If you ask ten of your friends what is their greatest erogenous zone most of them will probably say “my penis” or “my clitoris” or something else related to their genitals. Most people equate their sexual response to their genitals, something that goes on between their legs. In fact, the most important erogenous zone related to your sexual response is located between your ears, not between your legs.
What Happens During Sexual Response?
Your brain, not your genitals, is the seat of your sexual response. Sexual response begins in your mind with the flames of desire and ends there with your thoughts and feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. For over 30 years, I have been studying the complex interaction between the brain and the body during sexual response.
Since your mind is the seat of your sexual pleasure, it is important to understand how your mind works when thinking about sex. The first step in understanding how your mind thinks about sex is distinguishing the differences between your mind and your brain. Most of what I know about this I learned through my post-doctoral training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Morita Therapy, and Naikan Self-Reflection. ACT is considered the third wave of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) which focuses on the role your thoughts and feelings play in driving your behavior (Hayes, 2005). Morita and Naikan are two forms of Japanese psychology that have strong grounding in Buddhism. A common thread in these three forms of therapy is mindfulness (Morita, 1998, Krech, 2002).
Your Mind as a Computer
The best analogy I can think of to explain the relationship between your brain and your mind is the relationship between your computer and the software it runs. Your brain is similar to the computer. It is the structure that houses the software and makes it run. Your mind is like your computer’s software. Just like your computer runs several different programs, so does your mind. While your computer might have a word processing program, a photo and video viewing program, an internet gateway program, and several others, your mind has its’ own programs.
Your mind’s “programs” are your thoughts, feelings, personal scripts ( also known as self-talk), and mental images (Hayes, 2005, Hayes et-al, 1999). While you’re familiar with thoughts and feelings, you’ve probably never heard the terms personal scripts and mental images before.
Your personal scripts can be compared to the dialogue related to individual scenes in a movie. When you apply this to your sexuality, the movie is a documentary entitled, “My Sex Life.” Each scene in your movie represents one piece of your sexual history and has personal scripts associated with it. Mental images are the pictures you see when you close your eyes and think about the scenes in your personal sexual documentary movie. If the scripts are the dialogue in your movie, the mental images are the pictures that go along with it. Your mental images, like your personal scripts and thoughts and emotions, are based on past experiences and your earliest recollections of being a sexual person.
Learning About Sex
Steven Hayes is the creator of ACT. Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes, et-al, 1999, 2001) at the University of Nevada at Reno found that learning (including sexual) is contextual in nature. Whenever you learn something, you learn it in relation to other things that are specific to that time and place. In other words, all of your learning takes place within a certain context. The context includes external factors (the time, place, and environment), as well as personal factors (your age, intelligence, experience, etc.). ACT stresses the importance of the context of your learning as well as the content of it. The first time you learn something, the context is called the original frame of reference or the relational frame. Each new sexual learning experience contributes a new relational frame and scene in your sexual documentary movie. These past sexual relational frames influence how you respond to new sexual experiences and opportunities in the present moment. Your thoughts, feelings, self-talk, and mental images about a current sexual experience or opportunity are linked to your past relational frames.
In addition, your mind has the ability to take information from the past, bring it into the present moment, and then project it into the future and anticipate how things might play out. I call this “going past, present, and future.”Therefore, the way you respond to a current sexual experience or opportunity is influenced by your mind’s ability to take information from past relational frames, bring it into the present moment, and then project it forward and think about all of the possible ways the sexual scene can play out. If you let it, your mind will ruminate endlessly about these future possibilities and mesmerize you into inactivity.
Your mind’s ability to go past, present, future, can either help or hinder your ability to navigate sexual experiences and opportunities. You see this all of the time when contemplating opportunities for starting new sexual relationships. If you’ve gone through a particularly painful breakup (or several of them), your mind takes information from these past negative experiences and brings them into your consciousness. Because your mind wants to protect you from more pain, it projects all of the potentially negative and hurtful things that could occur if you enter into this new sexual relationship. If your past sexual relationship relational frames were more positive and not filled with troubling thoughts and painful emotions, your perception of how things might turn out are going to be different.
A final key similarity between your brain/mind and your computer/software is getting stuck because of the ability of your mind and your computer to run several programs simultaneously. For example, if you’re computer is on now it is running its’ operating system, virus checker, email, and whatever other programs you have open. Your mind does the same thing. It simultaneously thinks, feels, and interprets stimuli such as sights, sounds, smells, etc. Not only can your computer and your brain run these programs simultaneously, but they are also capable of running them non-stop 24/7 every day. In other words, your mind is a non-stop 24/7 thinking and feeling machine. And people wonder why we think about sex so much???
Sometimes when your mind and your computer are churning out too much data, and too many programs are running simultaneously, things can get stuck. Just as your computer’s programs can work inefficiently and cause your whole computer to freeze at a time like this, so can your mind’s programs. When you are overloaded, tired, run-down, stressed out or frightened, your mind’s programs can function inefficiently and cause your mind to freeze and not think properly. We all have experienced those times when the only thing that seems to work is throwing up our hands, taking a time out, and walking away for a short time to clear our heads.
Understanding how your mind works when thinking about sex and paying attention to what it is telling you are key parts of sexual mindfulness. When you practice sexual mindfulness, you become more aware of what your mind is telling you about your sexuality, and you view this information in a different, less threatening way. You are able to stop and say, “There goes my runaway sexual mind again.” This helps you create a helpful distance between you and what your mind is telling you. It allows you to step back and evaluate the information in a more objective way.
In my future articles, I’ll show you how to use Sexual Mindfulness to unleash the power of your sexual mind and use it in positive ways that support your sexual values and give you the sex life you want and deserve.
Hayes, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
Krech, G. (2002). Naikan: Grace, gratitude, and the Japanese art of Morita. Berkeley, CA: Stonebridge Press.
Morita, S ( 1998). Morita Therapy and The True Nature of Anxiety Disorders. Albany: State University of NY Press.