Anxiety and Sex: Naked Neuroscience top up!

Here's a top up of Naked Neuroscience news!
18 December 2019


Brain schematic


Welcome to a bonus episode of Naked Neuroscience, the podcast exploring the workings of the brain and the nervous system, in our bodies and beyond.  In this short show Katie Haylor chats to Anglia Ruskin University perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes and Cambridge University cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle about a few neuroscience news stories they came across back in November 2019.

In this episode


00:54 - Sex and communication

Could the possibility of sex influence how we present ourselves to others?

Sex and communication
Helen Keyes, Anglia Ruskin University

Could the possibility of sex influence how we present ourselves to others? A paper recently published by Gurit Birnbaum and her colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests - surprise surprise - that it could! Anglia Ruskin University psychologist Helen Keyes, who wasn’t involved in the study, took Katie Haylor through the findings...

Helen - They were trying to find out whether we would change our own behaviour when we feel that we're around a potential sexual partner. First of all, what they looked at was whether showing people videos of people making out would make them more agreeable or give more ground in an argument with another person. So first of all, they divided participants into groups where one half would have seen videos of people making out, and the other half would have seen just control videos over a couple engaged in a conversation. And after this, heterosexual participants were paired with a stranger of the opposite sex and they were asked to role play a disagreement or an argument. People who had seen the sexual imagery or people who are sexually primed, reported giving more ground in that argument, and this was true for both men and women. Then they wanted to look at what happens when we're more subliminally primed. So this is quite interesting. Participants had to fill out quite a long dating questionnaire about themselves. Then half of these participants were subliminally shown sexual images of semi-naked men and women, and half of the participants were subliminally shown images of nature. And by subliminal, I mean these images were flashed up for less than 30 milliseconds. So participants weren't aware that this is happening.

Katie - Were they watching some... like, watching a film or something whilst these images were just flashing up?

Helen - They were doing a really innocent task of choosing between like Thai food and Italian food. Little did they know that they were seeing some saucy images. Following this, each person was shown another person's dating profile - an imaginary profile that the experimenters had manipulated. Then, the participant went to make their own dating profile, and what they found was those who had been subliminally shown sexual images, conformed much more. They brought their responses much more in line with the dating profile they'd just read. So, if they had initially been opposed to cuddling, they now, kind of, moved a little bit closer to cuddling on the cuddling scale. They conformed more if they'd been sexually primed, but not if they hadn't been sexually primed. And then finally they wanted to know about explicit untruths or lies we might tell about ourselves. So they looked at how we report how many sexual partners we've previously had. Interestingly, they asked people to either anonymously report this or report it in an online chat with a potential partner, who they thought, somebody they thought was a potential partner. And they found that for both men and women, people revised downwards the number of sexual partners they reported having if they were in the online chat compared to an anonymous forum. That's not surprising, but interestingly this was only for people who had watched sexually explicit material. So again, people who had been sexually primed had their sexual system activated, they reported downwards, both men and women, the number of partners they had. And this is just conforming again to what you would imagine the other person wants to hear.

Katie - What do you make of this?

Helen - I think it isn't surprising. I think it's largely harmless and quite a nice positive thing to think that we might accommodate other people, or we might engage in relationships with new people in a way that we think is going to establish that relationship, or encourage that bond between people. So it's actually quite a nice finding, but it also might tell us that maybe when we begin a relationship with somebody, or we are exploring that possibility with somebody, they may be presenting themselves in a way that they believe is conforming to what we would like of them, and to just bear that in mind when were are establishing that relationship.

Katie - Or indeed you might behave slightly differently to the way that you would truly feel about something?

Helen - Absolutely, and you'd hear people saying sometimes, Oh you know, you've really changed around this new person, and it's nice to have a study to say, well that's not that surprising and I'm engaging in really pro-social behavior here.


The word 'anxiety' spelled out in scrabble tiles.

06:58 - How do you simulate anxiety?

Cambridge University scientists simulate anxiety in order to better understand this complex state...

How do you simulate anxiety?
Duncan Astle, Cambridge University

Most of us will have felt anxious at some point in life, but for people with an anxiety disorder, it’s more constant, affecting daily activities, and can be very difficult to control. Anxiety can include physiological symptoms - changes in heart rate or breathing for instance, cognitive symptoms - feeling unable to think clearly - and emotional symptoms. But exactly how these relate to each other isn’t clear. In order to unpick these relationships, Cambridge University scientists simulated a state of physiological anxiety in participants to see how and if the other symptoms manifest. Cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle - who wasn’t an author on the study - told Katie Haylor about it...

Duncan - So they recruited healthy, typically developing adults, who had no history of anxiety and they had them breathe one of two different types of air. So one is just standard air and the other has 7 1/2 percent extra CO2 in it. And they found that when the people were breathing the enriched CO2 air, their bodies entered a state of physiological anxiety. So for example their heart rate would increase, their blood pressure would increase. They used various different types of questionnaire and the people reported that they felt more panicked.

Katie - Why would adding more carbon dioxide to the air someone breaths change that physiological state?

Duncan - Well one argument is that the body might have some kind of in-built mechanism that when it senses its oxygen levels dropping slightly, it produces a physiological anxiety effect in order to try and get the person to correct that. So for example to get out, to get more oxygen etc.. So it's a way of piggybacking on that presumably quite kind of basic mechanism to induce the experience of anxiety.

Katie - OK, so you've got a bunch of people who aren't anxious and you've simulated anxiety by changing the air that they breathe. How does this relate then to how you feel or how you might think?

Duncan - So whilst people were in this state they had them perform multiple different tasks and actually across multiple experiments. They firstly had subjects perform a task that requires them to switch between sorting shapes by different rules, and that sounds like quite an arbitrary thing but it actually gets really tricky.

If anyone’s ever played something like Snap or Uno, when you have to switch between different rules, say between colour and shape for example and you might find you make a lot of mistakes like you start to sort by the wrong rule. This task has been used a lot by cognitive psychologists because it's thought to really tax what we call executive functions that are heavily dependent on the frontal lobes.

And they found that subjects got very significantly worse when they were in this state of anxiety and the degree to which they got worse was directly related to the degree to which they were experiencing the anxiety.

Katie - Is this what you would expect to see in someone who, you're not simulating anxiety, they’re genuinely anxious, this same kind of impairment of executive function?

Duncan - So people who experience anxiety naturally, do report that exact same thing. The challenge is of course that when you study someone who's experiencing anxiety naturally, there might be all sorts of other things going on. And so knowing that it's the physiological impact of their anxiety that's directly related to their cognition is really tricky. Whereas in this case, we can know that because that's the only thing that they've manipulated.

And then in another experiment they had them do a simple spatial short term memory task, and they found that they got significantly worse at that also. So it's really compelling evidence that if you mimic the physiological effects of being highly anxious then it will have a big impact upon your higher order cognitive skills.

Katie - And where does the third component come into this? Mood?

Duncan - Using lots of questionnaires, they found that there was a shift towards negative affect. So they showed them for instance faces with different emotions and words with different emotional content. And they found that subjects became more negatively biased as a result of the CO2 enrichment.

Katie - I'm not sure I would have wanted to be one of these volunteers! Does this hint at anything around how we try and help people who are anxious? I guess there's the long term methods that we might use, but also in the short term you might be advised to focus on your breathing for instance.

Duncan - For a long time we've known for instance things like physical exercise are really good in the long term for conditions like anxiety and depression. One reason why that might be, is because it has a direct impact upon your physiology and may make you better able to regulate your own physiological responses. And also a lot of techniques that we think of as being helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety, like breathing techniques, may have a direct because ultimately it's the physiological signs of being anxious that have the most direct impact on things like cognition.

What these authors have managed to show is that you can experimentally create the experience of being anxious in a relatively realistic way and that does mimic lots of the symptoms that we know do come with anxiety. And that then opens the door to a whole series of experiments including interventions to see whether you can try and mitigate that physiological effect. And that's the kind of work that's very hard to do without some sort experimental model of being anxious which is what this creates.


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