A naked man passionately embraces a naked woman in a photograph. How does that make viewers feel? And how long does it take them to register their reactions? Females will take longer, according to a new study, because women are less in touch with their bodies.
Though their bodies may be showing signs of arousal, females are more likely to report feeling unaroused, leading to dissatisfaction in the bedroom. Meditation may be the answer, according to a new paper written by an undergraduate and a recent alum. Women who practiced meditation improved their ability to register physiological arousal, suggesting that meditation may be an effective treatment for female sexual dysfunction.
Gina Silverstein '09.5, lead author of the paper, got the idea for the study while taking UNIV 0540: "Introduction to Contemplative Studies," taught by Harold Roth, professor of religious studies. The same areas of the brain they discussed in the class were also associated with female sexuality, her friend noticed. They realized the two had something important in common.
From talking with other women, Silverstein knew female sexual dysfunction was a big problem. Many women complained they had trouble reaching orgasm or becoming and remaining aroused. They would say, "I start thinking about other things. … And then I'm like, ‘Oh my god, my room is a mess,' or ‘What if I'm not as cute as my partner's last girlfriend?' and ‘I hope I don't look fat right now,'" Silverstein said.
"Mediation is a clear answer," she realized. She spoke with Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, whose lab aims to study the effects of contemplative practices on cognition, emotion and psychological characteristics, about her interest in the subject.
Britton encouraged her to find some answers in a data set from a large study on the effects of meditation on college students that is still being analyzed.
A unique aspect of the Britton lab is that Silverstein was able to investigate a question of personal interest, rather than simply work on an existing project, she said. Which also probably explains why the lab is overflowing — Britton said she gets a new research assistant application every week. "The lab operates on a much more personal and organic level," Britton said.
Britton asks her students to think about how science can be done personally. "If the research you're doing isn't personally tapping into your own suffering, then you're not doing it right," she said she tells them. "This lab is about studying the sources of suffering and the alleviation of suffering. … Everyone suffers, so if this isn't personally meaningful to you, then control, alt, delete. … Reboot."
Silverstein's study looked at three different groups. Two of the groups, one female and one male, were taught to practice meditation, while the control group of women were not. The subjects were presented with a series of photographs from the International Affective Picture System and were asked to rank the images on an arousal scale from one to nine. The researchers used reaction time as a proxy for interoceptive awareness, the ability to register bodily changes.
Four of the 31 photographs, such as a steamy shot of a man and woman making out, were erotic, chosen because they incite similar reactions in men and women. "When you show penises and vagina, men are like ‘yeah!' and women are like ‘ew,'" Britton said.
Women took longer to decide how they felt about the erotic pictures. Britton snapped her fingers — "the men are like that," she said. In response to the other photos, both men and women had the same reaction time.
"We think the reason why women are taking longer is because they're having all sorts of self-evaluative thoughts," Britton said. These thoughts interfere with interoceptive awareness, distracting the women from experiencing their physiological arousal.
A delayed response to photographs was found to be significantly correlated to self-judgement, lack of self-compassion and increased anxiety.
After meditation training, the subjects retook the tests. "Every single one of our hypotheses panned out," Britton said.
All of the psychological barriers were corrected in the meditating group of women, and their response time decreased. The control group of women, who took a music class instead of practicing meditation, showed no changes.
"When you have meditation address those concerns, to reduce anxiety, to reduce self judgment, then they can respond quicker to how their bodies feel," said Annie Brown '12, co-author of the paper.
Though previous studies have suggested that meditation is associated with improvements in bodily awareness and sexual dysfunction, this is the first to look exclusively at the effect of meditation.
"Whether it's women at Brown or whatever cohort you want to identify, … we are really used to judging ourselves pretty harshly," Silverstein said. "It can be pretty damaging to the psyche."
This is why people gravitate toward contemplative studies at Brown, she said. "They get a taste of it, and they are like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I've been missing.'"
There have been 11 independent contemplative studies concentrators in the past five years, and many more students have built contemplative elements into their existing studies, Roth said. This year, Roth and other contemplative studies initiative faculty plan to apply for formal concentration status, which Roth said he thinks might double the number of concentrators. With the help of a three-year $150,000 grant from the Hershey Family Foundation, the initiative has hosted a series of lectures and workshops.
The doctrine of self-compassion "is definitely true in the bedroom, but pretty universally it is a hugely important," Silverstein said. A "bad sex life is only one side effect," Britton agreed. "Brown kids are not going to have any problem in life, but they are going to have a problem enjoying it because they can't stop thinking about what they're not good at."