“What is it Like Teaching and Doing Research at a University?”

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:

Jon Horvitz is a professor and neurosciences researcher at the City University of New York.  He also happens to have been a frequent reader of Cafe Philos, back before I put this blog in a six year hiatus, and he is still one of my favorite commentators of all time because of the many insights he shared. 

Jon keeps a blog called, Brain, Mind, and Other Things, that he describes as, “a ‘here’s-something-funny-that-happened-to-me’ or an ‘i-can’t-stop-thinking about-this-idea’ blog”.  I am quite pleased today to re-post here a recent, short article that he wrote for his blog.   When I read it, the article immediately struck me for its unusual, counter-stereotypical view of scientists.  After all, scientists are commonly looked upon as experts, wholly knowledgeable in their fields; but as Jon points out, that’s not how a researcher is likely to actually think or feel about themselves!  Please enjoy Jon’s thought-provoking post…

I told the students in my class Mind, Brain, and Experience that we don’t really know most things about neuroscience. That really the feeling of being a scientist isn’t the feeling of knowing lots of stuff. It’s the feeling of not knowing something that you’re interested in. Kind of like not understanding a new relationship with someone who’s important to you. It’s the feeling of scratching your head and saying ‘I wonder how this works’, and saying to your grad student ‘How do you think it works?’, and doing an experiment that probably doesn’t reveal the answer completely, but maybe reveals a little bit about the shape of the thing.

When I was in college, the professors I had all seemed to know so much. They seemed to be looking out from a high peak at the landscape below. But that’s not the feeling at all. At least for neuroscientists, maybe all scientists. It’s more the feeling of looking up at a huge waterfall, and not being able to see the top of it. You don’t know where the water’s coming from, and you’re not sure how to get to the top so you can see where it’s coming from. Is there a road that you can drive and get high enough to find out? There’s no map. You don’t even see a road, just a lot of vegetation all around. Someday someone might find a way to get to the top, but probably not in your lifetime. And instead of discovering the origin of the waterfall you’d like to discover something important about the brain and the mind, like how neural activity gives rise to thoughts, or even how the brain allows us to form habits that we can carry out almost without awareness.

You spend part of your work hours sharing what you know about the field with the undergraduates taking your class (and i love my CCNY students). Then you go back to thinking about pieces of experimental research findings that don’t fit together well, and wonder how you might find out more about the waterfall.

Testosterone, Sex, and Intimacy in the Age of Porn

Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?  — Kacey

A lack of sexual satisfaction is more common in women than in men.  By all accounts, there are many reasons why that’s so:

  • Busy schedules can turn sex into just another task or chore.
  • Discontent with their bodies can leave women not feeling sexy.
  • Women’s reluctance or even their unwillingness to ask for what they want in bed can mean their partners don’t meet their needs.
  • Sex lives can be too predictable and thus boring.
  • Health issues can cause a whole variety of problems.
  • Stress can impact both the quality and ability to orgasm.
  • A woman’s socio-economic status can influence her sexual satisfaction (the higher the status, the better).
  • A history of sexual abuse can negatively impact sexual satisfaction.
  • Sexual guilt can also negatively impact satisfaction.
  • And additional reasons not listed here.

In doing the research for the above list, I noticed that none of the sources I used mention what to most of us might be obvious: A woman’s partner could be “unhelpful” in bed.  “You’re on your own, babe.  I’ve got mine, you get yours!”  It seems just a wee bit possible that might leave the lady a mite less than blissfully satisfied.

I have no idea what percentage of men are incompetent lovers (nor, for that matter, what percentage of women are the same),  It could be high or low.  Like most folks, however, I’ve heard the horror stories.  To give but one example, a wife emailed me a while back asking how she could communicate to her husband the fact that 15 minutes of intercourse without much at all in the way of foreplay just wasn’t doing it for her. In their 11 years of marriage, she hadn’t once moved him to depart from his routine.  Worse, he’d taken to leaving her soon after his completion, often with the departing words, “I’m going to get out of your way now so you can have some privacy while finishing yourself off.”  Paradoxically, she told me her husband was otherwise a decent man to her.

The strange thing to me about the stories I hear is that their horrors often enough seem so unnecessary.  Granting there are exceptions — difficult partners, poor health, work stress, much too much blog reading, taking Sunstone’s sex advice, and all that, but it usually isn’t hard to pleasure a woman; we are not talking rocket science or Olympic gymnastics here.  So we might ask why is it some decent men who ought not to be incompetent at sex, actually are incompetent?

Naturally, we can’t get into all the possible reasons in a mere blog post, so we’ll need to be picky.  I’m guessing you will find one of the more interesting reasons to be the role that testosterone can sometimes play in a man’s sexual incompetence.  Besides, it’s always fun to blame testosterone for everything!

Theresa L. Crenshaw is a medical doctor and sex therapist who in her book, The Alchemy of Love and Lust, discusses the sexually of men and women during the different decades of our lives.  She notes that men and women in their 40s tend to experience much greater sexual and emotional compatibility in large part due the man’s naturally decreasing levels of testosterone.

Of course, testosterone is most famous as the hormone that produces horniness in both men and women.  Everyone agrees that men have much higher levels of testosterone than women, although I am not aware of any genuine consensus among scientists yet as to how much higher.  I’ve heard several estimates, however, and the one thing they all agree on is that male levels are much higher.  As in multiples higher.

Several decades ago, as well as I can recall now, a group of researchers wondered what would happen to women who were injected with peak male levels of the Big-T.   And so they did it.  The women, of course, were volunteers but were not told that they were being injected with testosterone.  Instead, they were told, “vitamins”.  Once injected, they were asked to spend the next half hour writing down their thoughts and feelings about sex — whatever came into their heads.

The women all but put the male authors of porn to shame.  They produced raw, graphic, sexually explicit streams of consciousness that were notable for being dominated by vivid images of naked men and their body parts.  Moreover, their writings seemed to reduce the men they wrote about to sex objects, or at least near to.  Furthermore, they wrote “eloquently” of their sudden, new-found feelings of intense horniness.   In short, the women’s thoughts and feelings were like those of young men whose testosterone levels are peaking, perhaps exceptionally high.

Comparatively few people know about the effects testosterone has on men other than to produce horniness.  For instance, many people have — or have noticed — the tendency of men to roll away in bed from their partners shortly after having had sex.  Far fewer people are aware that the cause of the behavior is ascribed to testosterone by at least some scientists.

But testosterone can play a much greater roll in how men treat women than just by rolling away in bed.  One of the foremost researchers into the effects of testosterone on men’s thoughts and feelings was James McBride Dabbs.

Dabbs found that high testosterone men can be driven to compete with and dominate others.  At its worse, this can involve brute force, violence, and fighting behavior of all kinds.  But even when that was not the case, Dabbs noted that high-T males can be “rough and callous”, their more tender feelings apparently “blunted” by the hormone.  Summarizing a few of Dabbs’ findings, Leon Seltzer has written:

…they [the high-T males] tend not to be particularly concerned about–or, for that matter, interested in–the feelings of others. And unmoderated feelings such as lust, resentment, or rage can easily preempt the softer feelings of love, compassion, or forgiveness.

Seltzer goes on to specifically address the problems high-T males (and their partners!) can face in dealing with intimate relationships:

I’d like to expand a bit on some of the points I made earlier about how high-testosterone males have difficulty treating the opposite sex with the consideration and respect they deserve. Insufficiently sensitive to a girl’s or woman’s feelings, they also struggle with simply appreciating these feelings. And so, among other things, they typically don’t function particularly well in marriages. In fact, the statistics available on this topic indicate that they’re more likely to divorce and–indeed–less likely to marry in the first place.

Additionally, having such a strong need for dominance virtually guarantees that their marriages will be problematic. Overall, they’re less satisfied in their marriage (as compared to lower-T males). And their difficulty accepting their mates as true (and non-competitive) equals assures a degree of conflict hardly compatible with the best unions. Here Dabbs cites the work of marital theorist John Gottman–perhaps the world’s pre-eminent authority on what makes intimate relationships work–by noting his findings that egalitarian marriages are the most successful. High-T males, with their propensity to dominate (and even pick fights–whether they be for fun or blood), hardly fit the picture of Gottman’s ideal husband, ready and willing to share power and control.

Although we have been talking here of an extreme — i.e. high-T males — it should be noted that even low-T males might echo, albeit more faintly, the behaviors of their high-T brothers. That’s to say, some effects of testosterone can be at least somewhat problematic for all men and, by extension, their partners.

When Kacey first suggested to me a week or so ago that I write a blog post on “Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?“, I thought of a number of possible reasons for it.  Culture, for instance, surely would be a huge part of any comprehensive answer to her question.  (I wrote a wee bit about the role of culture in an earlier post, “The Three Key Sex Acts that Cause Female Orgasms, According to Science”. )  But I think no comprehensive answer to Karina’s question is possible without mentioning the Big-T.

So, what can be done to ameliorate the negative effects of testosterone?  Well, we could encourage all women and girls to turn cynical and bitter about male sexuality, constantly snipe, whine, and moan about it, and ultimately refuse to have sex with males.  Ordinarily, that’s how I’d solve the problem, but I sense this time that might be a bad idea, if only for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.

I think the sane choice is education.  I have heard that currently, the public school sex education courses are generally in a deplorable state in America.  So I think they should be put back on their feet, and then expanded to cover not only the mechanics of sex and contraception, but also the psychology of our sexuality, very much including the effects of testosterone, and what to do about those effects.

I think I should mention here that I know of an educator, Dr. Karen Rayne, who conducts classes and seminars in sexuality, and who addresses some of these issues both in her classes and seminars, and in the books she has authored.  Dr. Rayne is top notch in her field.  You might want to contact her if you or your group happen to be in need of a seminar, etc.  Or if you want expert advice on how and what to say to your son or daughter about sex, romance, relationships and so forth.  Dealing with children and adolescent sexuality is her specialty.  (Full Disclosure:  I’m a huge fan of hers, she’s helped me out at times with my blog by arranging to have posts reprinted in online magazines, and I’ve had a crush on her for years.)

Now, I think internet porn factors into all of this as well.  Another renowned expert in human sexuality, Dr. Robert Weiss, was once asked, “What is the most common issue you see with today’s generation when it comes to relationships and sex?”  In response, Weiss pointed squarely to internet porn:

The most common negative issue I see with young people is a lack of understanding about how to build intimacy, trust and healthy sex.

This means that adolescents and young adults, because of their extensive exposure to internet porn, and sex without relationships (see Tinder) seems to be leading to untested expectations about what a partner should and should not deliver sexually and when. To put it simply, pre-digital age, if you wanted to get laid, and you weren’t going to pay for it, you had to be romantic, you had to have the charm and social skills to make someone feel safe and comfortable enough to want to be sexual.

Today, that skill set is no longer required [to get laid], but it is required to build romance, sexual intimacy and love. So I see heterosexual young men struggling with the idea that sex in real life should be like porn, and all the expectations that come with that.

I see heterosexual young women…with their new freedoms and openness to sex without relationships…. But also feelings of obligation and inferiority around sex with men who use porn as their standard.

I think the key to understanding the impact internet porn is having on the sex lives of men is to grasp that it is providing the model for what sex should be — especially for young men, who do not yet have more or less firm notions about what sex should be.

Another thing porn seems to be implicated in is the creation of a certain newfangled sexual dysfunction characterized by experiencing real people as less interesting than porn.  Weiss again:

When people become adapted to hyper stimulation (internet porn, webcam sex) that level of intensity becomes their expectation and norm. Therefore meeting with a real, live person just isn’t that interesting. This seems to be a different population than the sex addicts that I have treated for the last 30 years as it is a problem that seems to develop in adolescents and young adults rather than related to very early trauma.

There are quite a few other problems associated with internet porn, including more kinds of sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile dysfunction, anorgamsia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation and lower brain activation to sexual images.  Add to that the fact that some porn — not all, but some (e.g. rape porn) — seems to be associated with increased sexual aggression in men who heavily view it.

I have not fully answered here Karina’s question, but have instead stuck to the impact of just two factors, testosterone and porn.  I would submit that their impact on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of men is enormous.  For one thing, they are found everywhere.  Testosterone because it’s in all our bodies, and porn because it is available via the internet, so their influence is ubiquitous.  An interesting question to me is whether education will ever be enough to ameliorate the negative effects of those things.   I’m not so sure it will be enough.  But what do you think is the best way to deal with  these realities?  Your views are welcomed!

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: An Award Winning Blog

Ed Darrell is a teacher and gentleman from Texas who has created an award winning blog called, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub“.  He is also a staunch defender of truth and accuracy in a day and age when both of those things seemed too often scorned.

Ed is knowledgeable in a variety of subjects, including history, economics, geography, and education; and he is scientifically literate.  It’s hard not to be impressed by the man.

Have I mentioned yet that Ed’s blog has won the prestigious Golden Primate Award, which is given out exclusively to the very best blogs on the internet?  Well it has!  And if you check it out, I think you will agree that his blog deserves it too!

Currently, over 1,000 people a day visit Ed’s blog, and it is very close to marking it’s 5,000,000th all time visitor!  If you are at all curious what a blog that can attract five million visitors looks like, go right over to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub and check out Ed’s masterpiece!  I hope you will enjoy his blog at least as much I do!

The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

Can Men and Women be Just Good Friends?

I had a drinking game I liked to play when I was in school.  The goal was to guess someone’s religion based on their answers to a short series of questions.  The catch?  The questions couldn’t be about religion.  Instead, the questions had to be about love and sex.

The game fascinated me.  I got so into it, I would keep a running tally of hits and misses from which to work out a “career average” for correct guesses.  I couldn’t get over how often you could match someone to the religion they grew up in with no more than the answers they had given you to three or four questions about love and sex.

To be sure, I did not try for the denomination.  The categories were Catholic, Liberal Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, or Mormon.  In other words, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of religious diversity.  Back then, most everyone fit into one or another of those categories.

I can only recall one of the core questions now, but it was my favorite because I felt it did more work than the other questions in allowing me to figure out someone’s religious background.   If I was asking a woman, for example, I would phrase the question this way, “Do you feel men and women can be just good friends, without having sex?”  Followed by, “Why or why not?”

I read a blog post tonight that reminded me of that game.  Specifically, the woman claimed it was all but impossible for a man and woman to be platonic friends.  She said she’d only in her life had one boyfriend she wanted to be real friends with.   And making friends with him had taken 20 years from the time the two of them broke up to the time they were “just good friends”.

Twenty years to make a friend?  After reading that, I figured maybe he and she didn’t bring to the problem the world’s best people skills.  But I also took a look at her “About Me” page, and noticed that her religion fit her attitude that men and women cannot be just good friends.

Religion isn’t everything, of course.  Lots of other things influence how easy it is for men and women to be just good friends.  For instance, the older you are, the easier it gets.  And the biggest influences of all are arguably the individual people involved.  But religion does seem to have an influence on what we tell drunks in college bars about our attitudes towards sex and love.  Of that, I’m reasonably certain.

Bi-Curious Kids and the Ruin of Us All

This is an earthquake issue. This will change our state forever. Because the immediate consequence, if gay marriage goes through, is that K-12 little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it.

– Michele Bachmann

“Perhaps they should try it?”

Well, suppose they did.  Suppose, say, that a heterosexual junior in high school became bi-curious one semester due to a lecture on homosexuality in his or her sex education class, and gave it a shot?  For the sake of argument, let’s say they engaged in protected sex with a classmate.

What would be the most likely outcomes of a bi-curious youth experimenting with his or her sexuality?

Not the worse outcomes.  Because the worse usually doesn’t happen.  If you want to go by worse outcomes, please first explain why anyone should get married or drive a car, because the worse outcomes of marriage and driving are arguably murder by your spouse, and death by accident.  So, let’s go with likely outcomes.

_________________________

(H/T: Cognitive Dissenter)

What the Hell is Wrong with Eric?

Every now and then, I try to learn patience from Eric.  I’ve known Eric since he was an underclassman in high school habitually sneaking out of his parent’s house at night to visit a friend.  Eventually, the friend became his wife.  The two of them combined have enough brain power to light a small city, but what really marks the couple in my opinion is something that marks a lot of less intelligent couples — they are fundamentally decent people.  Kind, compassionate, open-minded, and honest people.

If there is any significant difference between Eric and his wife, it might be that Eric is significantly more patient than her.  I wouldn’t bet my last dollar on that, but Eric is significantly more patient than most people.  So, it seems possible he might even be more patient than his wife.

As it happens, Eric needs every ounce of patience he can get, because he has a trying hobby.  Eric likes to go online to engage Creationists, Climate Change Deniers, and many other often willfully ignorant people in rational, evidence-based debate.  And he’s amazing to watch.

The “Deniers” — for they are all deniers, in a way — inject whole oceans of nonsense into the threads.  Stuff like Darwin recanted his Theory of Evolution on his deathbed.  There is no consensus on climate change among climatologists.  Or, public health care systems are more expensive than private ones.   I no longer bother with such folks other than — at times — to demand they cite peer-reviewed sources.  When they refuse (often enough in a huff) to cite peer-review sources, I ask them to drop the subject or move on.  But now and then, I wish I had Eric’s patience.

He is all but unfailing polite — even courteous.  He sticks to well grounded evidence woven together by hard logic, and he does not indulge himself in personal attacks.  He does not condescend, but treats everyone with dignity.  He looks for what little common ground he can find.  When he makes a mistake — as we all do — he readily admits it.  And he does that stuff almost regardless of how inane his opponent’s points or reasoning become.

Don’t take away from this the notion Eric is perfect.  He is not.  He screws up now and then.  He sometimes betrays his own values. But I’m pretty sure he’s more often like I’ve described him than not.

In other words, Eric has so many of the virtues of a gentleman that I am left with no other option but to conclude he’s nuts.  The man is bonkers.  A lunatic.  Almost no one behaves like him anymore, and by 2015, he threatens to be the last true gentleman left on the internet — the last one of us able to hold his own while showing an appalling generosity of spirit.  Like any true gentleman, Eric is no push-over, but in light of today’s hyper-aggressive society, he appears to be…unusual.

Which raises the question, are his values really increasingly rare? Are there more or fewer people who practice those values today than there were, say, a few decades ago?  And were those values ever widely held to begin with?

Last, can you learn such values — can they be taught — or are you born with them?