Ask an Expert: Lesa Ellis Discusses Sex and the Brain
by Ashley Atwood (’07)
Have you ever wondered where sexuality and sexual behaviors come from? Lesa Ellis (’98), neuroscience professor, created the May Term class Sex and the Brain so students could study how environment, genetics, hormones, and brain-based biology uniquely shape each person. Lesa will be teaching a condensed version of the course during next weekend’s Classes Without Quizzes so the Westminster community can examine this fascinating area of science. But, before the event, we asked Lesa to share some insights about the class, sex, and the brain.
Listen to the full interview hosted by alumna Ashley Atwood (’07):
Sexuality is a central and fascinating aspect of being human. Why is this an important topic, and why did you create a May Term class on it?
“When I think about human sexuality and behaviors, it’s the place where you can really see how biological influences and societal influences come crashing together. It’s probably more obvious than just about any other type of human behavior because sex and sexuality is a biological construct that is greatly influenced by our environment, culture, and society. As part of my dissertation work, I had to learn a lot about puberty and sex hormones and how they influence the brain during adolescence. I became fascinated with this idea that hormones don’t just change the way bodies look and act after puberty, but because of some fairly fundamental changes in the brain, some of which have to do with sex and sexual behaviors. It seemed like one of those perfect May Term topics.”
May Term students dive into this topic during eight sessions. For Classes Without Quizzes, the class is condensed into a little over an hour. What can participants look forward to discussing in that time?
“I’ve developed an exercise that I think will lead to a spirited discussion about how much of our sexual behaviors really are biologically driven and how much are influenced by society. I won’t go into too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil the fun. I tried this once before and it worked really well. I’m very much looking forward to doing it again.”
Can you give an example of how influences within the brain affect sexuality and sexual behaviors? Does this behavior manifest in ways someone can immediately observe?
“That’s a really good question. One area I’ve been interested in—and all of these topics are a little controversial—is women’s hormonal changes through the month—and throughout their lifespan—and how that can influence sexual behaviors. I think most women will readily say, ‘Oh yeah, my hormones affect how I feel every month.’ But when we start thinking about how perhaps sexual desires ebb and flow with some of those changes, that’s a really thought-provoking topic that a lot of people haven’t stopped to think about. Of course, because women have sex for any number of reasons not necessarily tied to desire, it’s a muddy thing to try to pull apart.”
What surprises people when they learn how sexuality and sexual behaviors are shaped in the brain?
“I think it surprises people to know there are differences to how the brain reacts to sexual stimuli and how the brain potentially may differ in people of differing orientations. Again, that’s very controversial. It’s not something we really study in the US; it’s studied extensively in western European countries. That has to do with, I think, a very legitimate fear that when we start studying biological differences in aspects of people’s behavior deemed unacceptable, those findings will be used to harm those populations. That’s a really tricky topic.”
American culture gives mixed messages about expressing sexuality. How does this play a role in shaping sexual identity, particularly in adolescence and emerging adulthood?
“It has a very big impact on how the brain forms. The stress reactivity system is much more active during adolescence and early adulthood than at any other time in life. When that aspect of the brain is activated over and over, it has a tendency to become more reactive to stress and more anxious throughout the rest of the lifespan. A topic like sexuality has potential to cause a lot of guilt, stress, and fear. One thing I’ve done in another class was have people write about where their ideas about sexual behaviors and sexual identity came from and what influences them. It’s interesting to see how many essays reveal underlying turmoil. I wish we could talk about these things more openly when we’re younger and when all these ideas are starting to take shape in our brains. I think we’re doing young people a disservice by not helping them understand what’s going on in their bodies and brains, why they feel the way they do, and how normal and natural those feelings are.”
Want more? Don’t miss Sex and the Brain next Saturday, September 21.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.