Vagina Dispatches episode three: the orgasm gap
Prause is examining orgasmic meditators in the laboratory, measuring finger movements of the partner, as well as brainwave activity, galvanic skin response and vaginal contractions of the recipient. Before and after measuring bodily changes, researchers run through questions to determine physical and mental states. Prause wants to determine whether achieving a level of arousal requires effort or a release in control. She then wants to observe how Orgasmic Meditation affects performance in cognitive tasks, how it changes reactivity to emotional images and how it compares with regular meditation.
Brain stimulation is theoretically possible
Another research project is focused on brain stimulation, which Prause believes could provide an alternative to drugs such as Addyi, the female Viagra. The drug had to be taken every day, couldnt be mixed with alcohol and its side-effects can include sudden drops in blood pressure, fainting and sleepiness. Many women would rather have a glass of wine than take a drug thats not very effective every day, said Prause.
The field of brain stimulation is in its infancy, though preliminary studies have shown that
transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain, can help with depression, anxiety and chronic pain but can also cause burns on the skin. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a magnet to activate the brain, has been used to treat depression, psychosis and anxiety, but can also cause seizures, mania and hearing loss.
Prause is studying whether these technologies can treat sexual desire problems. In one study, men and women receive two types of magnetic stimulation to the reward center of their brains. After each session, participants are asked to complete tasks to see how their responsiveness to monetary and sexual rewards (porn) has changed.
With DCS, Prause wants to stimulate peoples brains using direct currents and then fire up tiny cellphone vibrators that have been glued to the participants genitals. This provides sexual stimulation in a way that eliminates the subjectivity of preferences people have for pornography.
We already have a basic functioning model, said Prause. The barrier is getting a device that a human can reliably apply themselves without harming their own skin.
Libeross proposed direct current stimulation (DCS) device, configured to stimulate the brain areas associated with reward.
There is plenty of skepticism around the science of brain stimulation, a technology which has already spawned several devices including the headset
Thync, which promises users an energy boost, and Foc.us, which claims to help with endurance.
Steven Novella from the Yale School of Medicine uses brain stimulation devices in clinical trials to treat migraines, but he says theres not enough clinical evidence to support these emerging consumer devices. Theres potential for physical harm if you dont know what youre doing, he said. From a theoretical point of view these things are possible, but in terms of clinical claims they are way ahead of the curve here. Its simultaneously really exciting science but also premature pseudoscience.
Marom Bikson, who uses tDCS to treat depression at the City College of New York, agrees. Theres a lot of snake oil. Sexual problems can be emotional and societal
Prause, also a licensed psychologist, is keen to avoid overselling brain stimulation. The risk is that it will seem like an easy, quick fix, she said. For some, it will be, but for others it will be a way to test whether brain stimulation can work which Prause sees as a more balanced approach than using medication. To me, it is much better to help provide it for people likely to benefit from it than to try to create fake problems to sell it to everyone.
Sexual problems can be triggered by societal pressures that no device can fix. Theres discomfort and anxiety and awkwardness and shame and lack of knowledge, said psychologist Leonore Tiefer, who specializes in sexuality. Brain stimulation is just one of many physical interventions companies are trying to develop to make money, she says. Theres a million drugs under development. Not just oral drugs but patches and creams and nasal sprays, but its not a medical problem, she said.
Thinking about low sex drive as a medical condition requires defining whats normal and whats unhealthy. Sex does not lend itself to that kind of line drawing. There is just too much variability both culturally and in terms of age, personality and individual differences. Whats normal for me is not normal for you, your mother or your grandmother.
And Prause says that no device is going to solve a Bob problem when a woman in a heterosexual couple isnt getting aroused because her partners technique isnt any good. No pills or brain stimulation are going to fix that, she said.