Thursday, October 03, 2013

Neuroplasticity and the Sexualization of Children

The news in Britain has been peppered with stories about the scandal of our youth, who are being sexualized at increasingly younger and younger ages. Blame is being laid at the foot of products and entertainment which is targeted towards the youth and which encourage children to become sexually conscious at alarmingly young ages. The issue has created so much concern that the UK government has got involved to investigate the issue.
In an article I wrote for Salvo, I suggested that the government's investigations ought to avail themselves of recent developments in brain science. Without understanding the dynamics of how the human brain works, we will not be able to fully appreciate just how damaging is the environment in which the children of Britain are growing up.
I pointed out that recent discoveries have proved that the human brain is in a constant state of flux, a condition known as neuroplasticity. Put simply, the human brain is remarkably adaptable, constantly adjusting itself to the demands of one’s environment.
This neurological fluidity is good because it enables people to learn new skills, for stroke victims to recover function and for blind people to compensate for their loss by strengthening a part of the brain associated with other senses.

But neuroplasticity also has a darker side. In his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows that certain types of sexual stimuli have the power to reshape how the brain thinks about sex in general and people of the opposite gender in particular. Similarly, Donald Hilton has written a feature for Salvo Magazine drawing on a wide range of research which shows that pornography changes the circuits in the brain in a way almost identical to mind-altering drugs.

Now here’s the rub. Because our brains are so adaptable, the dominant assumptions that a collective culture has about sex can exercise a formative influence on the brains of those within that culture, training them to think about sex in a certain way. At the most basic level we see this in the way people in different cultures have different, and sometimes opposite, paradigms for what type of women look attractive and what types of smells are pleasing.

In her book, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher notes that during Elizabethan times it was the custom for a woman to keep a peeled apple under her arm long enough for it to absorb her scent. If the woman had to go away, she would offer the “love apple” as a gift to her boyfriend for him to sniff during her absence.

Strange as this sounds, in societies where the smell of body odour was normative (as it was in societies before deodorant was invented), the brain adjusted itself to the smell. Similarly, Norman Doidge tells how within the culture of the Masai tribe in East Africa, cow urine is used as a pleasing lotion for their hair. “Many tastes we think ‘natural’,” remarked Doidge when commenting on this instance, “are acquired through learning and become ‘second nature’ to us. We are unable to distinguish our ‘second nature’ from our ‘original nature’ because our neuroplastic brains, once rewired, develop a new nature, every bit as biological as our original.”
Our society has dispensed with love-apples, but we are not immune to similar fetishes. For example, any civilization that thinks high healed shoes on a woman is sexy but body hair is not, has already undergone considerable neuroplastic changes.
While such biases are relatively harmless, think about the thousands of ways that our products, advertising and entertainment industries are literally training our childrens’ minds in a similar way. (I give some examples in my Salvo article.) They are training them to think of sex in trivial, reductionistic, mechanistic ways. 
Unfortunately this is a point entirely ignored in the recent debate over the sexualisation of children. Yet consider: just as the proliferation of body odour or cows’ urine in a culture can cause the brain to associate that smell with something pleasing, so the proliferation of implicit attitudes about sex, together with explicit manifestations of those attitudes in the products our children have access to, can cause the brain to associate these paradigms with the good life, especially when one is saturated in such things from an early age (during which time the placidity of the brain is the most acute).

The stimuli children are bombarded with are orienting them towards an illusory understanding of their sexuality. Embedded in the products now available to children, especially childrens’ TV and music videos, is a subtle false narrative about what it means to be a man or a woman.
The narrative I have in mind is one in which sex is disengaged from the secure relationship of marriage. It is a narrative which evacuates from sex any emotional, let alone ethical, underpinning, thus reducing it to something purely animalistic. It is a narrative which tends to associate the good life with what is fashionable, cool and up to date.
Of course, manufacturers have economic incentives for perpetuating this last illusion, since the definitions of what is fashionable, cool and up to date can be deliberately manipulated to accommodate new products. Moreover, the definition of the good life being offered is beguiling because it is implicit, thus bypassing the critical faculties and penetrating directly to the level of the unconscious.
Another equally subversive feature of the over-sexualized environment our children are growing up in is that they are becoming desensitized. In a society in which sex is used to sell everything from shoes to vegetables, the danger is that children become so used to it that they cease to consider things to be sexual which clearly are. As our children are bombarded with more and more sexual stimuli, they cease to even see certain things as sexual, with the consequence that important barriers are lowered.

To read more about my concerns, visit my Salvo article.


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