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Sex, Lies and Data Mining

The concentrated essence of this curious book is contained in its 11th chapter, which attempts to explain what the “Mona Lisa” has in common with Chicken McNuggets, vampire novels and the concluding scene of most pornographic videos. Each of these works of human creativity, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam write in “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” exploits perceptual trickery to arouse and gratify our desires. The enigma of the Gioconda smile; the technologically engineered “crave­ability” of fast food; the alluring, “alpha among alphas” quality of the paranormal hero; that climactic moment beamed to watchers on a hundred million laptop screens: all rely on the artful manipulation of our brains.

That ultimate pornographic image in particular, the authors write, “is an erotical illusion that merges the visual with the psychological” and that juxta­poses “three sexual cues within a single stimulus: the penis (a visual cue), the ejaculation (which may be a sperm competition cue or possibly a cued interest in some men), and — most important — the woman’s emotional reaction, which may be a psychological cue of female pleasure (if she expresses delight) or a psychological cue of sexual submission (if she expresses surprise or dismay).” And you thought it was all just masturbation.

“A Billion Wicked Thoughts” promises to reveal “the truth about what men and women secretly desire — and why.” Ogas and Gaddam, cognitive neuroscientists who met as graduate students at Boston University, analyzed a year’s worth of terms entered into the search engine aggregator Dogpile between July 2009 and July 2010, and found that 55 million of the roughly 400 million terms were sexual in nature. The authors organized those searches into a ranked hierarchy of categories. “Youth” was No. 1 and “breasts” was No. 4. “Cheating wives,” “gay” and “penises” all made the top 10.

Ogas and Gaddam purport to have discovered in this data — with the aid of sex research, evolutionary psychology and comments posted on pornography hubs and other Web sites — “the finite set of sexual cues” (analogous to the five different taste cues our tongues can discern) hard-wired into our neural circuitry that “activate our desire software.”

Their breakdown is simple. Men like pornography. Women like romance novels. “Men’s brains are designed to objectify females,” Ogas and Gaddam write. Since men’s only concern is with the biological fitness of women for child­bearing, everything they need to know to feel desire is visible to the naked eye: “The shapely curves of female ornamentation indicate how many years of healthy childbearing remain across a woman’s entire lifetime.” Male desire is “solitary, quick to arouse, goal-targeted, driven to hunt.” That’s why there was a nearly perfect concordance between male reports of sexual arousal and evidence of physical arousal measured by a device attached to participants’ genitals in a well-known study by the sex researcher Meredith Chivers.

By contrast, Chivers found that a lot more blood flowed to the genitals of her female subjects than their self-reports would suggest. Straight men were physically aroused by videos of straight sex, but not by videos of gay sex or bonobos mating, and their self-reports confirmed what the sensors measured. Straight women were physically aroused by every­thing, including the bonobos, but their self-reports often contradicted what the sensors measured.

Chivers’s study shed light on the failure to produce a “female Viagra”: while increased blood flow to the penis is sufficient to incite a man to sexual desire, increased blood flow alone will not produce feminine desire. Ogas and Gaddam have come up with a speculative explanation for this mind-body gap: the existence of a neural structure that, they claim, “inhabits a woman’s conscious mind and intercepts signals coming from her body, preventing them from triggering conscious, psychological arousal.” This neural structure, which the authors term the “Miss Marple Detective Agency,” was supposedly contrived by evolution to protect a woman against the risks of reckless sex and to ensure that her partner would be a “strong and decent man willing to invest in a stable, long-term, child-rearing relationship.” Miss Marple has to be satisfied before a woman can be aroused.


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One thought on “Sex, Lies and Data Mining

  1. Maybe Joran VanderSloot is behind all of this mining stuff. 🙂 -Jane

    Posted by janelwhite | August 2, 2011, 3:27 am

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