 24, 2009

    very interesting porn effect in brain but i want to know if have any difference between porn movies and pictures?

  26. #26 sarabella
    January 5, 2010

    Happy New Year, All!
    MerciBouquets, Messr. Lehrer,
    for your timely titillation o’ tintinnabulation!

    @19@vikinggal…Lovely! I also am a straight female enamoured of/by/with sexuality but! photos of erect male genitalia turn ON! more ravenous love of My Man’s penis!

    @22@iaN…Gee! My *view* of the “…I were smiling..” is 2leave it as-is! The phrase “my neurons” refers to ONE person; revision to phrase of “we’re smiling” corrupts the reference to the singular of “my neurons light up”. HOWEVER, there is a sweetness in thinking that “smiling” is orchestral delight of both! neurons AND ANY *I* or *We*.
    Ultimately, Peace of body/mind passeth understanding!

  27. #27 Kevin Bjorke
    February 20, 2010

    I’m puzzled why the emphasis on porn w.r.t. the combination of mirror neurons and sex. Surely, regular sex with a partner involves a lot of mirror neuron activity, even for heterosexual couples? Thus hetero porn for men focuses on the reactions of the woman, rather than the man. This is very different from sport.

    (Very late comment, I got here by browsing the topic, not following a feed)

  28. #28 Ruben Neidenbach
    November 21, 2010

    What a suberb article you have posted. Good share. But I am having difficulty with your feed. I didn’t succeed to subscribe. Is there any one else experiencing similar issue with your RSS?

  29. #29 vic02
    January 22, 2011

    I know of someone who can av erection and even ejaculate by watching a woman not even naked, most especially when she has a small part of her chest exposed. How is that a mirrored behavior???

  30. #30 vic02
    January 22, 2011

    I know of someone who can av erection and even ejaculate by watching a woman not even naked, most especially when she has a small part of her chest exposed. How is that a mirrored behavior???

  31. #31 Houston Escorts
    March 17, 2011

    Consider porn, which is a very big business. (I first wrote about the neuroscience of porn a long time ago, but I think it’s worth repeating some of that post, since porn is such a perdurable feature of civilized life).