Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Feminist Dopamine, Conscious Vaginas, and the Goddess Array

Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?

Naomi Wolf, the famous feminist author and activist, asks that precise question in her new book, Vagina: A New Biography. At first glance, it strikes me as an uneasy balance of sex confessional, self-help, pop neuroscience, and new age goddess yoni worship.1
Could a profound connection between a woman’s brain and her experience of her vagina affect her greater sense of creativity—even her consciousness? In her provocative and important new book, ... bestselling author of The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argues that this connection is not only real—and long-overlooked—but that it is fundamental to a woman’s sense of self.

Spurred by the experience of an unexpected medical crisis – an injured pelvic nerve that temporarily affected her own physical sensation – Wolf set out to uncover why and how the brain and vagina are really best understood as “one system.” Understanding the brain-vagina connection, she learned, is not merely a key to more transformative sex for women – it is a key to female self-actualization, and thus to female power, creativity and confidence.

This unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate. Among neuroscientists, howlers such as "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain", oxytocin "is women's emotional superpower" and the vagina is "not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul" have been making the rounds of social media.

I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Dopamine is not a feminist neurotransmitter, unless snails and insects have been secretly reading Betty Friedan and listening to Bikini Kill.

Chapter 4 of Vagina is on Dopamine, Opioids, and Oxytocin. Other than the excerpt and review in the Guardian, only three pages of the chapter were available online. But here's one choice quote:
Those of us who are not scientists often forget that brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human truths.

I thought brain chemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules. Even the most reductionistic neuroscientists among us realize we are worlds away from understanding how oxytocin might explain morality (Paul Zak notwithstanding).

But feminist biology apparently tells us that the vagina is the delivery system for profound female truths:
By the same token, a female self's experience of freedom, and its impulse to seek more freedom, and to do so from a basis of self-love -- the feminist quest and the feminist sensibility -- are all strengthened in women by preorgasmic dopamine, and by the effect of orgasm on the brain. ... So in this way, the vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.

So women who aren't having orgasms cannot be confident liberated feminists?? Sure makes you wonder about Wolf's scientific sources...
An illustrated chart (see insert) compiled by dopamine researcher Marnia Robinson shows how dopamine affects human behavior in relationships and social settings.

When I hear "dopamine researcher", I think of experts like Nora Volkow, Kent Berridge, Wolfram Schultz, and Barry Everitt. I couldn't find any peer reviewed journal articles authored by Robinson. Instead, she has a blog at Psychology Today that promotes her book. Robinson's work is part of the neurorelationship self-help cottage industry, along with books and blogs like Rewire Your Brain for Love and Neuroscience and Relationships. Any knowledge of the brain is completely unnecessary for take-home messages that include the benefits of mindfulness meditation and tips for attaining goals.

Is Wolf at fault here? Was it her responsibility to contact actual experts (or even know who they are)? I can't say who else she might have consulted, having only read a small sampling. In Chapter 2, she cited a serious 1996 paper by Meston and Gorzalka on Differential effects of sympathetic activation on sexual arousal in sexually dysfunctional and functional women. But then she says:
The autonomic nervous system prepares the way for the neural impulses that will travel from vagina, clitoris, and labia to the brain, and this fascinating system regulates a woman's responses to the relaxation and stimulation provided by "the Goddess Array," the set of behaviors a lover uses to arouse his or her partner.

The Goddess and the autonomic nervous system -- together at last or odd bedfellows? In the end (or rather, the beginning), Vagina is part autobiography, and Wolf certainly exposes herself and her orgasms, which in my mind makes her even more vulnerable to personal attacks. I'll stick to the neuroscience for now, and await the sequel.

Forthcoming from Ecco: Penis: A New Biography by Jesse Bering.2


1 However, I must declare that I haven't read the entire book, so some of these statements may not be entirely fair.

2 Wait, or has he already published that?

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At September 05, 2012 4:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hilarious. Still astounding that you actually read that book. The title doesn't invite one to read it. I'd just wonder what on earth a vagina could possible have to tell that'd interest me.

At September 05, 2012 4:33 AM, Blogger Yewtree said...

Please don't blame Goddess feminists for this sort of thing - most of them are quite rational compared to this guff.

And also, please don't conflate New Age and Paganism - they're not the same thing.

if it wasn't for the fact that some publisher has actually seen fit to publish Wolf's book, and that it's not 1 April, I would have thought it was all a bad joke along the lines of the ones about men's brains being linked to their penises... which we all know are not true, right? (Though the one about how there's only enough blood in the system to operate either the brain or the penis is actually quite amusing...)

At September 05, 2012 7:45 AM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

Reading this is like watching a professional sniper shoot a target 10 feet away. I haven't read the book and I am not defending it, but I doubt it is the worst offender from the realm of popular pseudoscience books, it's just one of the easiest ones to pick on.

You have the skills of Robin Hood, man. You should be splitting arrows, not (as you said) shooting fish in a barrel.

At September 05, 2012 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lighten up, love

more baloney:
The survival circuit concept integrates ideas about emotion, motivation, reinforcement, and arousal in the effort to understand how organisms survive and thrive by detecting and responding to challenges and opportunities in daily life.

now, who wrote that?

At September 05, 2012 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder what Wolf will think of all this once she is fully menopausal.

What will the message of the vagina be then, I wonder.

At September 05, 2012 3:43 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the comments.

petrossa - I only read some of the limited pages of Part One that were available online.

Yewtree - Well, I did say "This unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate." I also meant that the Goddess feminists would disapprove of her reductive and essentialist treatment of female sexuality.

TheCellularScale - Thanks for the compliment! But I would need to take archery lessons from Katniss Everdeen...

lighten up, Anonymous love - The quote in question is from Joseph LeDoux. But he didn't go on to talk about the consciousness of the penis.

Anonymous of September 05, 2012 1:17 PM - Do you have specific knowledge of how the phenomenology and neurochemistry of orgasm change in post-menopausal women?

At September 06, 2012 4:04 AM, Anonymous Tetyana said...

You wrote:

"Is Wolf at fault here? Was it her responsibility to contact actual experts (or even know who they are)?"

I think yes, absolutely. Will she? Probably not. But, she sure as hell is at fault here. This is her book and these are the claims she is making: she has to be able to defend herself and her claims. If she is not a scientist (which she isn't) and writes about science: SHE SHOULD TALK TO MORE SCIENTISTS.

Anyway, I'm not surprised nor did I expect any better, but, she is doing a huge disservice to her readers, I think, and to science education more broadly.

I'm sure you know about how much she screwed up in the Beauty Myth (I blogged about it a while back). I suppose I'd find it funny, but I don't simply because I realize just how many impressionable young girls read her work and believe the atrocious science/pseudoscience she writes about. I haven't read any of her books - because these excepts are enough to make me queasy, so I can't comment on the "big picture" points in her books, at all, but I wouldn't trust anything she says that has anything to do with science, unfortunately, many people do.

At September 06, 2012 2:44 PM, Blogger Right Mind Matters said...

Wolf may have gone too far with this, but she's not completely off the mark. Neurotransmitters definitely play their role in sexuality.

He may have been discredited for plagiarism, but perhaps you'll take Jonah Lehrer's word for it:

At September 06, 2012 8:46 PM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

In that case I guess you should be shooting apples out of pig's mouths, not fish in a barrel. :)
and Carole: yes dopamine is released during sex, but that's a far cry from 'feminist molecule' it's released in the male brain as well. And btw Jonah Lehrer was also discredited for lying.

At September 07, 2012 7:00 AM, Blogger Right Mind Matters said...

Well, yes, and the male brain is virtually driven by dopamine vs serotonin with its peripersonal touch (quoting Previc here; any thoughts on his Dopaminergic Mind model?). The Beauty Myth was very important when it came out; Fire wit Fire I read too. I'll grant you this new book seems wildly and wrongly speculative, but it's all in the spirit of uplifting the sisters. Lehrer lied; Wolf just sounds overexuberant. Now to fight with the anti-robot replicator.

At September 07, 2012 11:52 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Tetyana - I'm glad you raised that issue. I agree with you. My indirect point was that many lay people or popular writers or Ph.D.s trained in different fields may present themselves as experts in neuroscience, or are consulted as such (see Lehrer link above). Why would you turn to Lehrer as an expert? In his dopamine and orgasm blog post, he quotes copiously from an article in The Psychologist, which in turn cites the work of Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer and Beverly Whipple (along with many other primary sources). Why not go there?

I read your excellent piece about The Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf Got Her Facts Wrong. Really, Really, Really Wrong) a few months ago, and highly recommend it to others.

At September 09, 2012 4:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old joke:
Q. Why do women have vaginas?
A. So men will talk to them.

Wolf takes this to the next level: she writes about her vagina so men will read her book.

At September 09, 2012 9:19 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous Old Joke - I think she wrote her book primarily so women would read it.

At September 11, 2012 1:47 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think the key point here is not whether Wolf's philosophical musings have merit, but rather her attempt to cloak those ideas with legitimacy through referencing science which she clearly knows little about and hasn't attempted to vet with people who are actually fluent in the subject at hand.

We live in a scientifically illiterate culture where sprinkling a few impressive sounding brain regions and neurochemicals into a book or article is enough to lend credibility to the most marginal of ideas.

Don't get me wrong: marginal ideas are often at the cutting edge of human consciousness. I've got nothing against them, but make your arguments with integrity. If you need to rely on information from a field you haven't studied and in which you have no depth of understanding, perhaps it's time to re-examine your thesis.

At September 14, 2012 11:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actual neuroscientist Jim Pfaus doesn't think much of your review or your apparent knowledge base.

See - Who's Afraid of the Vagina-Brain Connection?

From the above article:

"Dobbs states that "Neurocritic says he can find little peer-reviewed literature to back Wolf's claims." Really? I am not sure where he looked. As with the Shafik reflex, a simple Pub Med search on the role of dopamine, oxytocin, and opioids in the sexual behavior of rats, voles, monkeys, and humans reveals plenty of peer-reviewed literature to back Wolf's take on the role of these neurochemicals"

At September 14, 2012 11:09 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Really, actual neuroscientist Jim Pfaus, please point me to the PubMed search that revealed "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain", oxytocin "is women's emotional superpower" and the vagina is "not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul."

At September 15, 2012 9:18 AM, Blogger Right Mind Matters said...

As he said, "can't we allow an accomplished writer and social critic a little poetic leeway to make a point?" My PhD is in French literature, but I use neuroscience to explain aspects of the creative minds of poets. I have been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consciousness Studies as well as in literary journals. What's wrong with mixing media if you are advancing your field of expertise in the process. Rousseau was an autodidact. Proust was not a neuroscientist, but he was a brilliant writer. I'd take one handsomely turned metaphor over a dry neuroscience article any day, yet I read those articles every day to further my understanding of mind matters. Cheers, let's all be kind to each other: more serotonin, oxytocin; less competitive dopamine-driven talk.

At September 15, 2012 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe Jim Pfaus is another nom de plume for Naomi Wolf. Or not a neuroscientist but just somebody who did what he said he did. A quick look at the abstracts of some articles and totally missed the point.

At November 13, 2012 10:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not an academic and know very little about neuro science, like most in the population, however I think Wolf's book is important as it opens widen ideas and then discussion about the complexity of female sexual desire and response.I encourage sexual lovers of women to take some time to find out what they find pleasureable instead of assuming they already know!
I've also just finished The Science of orgasm.

At January 10, 2013 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I've just read above, none of you appear to have actually read Naomi Wolf's book. Personally I wouldn't be touting my opinion about a book, a movie or anything else for that matter without having read, watched or had a direct experience of it in the first instance.

At February 29, 2016 6:07 PM, Blogger Prem Nirmoha said...

So sad that most of you who have commented here have no idea what you're talking about. The book is FRICKING AWESOME!!! And who are these replies here from… men or women? To you women, get off your complaining butts and go and read the book. You might discover something about your own body that you're completely disconnected from.


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